History: White, Negro, and Black

Black and white ink drawing of two Black people dressed in nineteenth-century wear, one carrying a rifle, kneeling behind a tree

Frank Cieciorka, SNCC Student Voice

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 1 No. 3/4, "No More Moanin'." Find more from that issue here.

This article is an edited version of a lecture-seminar given to black students during the Summer, 1971, Research Symposium of the I.B.W. Vincent says he would write it differently today, and therefore allows its publication with reservation. He is critical of the fact that he has given only passing reference to white radical history, especially since the 1960’s, and is now working on a piece that deals with that question more fully. Drawings are from Negroes in American History: A Freedom Primer, by Frank Cieciorka (Atlanta: SNCC, The Student Voice. Inc., 1966).

I am going to speak about the approaches of White, Negro and Black History to the American experience, especially to the experiences of the children of Africa in America. I want to propose some ways in which we can look at the way in which the American experience is recorded and dealt with as a result of these three types of sensitivities, methodologies, conceptualizations, and at the politics connected with these approaches to history. My assumption is that intellectual work is connected to politics—whether the politics of reaction, the politics of the status quo, or politics of some kind of forward movement, whether it might be on a kind of liberal reformism or a radical fundamental movement into a new era of the experience.

White History

When I speak about White History, it should be very clear that I am not talking about simply the history that white people write. I am talking about a history that has deluded and encompassed us all. Many blacks, as well as whites, teach and write and live as if White History were the only history, the only approach to the definition of the American experience. White History is the mainstream history. White History is essentially the history of affirmation of the society. If you go through almost any textbook, you will see that the history is leading toward affirmation; it is political. White History is the history of justification, whether religious or secular. It is the history that finds basic justification and basic goodness in the very nature of American society.

White History is also the history of exclusion and ethnocentrism. It is a history that assumes that this is a white man’s world/civilization/universe. Note any course you can think of on world civilization and see what it is that it actually teaches. In coming to our particular nation, it assumes that this is a white man’s country. Then it also assumes, either explicity or implicity, that only white people have the right and the capacity to define the nature of this country, the nature of its past, and therefore, of course, the nature of its present and its future, because those who have the right to name the past also have the right to name the present and the future.

White History is a history that includes anybody else only in small smatterings, and when others are included in small smatterings, that is considered to be a special favor over which there should be great rejoicing and book parties. The attitude of White History is an attitude of tremendous arrogance, it is a history that assumes that this nation began, indeed, as a gift of God. This is a kind of history that can make it possible for American leaders to feel that they have a special mission in the world, whether it be in Vietnam or in Haiti. Of course the tragic thing, and the thing that we must be dealing with, is that White History is the history that is taught in almost all of the public schools, and all of the colleges and universities of this land. Therefore, White History is deeply in you and me, whether we like it or not.

Let me give you an example of White History. I take an example from one of the best known of the American chroniclers, a man by the name of Thomas Bailey, whose book, The American Pageant, is widely used and read, especially in the American colleges and in some high schools. It was first published in 1965, and has been reprinted many times. In the introduction to his work, Bailey gives a very succinct introduction to what White History is all about: The American Republic, which is still relatively young, was from the outset, singularly favored. He introduces that whole theme of how we came into a very special kind of situation— we meaning white America of course—and there was a favoring from the outset. He doesn’t say favoring from whom or by what, but it was favored. It means by God, by nature, and by everybody who has any power in the universe. It started from scratch on a vast and virgin continent, which was so sparsely peopled by Indians that they could be eliminated or pushed aside. Such a magnificent opportunity for a great democratic experiment. There are no ellipses in between these two sentences that follow right after one another. The Indians could be eliminated and pushed aside; such a magnificent opportunity for a great democratic experiment may never come again. Thank the Lord! For no other huge, fertile and uninhabited areas are left in the temperate zones of this crowded planet. On to the moon. The US, despite its marvelous development, will one day reach its peak as Greece and Rome did. It may ultimately fall upon evil days as they did, but whatever the uncertainties the future may hold, the past is at least secure. This is White History. The certainty that they hold the past in their hands, that is the past, at least, that they know and can hold onto, the past of special favoredness. If anything else, with all those colored people going wild around the world, is insecure, we have this white past in our hands. We hold these truths. That is White History.

