'IT'S a celebration!" exclaims Vibert White, professor of
African-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati. "It's a
recognition of the totality of African-American history and its
impact on American society."
He's talking about the resurgence in the public mind of black
figures, people like the late singer-actor Paul Robeson or the
19th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Many of them once were
largely forgotten or even vilified by white society as renegades.
Today their faces - like that of the bull-dogging cowboy Bill
Pickett - can be found on postage stamps. They are the heroes of
fact-based stage and screen dramas, and of books that admiringly
detail their lives. TV programs chronicle their achievements and
excesses, like those of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight
champion of the early 1900s who was long the focus of raging race
Historians and social observers say such latter-day revisiting
of black assertiveness is the product of years of black studies in
colleges now bearing fruit, filling a gap in the way history had
been taught. The resurgence is also a broader effort to rectify
decades of neglect or disdain. Black people want to correct the
record, say these observers. They are seeking heroes, and white
society wants to acknowledge these heroes and understand them.
"All of a sudden, Booker T. Washington is being revisited by the
public," notes Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Josephs
University in Philadelphia. And a more striking example would be
hard to find, he adds, of how a name from black history can take on
a new look. Washington, the great black educator and author of the
19th and early 20th century, has gone from idolization to rejection
and neglect - by both blacks and whites - and now back to respect.
"It's a metaphor for how blacks are perceived by whites and how
some blacks perceive themselves," says Miller, an authority on
African-American life and the history of slavery. "People may know
his name but don't know about what's happened to his image and
Washington, the first black American to be on a postage stamp
(in 1940) was the very embodiment of black promise to both races at
one time. His message was that black farmers and workers can
acquire the skills to help themselves. Blacks were not there, he
said, to upset a system, but to earn what is their due.
Most whites liked that idea. "But fairly soon among some blacks,
like W. E. DuBois, he became viewed as an accommodator," Miller
says, "and eventually he became the personification of the Uncle
Tom. He was identified as antiprogress because his
'accommodationism' seemed to be going nowhere. He was seen as
acquiescing in Jim Crowism and the horrors of segregation."
That's the prevailing image of Washington through the 1950s and
1960s. But now Washington is taking on a whole new image in the
public mind - white and black - Miller says. "People realize he was
saying, among other things, that we must be practical as well as
political. We must return to our own resources as a means of
liberation." Ironically, the black Muslims of today are also saying
this, Miller points out.
Many other African-American figures have gone through similar
changes of fortune. Black visual artists, kept firmly out of the
white mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s, are exhibited at
well-known museums. Malcolm X looms again in TV documentaries and a
feature film. And a man like Robeson - pilloried in the 1950s as a
"Soviet sympathizer" - has become the heroic subject of a one-man
show and a play.
"Nothing became Robeson like death in the minds of many people,"
says Miller, who has written extensively about African-American