Biography, Race Vindication, and African American Intellectuals

Article excerpt

The Special Issue published in celebration of the 80th Anniversary of The Journal of Negro History (JNH) focused on what African American intellectuals do in general, and what historians and other social scientists have done best in the pages of JNH. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) was formed in Chicago in October 1915 by Carter G. Woodson, George Cleveland Hall, W. B. Hargrove, Alexander L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps for "the collection of sociological and historical data on the Negro, the study, of peoples of African blood, the publishing of books in this field, and the promotion of harmony between the races." The first issue of the JNH appeared shortly thereafter in January 1916, and Carter G. Woodson, the editor, made it clear that this was to be "a quarterly scientific magazine committed to publishing scholarly research and documents on the history and cultures of Africa and peoples of African descent around the world. (1)

From the beginning Carter G. Woodson knew that the JNH would be important for "vindication." "When the public saw a well-printed scientific magazine, presenting scholarly current articles and valuable documents giving facts scarcely known," Woodson recalled in 1925, "the students of history and correlated fields highly praised the effort and warmly welcomed the publication." Woodson understood that publishing these articles and collecting these materials was the only way "that the Negro [could] escape the awful fate of becoming a negligible factor in the thought of the world." The activities pursued by the members of the ASNLH would "enable scientifically trained men [and women] to produce treatises based on the whole truth." (2)

In Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African American Intellectual Tradition, V. P. Franklin used the life-writings of African American literary artists and political leaders to demonstrate that "race vindication" was a major activity for black intellectuals from the early nineteenth century. African American preachers, professors, publishers, and other highly educated professionals put their intellect and training in service to "the race" to deconstruct the discursive structures erected in science, medicine, the law, and historical discourse to uphold the mental and cultural inferiority of African peoples. The autobiographical works written by Alexander Crummell, Ida Wells-Barnett, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Haywood, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and W. E. B. Du Bois described the nature of the relationship between experience and ideology. These important spokespersons used their life writings to tell the truth about themselves and their people, and expose the lies abou t the nature of European and American cultures and societies being spread internationally by white supremacists. While the autobiographical writings of Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Amiri Baraka no longer presented an overarching concern for race vindication, the biographical studies of these artists and intellectuals presented in Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths revealed the important connections between their personal experiences and ideological commitments. (3)


Many biographical studies of African American intellectuals have focused on the individual's commitment to telling the truth about Africa and people of African descent. Those black preachers, publishers, and other professionals in the nineteenth century who subscribed to black nationalist ideological positions understood the importance of race vindication. Along with the belief in distinct and positive African group traits, the consciousness of shared oppression at the hands of whites, the awareness of mutual duties and responsibilities of African peoples to each other, and the need for black self-determination and solidarity, black nationalists from the early nineteenth century believed in and practiced race vindication. …


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