Essentially, the politics of that history is a reactionary politics at worst, and a conservative or mildly moderate-change politics at best. And why is that to be expected? If your basic perception of the past is that you started out with the best nation in the world, then there is no essential impetus to move forward for radical change. Indeed, the major impetus is to move toward the good ole days. Can we not recapture and recover the great wisdom of the forefathers? There are an increasing number of reports and articles in which American college students are reported to be into a deeply nostalgic kind of thing, because they have no sense of the future, and for them the past is the golden days. This is White History—a politics of reaction, of conservatism, of mildly moderate change at best to alter certain kinds of things so that we can keep on the road we have started on.

There are some interesting and important variations that are breaking off, and have consistently broken off, from the mainstream on the part of white historians. There is the Marxist, and there is the pseudo-Marxist White History, like Genovese’s new book, which he has the nerve to call The Red and the Black. In his case that is not an authentic variation at all. I think that perhaps Staughton Lynd, Jesse Lemisch, and George Rawick are examples of white historians who try to raise the consciousness, particularly of white people, to all of the class issues that are basically subjugated in mainstream White American History. They represent one group; I think that we can learn something profitably from them. My own sense is that we must always be totally attentive to the points in which we can learn something from especially these non-mainstream white historians.

There are other kinds of white historians who are now talking about white America as Black History has talked about white America up to now. They probably will play some kind of function as far as the education of white America is concerned. I am not sure how much, because I am not sure how much of a readership they reach, because most of what they do will not get into the mainstream educational channels at all. So I am not quite sure what their function is.

Now there are others, of course, who will come out of these sociologizing schools and who are unable to deal with the structural realities of racism in American society. They deal much more with the 1940’s, 1950’s version of racial prejudice— as an individualistic kind of thing and cannot deal with the issues of the powers of the society that have to do with institutional racism.

Then, of course, there are the justifiers of America who do it in new ways, who talk about, for instance, the new great trust in young America, in America’s white youth. Basically, they still reveal a hope and faith in that which is intrinsically white American; you can always tell the varieties of White History by that final point.

The last variety is what I would call the new traditionalists—those who really are talking about going back to the virtues of the earlier periods of American society, going back to the kind of basic revolutionary tendencies of the American society and building anew on the groundwork of the Fathers. Again, these kinds of liberal white historians are constantly in conflict, and we are constantly in conflict with them from the point of view of Black History, because they are still standing on white American ground. They feel that some grounds in white America are more possible than other grounds. What we are saying is that the whole ground has to be upset, that there is no point of hope as far as white American systems and points of view and historical understanding are concerned.


Negro History

Now Negro History. First, let me say that I personally, and many of us who have moved away from Negro History, owe a tremendous debt to Negro History. It introduced us for the first time to the nature of some of the struggles and experiences of black people that we simply had not been aware of, living in the midst of White History. I cut my teeth on John Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom, one of the prime examples of Negro History. It should be clear at the outset that I speak about Negro History not as a put-down, but as a recognition of, first, the debt that is owed, and, second, the fact that we cannot live on debts, but move forward toward the future.

Negro History accepts much, indeed most, of the basic white assumptions about the nature of society. This is its greatest burden. The overall picture is a picture of America as a great nation. Negro History sees some flaws, sees some blood, sees some pain, but essentially these are apparitions. Negro History continues to talk about the great ideas and the high moral purposes of American society. Fundamentally, it says as history, as methodology, as approach: Include us in. Include us in the basic, good story. Learn a bit more about us. Teach a bit more about us. Buy some more of our books. Educate your children some more about what we have been and done, especially about our great men, and all will be well. Hence, Negro History Week. The politics that goes along with Negro History is naturally a politics that is quite in keeping with that point of view—the politics of the leap into the mainstream.

