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

By John Ernest | Go to book overview

notes

Introduction

1. From William Wells Brown's The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements to such recent works as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement, collective biographies have been a staple of African American publishing—though the popularity of the genre is by no means limited to African American readers. For a good overview of this genre, see Elizabeth Grammer.

The most prominent arguments over the record, of course, concern Afrocentrism— as in Wilson Jeremiah Moses's Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History, Stephen Howe's Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, and Clarence E. Walker's We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism. In my discussion of Moses's book, I focus on attacks on Afrocentrism, but in doing so I am not presenting a defense of either specific Afrocentric scholars (against, for example, Howe's critique of one scholar's “shoddy ideas”) nor a defense of Afrocentrism as a scholarly perspective and methodology, for such a defense is not the purpose of this book. I am, however, interested in historical writing as the reflection, definition, and embodiment of lived perspectives—and I believe that academically “respectable” historical writing generally veils its own messy and contingent relation to the lived perspectives shaped by the “Racial Contract” that Charles W. Mills has identified as the guiding framework of white Western thought. Accordingly, I'm interested here in the ways in which attacks on the scholarship associated with Afrocentrism constitute dismissals of a much wider range of concerns. Howe, for example, begins Afrocentrism by quoting African American pianist and composer Anthony Davis's complaint that “if somebody uses tradition as a way of limiting your choices, in a way that's as racist as saying you have to sit at the back of the bus” (qtd. in Howe 1). Davis acquires unusual authority here as a historical theorist, for Howe suggests that “his complaint applies powerfully to important modern currents in Afro-American thought. For a mystical, essentialist, irrationalist and often, in the end, racist set of doctrines has

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