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What is African-American History?

A History of How Historians Have Defined the Field

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Since the origins of the field in the late 19th century, historians and intellectuals have offered various answers to the question: "what is African-American history?" Some have seen it as an extension or corollary to American history, some have stressed the influence of Africa on African-American history and still others have viewed African-American history as vital to black liberation and power.

Late 19th Century

An Ohio lawyer and minister, George Washington Williams, published the first serious work of African-American history in 1882. His work, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, began with the arrival of the first slaves in the North American colonies and concentrated on the major events in American history that involved or affected African Americans. Washington, in his "Note" to volume two of his opus, said that his purpose was to "to lift the Negro race to its pedestal in American history" as well as "to instruct the present, inform the future."

During this period of history, most African Americans, like Frederick Douglass, stressed their identities as Americans and did not look to Africa as a source of history and culture, according to historian Nell Irvin Painter. This was true of historians like Washington as well, but during the early decades of the 20th century and especially during the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans, including historians, began to celebrate Africa's history as their own.

The Harlem Renaissance, or The New Negro Movement

W.E.B. Du Bois was the foremost African-American historian during this period. In works like The Souls of Black Folk, he stressed African-American history as the confluence of three different cultures: African, American and African-American. Du Bois's historical works, such as The Negro (1915), began the history of African Americans in Africa.

One of Du Bois's contemporaries, historian Carter G. Woodson, created the forerunner of today's Black History Month--Negro History Week--in 1926. While Woodson felt that Negro History Week should emphasize the influence of African Americans on American history, he, too, in his historical works looked back to Africa. A professor at Howard University between 1922 and 1959, William Leo Hansberry, developed this trend even further: he conceptualized African-American history as the experience of the African diaspora.

During the Harlem Renaissance, artists, poets, novelists and musicians also looked toward Africa as a source of history and culture. For instance, artist Aaron Douglas regularly used African themes in his paintings and murals.

Black Liberation and African-American History

In the 1960s and 1970s, activists and intellectuals, like Malcolm X, saw African-American history as an essential component of black liberation and power. In a 1962 speech, Malcolm explained: "The thing that has made the so-called Negro in America fail, more than any other thing, is your, my, lack of knowledge concerning history. We know less about history than anything else." As Pero Dagbovie argues in African American History Reconsidered, many black intellectuals and scholars, such as Harold Cruse, Sterling Stuckey and Vincent Harding, agreed with Malcolm that African Americans needed to understand their past in order to seize the future.

Post-Sixties Era

White academia finally accepted African-American history in the 1960s, and it was during that decade that many universities and colleges began to offer classes and programs in African-American studies and history. The field exploded, and American history textbooks began to incorporate African-American history (as well as women's and Native American history) into their standard narratives.

As a sign of the increasing visibility and importance of the field of African-American history, President Gerald Ford declared February to be "Black History Month" in 1974. Since then, both black and white historians have built on the work of earlier African-American historians, exploring the influence of Africa on the lives of African Americans, creating the field of black women's history and revealing the myriad ways in which the story of the United States is the story of race relations.

History in general has expanded to include the working class, women, Native Americans and Latino Americans in addition to the experiences of African Americans. Some historians concentrate solely on telling the history of the human impact on the environment or the history of labor. All of these histories have become intertwined in today's U.S. history textbooks.

African-American history, as practiced today, is interconnected with all of these other sub-fields in U.S. history. Many of today's historians would probably agree with Du Bois's inclusive definition of African-American history as the interaction among African, American and African-American peoples and cultures.

Sources

  • Dagbovie, Pero. African American History Reconsidered. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
  • Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African-American history and its meanings, 1619 to the present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Williams, George Washington. History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1883. Available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=eWQFAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • X, Malcolm. "Black Man's History." 1962 speech. Available at: http://www.brothermalcolm.net/mxwords/whathesaid4.html
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