Let me give, you some examples of Negro History that I discussed in Beyond Chaos. One of the most influential of Negro History books was a volume for secondary schools called The Story of the Negro Retold, written by Carter G. Woodson, the man who has rightly been called the father of the Negro History movement, a major scholar, one of the most significant men in our intellectual history, or in our struggle. First published in 1935, it contained segments of his earlier works. Woodson speaks about the kind of history he feels must be dealt with in relation to White History, and notice the kinds of binds that he comes to. Under the subtitle “Truth Not to be Neglected,’’ he says: In our own particular history we should not dim one bit the luster of any star in our firmament. Now those two possessive pronouns themselves are very, very important. Our and our, because there are two different references there. When he says “our” in “our own particular history,” he means Negro History. In “we should not dim one bit the luster of any star in our firmament,” he means “our” white Americans’ firmament. Very interesting, that same kind of two-ness that DuBois was always speaking about, “our” and “our” referring to two different identities and realities. So Woodson is saying that history should not in any way dim any star that’s in the white historical firmament. Peaceful co-existence. Let no one be so thoughtless as to decry the record of the makers of the United States of America. We black people can be included in your history without threatening your story. That is a second major thrust of Negro History. Think about the kind of politics that would naturally go along with that.

We should not learn less of George Washington, First in war, First in peace, and First in the hearts of his countrymen, hut we should learn something also of the three thousand Negro soldiers of the American Revolution, who helped to make this “father of our Country ” possible. Here again is the emphasis on how we helped to make America great, on our “contributions” to America. Here you also find this tragic kind of dependence upon the history of black fighting men so prevalent in Negro History. It tries to plead the cause of justice for black people by saying: Look at how we fought in your wars for your causes, for this great democracy. Don’t we deserve the rights that all other people have? That is not just an historical matter of methodology. It is one of the major realities of black life. Somehow there is a belief that America will accept us more fully if we fight their battles. And, of course, that is not confined to America. It is a typical colonial approach to the problems of the mercenary forces. Whether they be the Senegalese or the Jamaicans, or whoever, blacks prove their worthiness by fighting at the orders of their masters.

Woodson continues: We should not fail to appreciate the unusual contribution of Thomas Jefferson to freedom and democracy, but we should invite attention also to one of his outstanding con¬ temporaries, Benjamin Banneker, the mathematician and astronomer. Two other aspects of Negro History emerge here: (1) the acceptance of the idea that individuals are the important story, great, talented, gifted individuals who can meet the standards of white society; and (2) the adoption of white people’s standards to prove that we are good because we have some folks who can stand by their standards as well. There is a tremendous problem involved here. Take even C.L.R. James, for instance, a brother who has spent so much of his life in the struggle. He legitimizes African art through Picasso. The measure of how great African art is, is that Picasso uses it. Therefore, African art is not legitimate in its own sense, by its own standards, but because of the contribution that it has made to the Western world. Of course, CLR does not get into this in terms of his major thrust, but it is interesting to see it cropping up at various kinds of places.

We should in no way whatever (and notice this little bit here that tells you this was originally written prior to the US entry into World War I) withhold assistance from the effort to make the world safe for democracy, but we should teach our citizenry history rather than propaganda and thus make this country safe for all elements of the population at home. A very tragic kind of thing. What it is saying, of course, is: Don’t listen to A. Phillip Randolph talking about “Don’t go and support; don’t fight for freedom and democracy if you can’t have it at home.” On the other hand it says: A. Phillip Randolph is right, we don’t have it at home. This two-ness is constantly there: we’ve got to support the government, but we wish the government would change things.

