Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861

By John Ernest | Go to book overview

chapter three
Multiple Lives and Lost Narratives (Auto)Biography as History

To follow the path of African American historical writing to the varying but connected stories of individual experience is to recognize the enormous weight that has been placed on the life stories of individual African Americans, and on the method by which those stories can be told. It is important, then, to consider the status of African American autobiography as history, and to examine the extent to which an individual life can be rendered in print without serving the purposes of the totalizing system that Nell, for one, worked so hard to avoid. African American history is, unavoidably, the history of the cultural construction of identity, the process by which various ideological frameworks and their corresponding institutions determined the set of experiences and the cultural perspectives by which individuals would discover themselves as social beings, and against which those same individuals would need to struggle to define the nature and limits of their potential agency in the world in which they discovered themselves. Such collective self-definitions inevitably required a sophisticated understanding of the concept of race in its various and shifting manifestations. “For three hundred years,” as Toni Morrison has argued, “black Americans insisted that 'race' was no usefully distinguishing factor in human relationships. During those same three centuries every academic discipline, including the-

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