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The African American Past and the American Present (1968)

The African American Past and the American Present (1968)
By Vincent Harding


NEGRO history suffers the same fate in the overall American story as the individual Negro’s integration Into American society. That is, small but prominent doses of Negro History can be dropped into the national saga, but these black drops should never be numerous or indelible. For if they are too many and too black, these encroachments might necessitate unpleasant rereadings, reassessments and rewritings of the entire story.


An American history which cannot contain the full story of the black pilgrimage is no more worthy than an American society that cannot bear the full and troublesome black presence in its midst.


Just as America can know no survival worth considering unless it finds a way of facing its black counterimage, so too our history is a tale told by fools if it does not incorporate the Afro-American experience with unflinching integrity. And if such open encounter between black and white history should produce the same insecurity as we now experience in the human encounter, so much the better.


The analogy doesn’t end there. The urgency some of us feel for creating such a new American history is no less critical than the pressure impelling us to seek for the lineaments of a new American society. Obviously, the tasks are not unrelated, for there will be no new beginnings for a nation that refuses to acknowledge its real past.


Any American history that ignores the central role of black people as actors and foils on this maddening stage is a falsified and misleading history. Such a history ignores the ironic symbol of that summer in Jamestown more than three centuries ago when representative government and African bondsmen had a mutual beginning of sorts, a beginning that seemed to lock the rhetoric of democracy and the reality of black inequality into the American heart. It is a history that tries to explore the making of the Constitution without understanding the major price in its integrity that was exacted by the system of slavery and its proponents, both north and south. It is a history that attempts to speak of the Peculiar Institution as if there were no human beings involved who produced no authentic historical materials. Thus a major publisher could attempt recently to produce a collection of documents on slavery without one document from a slave.) It is a history that speaks of Jacksonian Democracy as if the expanded white franchise were not purchased at the cost of the black northern vote in many states.


Such a vacuous history treats Reconstruction as if it were an unfortunate mistake, rather than one of the nation’s greatest lost chances to be honest and free. This kind of history deals with the turn of the nineteenth century without suggesting the way in which the brutality against blacks and Indians at home may have permanently poisoned the nation’s attempts at expansion among non-white peoples elsewhere. It is a history that tries to understand the urban crisis of the 1960’s without tracing the long and bloody lines of Negro migration since Reconstruction. It is a history that attempts to interpret current American culture without any appreciation for the major role black people have played in creating the popular culture of the nation, especially since the 1920’s.


A history without the Afro-American story may indicate why this nation can now be so numb to the brutalization of a Vietnam thousands of miles away. In denying the physical and spiritual destruction of black persons which has become a part of the American Way of Life, a callus has grown on whatever heart a nation has.


This history that has contributed immensely to the mis-education of the American people has not prepared them to face a world that is neither white, Christian, capitalist, nor affluent. Such history may yet prove poisonous, and if there is any possible antidote on the American scene, it could be the hard and bitter medicine of the Afro-American past. Is it too late for a society that still insists that its drops be few and painless?


An Amnesiac Society


Even when one acknowledges the grotesquely slow pace at which black people are moving onto- the American stage, the knowledge of their history is still absolutely indispensable as they cast off the roles of the past and seek for new ones. If they come to the integrated scene with integrity, they must come with a knowledge of themselves and of the many-splendored gifts they bring.


Black students in formerly white schools must not enter as suppliants who are going to be transformed from disadvantaged to advantaged by such a move. They must be so aware of their black fathers and the wealth of their spiritual and intellectual heritage that they will illuminate sharply the disadvantages inherent in an isolated, beleaguered middle-class white world. If they are to become more than· black Anglo-Saxons, then they cannot accept the old doctrines of slavery which encouraged them to believe that God somehow blessed darkest Africa with the light of Christian guns and ships and chains. Neither the ancient Kingdom of Songhai nor the modern Kingdom of Harlem was benighted without whites, and black young people need to know the measurements of the light -in both places.


Any society that would encourage black children to live in a state of permanent amnesia or shame-or both concerning their fathers and their fathers’ ways of life is a society not worth knowing. Any men who would enter such a society on its amnesic terms would only add to its corruption, whether they entered through the door of the ninth grade or by the carpeted way of a General Electric executive suite. But it must also be acknowledged that such knowledge is exceedingly dangerous, for if it were faithfully presented, a reading of the Afro-American past might cause black exiles to refuse many an open door. Indeed some doors might be torn from their hinges. This is not teaching hatred of whites. Rather it is the necessary and healthy explanation for the existence of the hatred and fear that most black men have known from childhood on. Any society lacking the courage to take such risks with light lacks the courage to live.