My final example of Negro History is from Benjamin Quarles’ The Negro in the Making of America. Of course the title itself is an interesting one. It is a very well-written book. If you want a brief summary history of this particular brand of the telling of the black story, there is almost no place else that you can find something in 175 pages or so like Quarles’ narrative story. He wrote, and this was in 1963, A proper perspective of Negro history would be of value to those well-meaning persons who believe that the colored man has an unworthy past and, hence, has no strong claim to all the rights of other Americans. I am reminded here of when Mrs. DuBois talked about how much of a gentleman W.E.B. DuBois was, and how she felt that so many white people in today’s world would just love to have DuBois back around because he was so polite in his condemnation of the Western world, and he didn’t use the kind of language that some of our contemporaries use. That’s another hallmark of Negro History: tremendous politeness and given to euphemism. “Those well-meaning persons” is another term for white folks, particularly white liberals “. . .who believe that the colored man has an unworthy past, and hence has no strong claim to all the rights of other Americans” evinces another theme: if we can prove that we have a past, then we, too, are worthy. You become worthy of American democracy by proving that you have a past as good as white people. Thus the whole emphasis on black pride becomes a very tricky matter, because the issue is pride for what? Pride towards what? Books, Quarles continues, which seek to present an accurate picture of the Negro’s past are, in effect, bridges to inter-group harmony. (What are bridges to inter-group harmony?) The Negro would be more readily accepted into the full promise of American life if his role in our history were better known. Here is another theme of Negro History: it’s like that story about how the Russian peasant really felt that if the tsar only knew the troubles that they were in, he would change things. Well, in this sense the American public at large becomes a tsar. Then you say: if only well-meaning white people really knew about the American Negro, they would change their attitude. Once I asked Ben Quarles about that, and he confirmed what I had speculated on in that essay, i.e., that many Negro historians believed that because they didn’t know what else to believe. They believed and wrote out of belief because they had come so far through “clanking chains and melting prayers” that they could not afford to consider unbelief as a live option. And if they did not believe, there was a great abyss ahead of them which they weren’t quite ready to face.

This is Negro History, and it obviously carries with it implicitly and explicitly the politics of integration. It is essentially a history that comes out of the assumption that we belong in the story. We can be fitted in without the story crumbling apart. The kind of story that Negro History wanted white people to know was essentially a portfolio of credentials, and not the deepest accusations that the history of the masses of black people would put to white people. If white people read most of Negro History, it would simply be these portfolios. Whites still wouldn’t know about themselves, because they wouldn’t know us. They would know that perhaps they had a lot of talented Negroes around who perhaps they were not giving enough chances. But Negro History would not prepare them for understanding a William Calley.


Black History

Black History moving out of the whole Negro History movement and experience is a history that is an explosion of the white assumptions concerning American society. Where White History, and to a large degree Negro History, affirms white society, Black History says that we cannot possibly affirm our mommies and daddies and affirm White History too. There is no way we can do both, and since we do not mean to give up on our mommies and daddies, then we must not affirm White History. Black History looks at the justification of White History and says that there is no way in which you can justify the society. If God indeed ordained the society, then we can do without that God. Black History moves out of the context of the experiences of black people in America and judges America on the basis of our experiences. That is the only way in which the society can be judged by black people. Even other people are now learning that the proper way to judge the nature of the American experience is by the way in which the most downtrodden of the society have been treated. When White History says America has been a land of goodness from the beginning, Black History obviously rejects this and tells another story. When White History says that only whites have the right to define this society, Black History says that there is no American history, because white people have written without dealing with the black and red experience. Therefore, they have no history. A history filled with errors and gaps is no history.

Black History is not just about black people; Black History is not just about black things. Black History speaks about seeing all of America through black eyes, about placing our definition not only on the black experience, but on the entire experience. If you do that, then a totally different picture of America emerges, because black history says our experience, our history, our story cannot be assimilated into the mainstream American story. It is an organism that is totally at war with the mainstream story. Either it must be rejected, or a whole new experience has to be created to bring it in.

The politics of Black History flows very naturally. It is a politics that goes counter to the mainstream politics. It is a politics that says the mainstream, indeed, is polluted and befouled and what is necessary for black people is to move to new rivers of life, to create them ourselves. So, Black History cannot deal with either the kind of patronage of White History or the kind of integrationism of Negro History. It calls for a new move. A new move by which we define not only what the. past has been, but what the future will be. Now let us view the way in which these three different approaches to history would deal with certain key events in the American experience.


The Origins Question

Let us take—as if we were in the usual American history course, beginning with the origins—American society with our forefathers and the land from which they came. Now when any American history course starts out with the origins of the society, it starts out with Europe and with England in particular, since that is where we started. It starts out with Western culture, since that’s what we are. Basically, until very recently, that was all there was in terms of origins. We learned more about Pilgrims than we knew about Sundiata, which is, of course, deeply tragic. We were learning about other people’s fathers and calling them our own, making ourselves the bastards of the world. This is the natural result of colonization.

Negro history moved in on this scene and brought out Africa for the first time. We must give praise where praise is due. But Africa is brought out in a very ambiguous way. Africa is brought out again to prove that we, too, have a heritage, that we, too, have something that will make us worthy to move into the society. If you people have England and France and Germany and Italy, we, we’ve got Africa. Ain’t that as good as what you all got? Of course, J.A. Rogers would carry it someplace else. He is a particular maverick in that whole area. But there is still a kind of ambivalence, saying, “Yes, it was great then, but you know we’re sort of glad that we are here now.”

Note Shirley Graham’s marvelous novelistic advocation of Frederick Douglass’ life, There Once Was A Slave. It’s a very good piece, written for a so-called youth audience. She has a very interesting segment where Frederick Douglass, before he runs from Maryland, comes in touch with a conjurer, a man who was born in Africa. Just before he leaves, Sandy the Conjurer comes to him and brings him a little bag. Sandy empties the bag out in his hand and begins to give the things to Frederick Douglass, and says, Look now, soil of Africa. Come across the sea close to my mother’s breast; and here seaweed flowered on far off waters. A thousand years of dust on one hand. Dust of men long gone. Men who lived so that you can live. Your dust. He handed Frederick the little bag, and she says Frederick took it reverently. Suddenly Frederick knew that his life was important, and Frederick never mentions this again. This is in a way a part of that whole ambiguity of the Negro History movement and the African origins. There is something important, something great, but not as it impinges now upon the immediate American scene. It is only there to prove that we have a past as good as their past.

Black History is seeking to do something else, and there is still struggling among us to understand what it is that we are seeking to do. But Africa, for Black History, is no longer something that you compare with the white Western world. Africa, in Black History, is an absolute challenge to the white Western world. Indeed, it claims to be mother and shaper of human society. It claims to have insight toward the nature of human existence that is far more authentic than that which has been found in the truncated experience of the white Western world. When Lerone Bennett speaks about blackness being the truth of the world, he reflects this point of view.


The Settlement Question

Take the stories of the settlement of this country. The white story, the White History, is that white people were sent here by God, either secular Gods or religious Gods, but that somehow through historical forces or divine forces, whites were sent to this continent by God. The story continues as how they fulfill all of the marvelous things that they are supposed to do. That’s what Thomas Bailey’s The American Pageant is all about: being wonderfully favored and being able to get rid of all those people who are populating the virgin land.

On the settlement question Negro History essentially does not challenge the white presence, the white purpose, the white deeds, the white action, but simply says that if you were here early, we were here early also, and indeed some of us were here before you were here. Estevanico! It becomes a kind of game as it were. On certain levels it is a very important matter of establishing black presence on this land, if it is used for the purpose of establishing black presence and the right of black presence. If it is used again, as it has been used so much in Negro History, simply to prove that we are those who were here, and therefore who ought not be put out of the land, then that is another matter.

Black History is not particularly concerned about proving when we got here, but certainly challenges the white interpretation of what white people were doing here. This is a very crucial matter. Black History essentially says: if there was indeed a God that sent anybody here called pilgrims or anybody else to these shores, then the moment they touched these shores they corrupted their essential mission. Black History says, there can be no society that on the one hand eliminates the original inhabitants, subjugates those who are brought from another continent, and then calls itself a democracy. It is impossible to have a democracy and the slaughter of the Indians and the subjugation of black people. Black History, then, raises questions about the origins of the society itself, about the basic beginnings of the society.


The Founding Fathers

Take the revolutionary period, the period of the Constitution and someone’s founding fathers. White History says this was the period of greatness, this was the period when the basic institutions of democracy were founded, when victory was won for revolution, when men of great stature and wisdom walked the land. And Negro History by and large agrees, but adds that we were also pre¬ sent. We will not dim the luster of one star. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, yes, they will all stand, but we were present. Benjamin Banneker was planning Washington. We fought and we died. Crispus Attucks!