Those white persons who first encounter the token blacks in their new roles also are in desperate need of the Afro-American past. For without it they will be tempted to feel that they are doing a favor for the students or the junior executives by letting them in. Properly read, the pages of the Negro past will reveal that it is black people who have done the favor by doing so much to build the nation under such horrible circumstances, and by letting such ambiguous doors stay on their hinges for so long a time. Compassionately understood, the black past will teach all benefactors that they are receiving a favor in being allowed what may be the one last chance to do justice, that they are being graced by the presence of a people whose pilgrimage is perhaps the only true epic poem that America has ever known. Such a reading of the Afro-American past might even shatter the general illusion that token acceptance of token Negroes will ever bring any basic hope for the survival of any of us.


Perhaps the issue of survival suggests another level of our need for the story of this dark journey in America. Not long ago, the most highly esteemed newspaper in America asked an author to write his reflections on the reasons for the current breaking of America into two parts, based on race. When it rips apart all the easy geJ1eralizations of our textbooks (written largely by, for and about white America), the new coming of black history would cast such a question into limbo. For any perceptive apprehension of the Negro-white encounter cannot fail to reveal that there have always been two major communities in this nation based on race.


The breaking began in West Africa and continued in every colony and state that came into being. If we read with both speed and comprehension, it may not be too late to ask the right questions, questions based not on Newark or Detroit in 1967, but on Jamestown and Philadelphia and Springfield and St. Louis over the centuries. For it is only as America faces a Denmark Vesey, a Nat Turner, a W. E. B. DuBois, a Paul Robeson and a Malcolm X, that the nation will begin to be ready to understand a Stokely Carmichael, a Rap Brown and the host of black radicals yet to come. Such a reading would identify each one as Made in America, Product of its Broken Community. How shall this land create new and whole men if it refuses to examine its past production record, a record strewn with the crushed bodies and spirits of black radicals hurling defiant curses and urgent pleas for renewal from the same dying lips?


These angry young men’s lives demonstrate the fact that the AfroAmerican past and the black present are no longer matters of limited national concern-if they ever were. Indeed they suggest to us what may be one of the most profound and universally significant uses of this history: that is, its service as an entrance to the non-white, non-Western world. One of the most gifted and least celebrated American political analysts, A. J. Muste, used to say that the basic division in the world now and for some time to come was not based on communism versus capitalism. Rather, Muste said, the world was divided now between those people who had rarely if ever known defeat and humiliation as a national experience and those who had lived with this for centuries.


In a sense, Muste was simply echoing the profound insights expressed by W. E. B. DuBois half a century earlier.
However formulated, the concepts of these men remind us that the world experience of the last 500 years has meant that the vast majority of the earth’s humiliated people has been nonwhite, and their humiliation has come at the hands of the white, Western world. Moreover, it appears that this nation now stands as the self-proclaimed leader of that unhumiliated world, and finds itself at once the most powerful and one of the least comprehending national states.


One of America’s most critical blind areas is in the realm of understanding the oppressed, the wretched of the earth. Our vaunted experience of virtually unbroken success, our alabaster cities undimmed by human tears (except for the unseen tears of the poor and the black?) and our movement into the strange joys of advanced corporate capitalism-all these have cut this people off from the rest of the world in significant ways.


America a Dangerous Nation


A nation that combines the American predilection towards violence, the American stockpile of weapons and the American lack of empathy for the earth’s humiliated peoples is a dangerous nation. Perhaps it can begin another life by introducing itself to the invisible men in its midst, by seeking to know the quality of suffering and hurt and the rebellion they spawn. Such an introduction must include-if not begin with-the past.


Nor are black Americans excused from such a task, for we are constantly exposed to a terrible temptation to forget the black and bloody ground out of which we sprang, as the price for American acceptance. As DuBois put it more than a decade ago, . . . most American Negroes, even those of intelligence and courage, do not fully realize that they are being bribed to trade equal status in the United States for the slavery of the majority of men. So the Afro-American past must remind black people that we are children of the humiliated and the oppressed, that our fathers were colonized and exploited subjects, and that the ghettos we have recently left are still too often filled with the stench of poverty and despair.


Such history must remind AfroAmericans that all of our greatest leaders have begged us to stand in solidarity with the black and anguished people of the earth. We are their spokesmen in the midst of the world’s foremost antirevolutionary power. If we forsake them, we forsake our past, our fathers, and our own best selves.
If we forsake them, there may be no future for our children or theirs. If we forget our own father’s burnings in village squares and don American uniforms to set fires against the world’s desperate revolutions, we will deserve nothing but the scorn of men and the judgment of the gods.