Black History raises different kinds of questions. Black History looks at 1776 and it asks: how can there be a revolution that leaves 750,000 people in slavery? Black History moves to the challenging of the very basic myths, in the best sense of that word, of the American society, the creative rememberings of the American society, a challenge at their heart. People talk about the Constitution as one of the great documents of Western society. But the Constitution of 1789 up to the Civil War was a constitution in which slavery was so deeply embedded that war indeed had to be fought in order to write it out of the Constitution. What kind of document must that be? And, of course, no one need say anything about the founding fathers, for what kind of society can men found who, on the one hand, are slave traders and, on the other hand, are slave owners? What is the future of that society? Black History, then, raises the crucial questions about the past, as well as the present and the future.



On the question of slavery, the same kind of spectrum appears. White History essentially justifies slavery—in terms of economics, in terms of rescuing black people from savagery. In the more liberal White History sometimes there is a passing condemnation of slavery. Nevertheless, White History deals with slavery through white eyes. In its methodology it follows the records of slavery through the records of the masters—looking at what white people said and did about slavery and about slaves.

Negro History interestingly enough, does very little studying of slavery itself. If you go through the Journal of Negro History you will find that only a small minority of the articles there deal with slavery, and of that small minority, the vast majority are written by white people—a very interesting phenomenon. Instead of dealing with slavery, Negro History by and large says that yes, there was slavery and we were in degradation, but look at the special Negro accomplishments that were made both in the North and the South during the time of slavery. Look at our inventors. Look at our writers. Look at our poets. Look at our special pulpit men. Look at the Abolitionist movement. Look at all the things that we did in spite of the fact that slavery was going on. We shall push it behind us for the time being. Indeed, some strands of Negro history say, let’s not even deal with slavery. Slavery was too agonizing an experience for us to look at.

Black History says that these people were not slaves. Black History says these were our fathers and mothers who were held in bondage. It is a different kind of thing. We must know about their life during slavery. We must know about the way in which they struggled against the bonds of slavery, how they endured slavery, how they constructed their life to deal with that particular aspect of white power upon them. We must know these things for our own good and for the vindication of our fathers. We must know the very creativity that they brought in the midst of that agonizing experience. The story of slavery must not ever become simply the story of what white people did to us. If that is all it is, then it is nothing else but White History painted black. Black History must start from the ground of where black people are, of what they are doing and what the nature of their experience and their relationship is with a larger society.


Manifest Destiny

Let me skip over the Civil War and Reconstruction for now, but I do want to say something about the whole idea of Manifest Destiny because this again has something to do with the politics of history. White History talks about something called Manifest Destiny. It talks about something called the winning of the West. Consistently, White History speaks about that whole experience, especially that post-Civil War experience, as the fulfilling of the destiny of the nation to rise to a world power status, which means to a status of world exploiter, world dominator, and racist imperialist nation.

Negro History is perhaps most tragic of all in that whole experience, because Negro History comes in on westward expansion by talking about black cowboys and by talking about how we were there too, and how we played our role in the winning of the West. Negro History tells us about the Negro soldiers who were with Teddy Roosevelt going up San Juan Hill, in spite of what Teddy Roosevelt had to say about those Negro soldiers. Negro History affirms the great expansion of American society.

Black History asks the question: What did this expansion mean? What did it mean for the non-white peoples over whom the expansion took place? What did it mean for the non-white people in the United States of America? More recently, what did it mean for the people of Vietnam? How did it ever get out there in the Pacific, and what does that have to do with Manifest Destiny, and American racism, and the experience of our people?


Civil Rights Movement

Now let’s look at the civil rights movement. Take the origins of the civil rights movement. White History interprets the coming of the civil rights movement primarily in terms of the 1954 Supreme Court school decision, which means that the civil rights movement was created by nine white men.

Here again is that particular assumption in the methodology of White History that anything that is good is created somehow by white people. White History sees the 1954 decision as the emerging of a new liberalism in American society after World War II, and a whole lot of Negroes see it that way too. One of the most important contributions that Negro History made is to keep us in touch with the legal and other kinds of struggles that organizations like the NAACP were waging which led to the Supreme Court decision. So Negro History does begin to tie us into the movement of black people in a very important way. Black History, again, goes beyond that. Black History say that while Negro History indeed is right in calling our attention to the black struggle going on in this country all along— which simply surfaced during this period in 1954 and beyond—one still cannot possibly understand either the Supreme Court decision or the movement since 1955 unless placing it into the international context of the struggles of non-white peoples across the globe. Black History suggests that it is more than coincidence that the Bandung Conference of colonized people and the Montgomery bus boycott began in the same month, in the same year. It is certainly coincidental that they happen to come at that same time, but their coming was not coincidental at all. Black History demands that we see the larger context of our movement. Certainly, Black History says, don’t look at that Supreme Court unless you see the specter of Soviet Russia looking over their shoulders, for what America was involved in was proving to the non-white world how much they loved colored people, because Russia was telling everybody how much they loved colored people and revolutionary movements. And, of course, Black History says, none of this can be understood without a sense of the movement of the African States that were the beginning to rush at this particular time. Everything that we do in this land must be seen, Black History says, in the context of the larger Pan-African situation.


The Viet Nam War

It is in the telling of the story of the Vietnam War that we find for the first time, really since the Depression, a basic cracking apart of the views of White History and some deep questioning about the nature of the society. A marvelous study would be to read the various media as they responded to the Pentagon Papers. What you find again and again (still White History) is My God, this is terrible stuff! Wow! They sure did do that! Oh Lord, did they really? But, of course, we have to support the President. This was simply an aberration. If we can get this straightened up, if we can do the right things and elect the right people, then we will be well again. Now this is basic concept that one must always catch: an expectation in White History that whatever goes wrong, the nation is so essentially healthy that it can be righted, and we will be healed again.

Negro History has found itself in a very interesting bind during this Vietnam period. Negro History began in this period by again recounting the role of the black soldier. But then, tragically, it counted so well that it said, “Lord, look at how many black soldiers there are indeed in front-line combat duty. What does all that mean?” Negro History then began having to deal, not only with black combat soldiers and black casualties, but with what the Vietnam War meant in the midst of the bursting of the cities that began to take place. Negro History ends up in many of the same kinds of difficulties that White History is in, largely because of the deep connection between the two. But Negro History now begins, in some of the older and certainly some of the more middle-aged, late forties or early fifties persons, more questioning of the basic nature of the American society than one has ever seen in that movement.

Black History, on the other hand, cannot talk about America becoming whole again. Black History sees Vietnam as a continuation of America’s basic wound, of America’s basic illness, of America’s basic role as an enemy of the liberation movements of non-white peoples of the world, starting with its own. Anybody who looks at what happened to Indians and who looks at what happened to black people can almost predict what it is that America is going to be up to next where non-white people are concerned. Black History sees Vietnam as simply another move on the downward path of the society, not an aberration, but a part of a consistent movement of the society. Further, Black History notes with great interest that this is the first war in which the masses of black people made no great economic strides, not even a temporary one. And it is during this war, we note from the perspective of Black History, that the first large-scale questioning of whether we want to be a part of this kind of society emerges.

Now I close with some comments about the implications of this black understanding of society. If you take the position of looking at America from this black position, you take a very dangerous position. What are you going to do when this society calls on you to defend it in Vietnam or any place else? What can you say other than, “What is there to defend as far as black people are concerned?” Very dangerous. But more dangerous is that you recognize that there are no grounds for trust in the mainstream, in those who set the directions of this country now, in those who are the children of the children of those who set the direction of this country for the last 350 years, who are the poisoners of the land, the poisoners of the sea and the poisoners of the air. And you recognize that what you are tied to is a tragic story. The question, therefore, becomes how do you break with this? Then one is tempted to many kinds of romanticism. But, of course, the only implications that are possible are totally new and dangerous directions, whether they be in education, in politics, or in one’s own personal life. All of this must be created anew by black hands, out of the black vision of what the society is all about. It cannot be a copy. Now if we can’t copy it, and if this is what we have been tied into, and if this is indeed the vision that we have from Black History, what indeed is the way ahead? I think that these are the kinds of questions that we are forced into if we move from White History to Negro History to Black History, indeed, on to a Pan-African understanding of the very nature of this society.