Some years ago, D. W. Brogan, an English expert on American affairs, referred to what he called The Myth of American Omnipotence. This phrase referred to his conviction that the reading of the American past was distorted by a conception of this nation as an entity incapable of failure, powerful and pure enough to succeed at anything it chose. The corollary of this myth, said Brogan (in the days of McCarthy’s reign), was that any American failure at home or overseas had to be explained by subversion or conspiracies, or-at worst-a mistake in well-intentioned American judgment.


Related to Brogan’s myth is what might be called The Myth of American Romanticism. Ever since the nation’s beginning it has been plagued by this equally crippling misconception of itself. Succinctly put, it involves a belief that American history is the story of a society moving on a straight upward line from perfection to perfection, from goodness to betterness, from being better than other nations to being the best .and most complete nation God had ever stood over (I take it that is the implication of being under God). This mythology was intensified to the point of indoctrination after World War II when history became a tool of Cold War, and it became necessary to prove consistently the superiority of America over every conceivable communist, socialist or neutralist model in the world.


This self -image is on a level with fairy tales and happiness-forever-after. It is the self-understanding of those whose adult development has been aborted by the fear of the risks of growth. Most importantly, it is a refusal to recognize the bloody, tragic line that whips its way through all of life. Failure to face the tragic is failure to mature in national as well as personal spheres, so in the midst of this pabulum view of history a serious implanting of the Afro-American past could be the difference between death and growth-at least spiritually.


Were American historians and American citizens at large to face this story, many-if not all-of their liberal, superficial myths about, and hopes for, American society might be transformed. They would need to face again the fact that two of their greatest heroes, Jefferson and Lincoln, were convinced that black and white people could never live on a basis of true equality in America. They would be pressed to realize that The Great Emancipator cared far more deeply for a cheaply won white reconciliation than for the very costly black liberation, thereby helping to lead the nation down bloody paths of malice for all.


The close reading of the black past might reveal how fully this broken people has tested every line of American democratic rhetoric and how fully each word has shrunk before the ultimate test in every generation. (They would also see the pathetic and perennial sight of esteemed national leaders offering solutions a generation old to wounds long past such ancient salves.) A reading of the black preachers, poets and editors, a sensitive listening to the singers of our songs, would face the nation with the ceaseless rage that has been the lot of men in every strange land who have been called upon to sing, to dance, to laugh, and to be grateful. And in those pages any searching eye would easily spy the century-old predictions of black alienation, sedition, rebellion, and guerrilla warfare. Tragic disaster has always lurked at the American door, created largely by blindness to the nation’s fatal flaw.


Not only would the tragic nature of American life perhaps become more clear, but the Afro-American story would remind the nation that it was conceived as an experiment, an experiment that could yet fail, miserably, utterly, explosively. Almost a century ago Henry Adams described the America of 1800 as very healthy except for the cancer of slavery. The irony and the tragedy of a very healthy cancerous body is still the American condition, and though no cure has yet been found for the cancer, it may not be too late to open the blind eyes to see its sources in the past. And what if we open our eyes only to discover that Jefferson and Lincoln (and many black men) were right, that present white prejudice and black bitterness, and unbroken lines of injustice from the past, now’ make it impossible for us to continue together in integrity? Is it better to go on in blind, self -righteous rage towards internecine struggle or to see, finally see, with sad and mature clarity the pathway down from all our past romantic dreams-including the dream of integration?


The black experience in America allows for no illusions, not even that last, ancient hope of the chosen American people whom God will somehow rescue by a special act of his grace. America began with such hopes, but they were tied to the idea of a Covenant, that men would have to do God’s will for them to remain as his chosen ones. Somehow, just as America forced black men to do so much of its other dirty but productive work, the nation evidently came to believe that whites could be chosen while blacks did that suffering which has always been identified with the chosen ones. Now that is over. The black past has begun to explode and to reveal to a hiding chosen people that to be the anointed one is to be crushed and humiliated by the forces of the world. After almost 400 years of exile, the black branch of the chosen people has grown louder than ever before in its refusal to take the sufferings apart from the privileges of the chosen status.


So, for all who would see it, the Afro-American past illuminates the meaning of being chosen. Perhaps this is what white Americans must see:
that they will either join the ranks of suffering and humiliation (beginning perhaps with losing face in Vietnam?) or there will be no chosen people on these shores. Either they will submit their children to some of the same educational terrors they have allowed black children to endure or there is no future for any. Either they will give up their affluence to provide necessities for others or there will be neither affluence nor necessities for anyone.
Perhaps we were chosen together, and we cannot move towards a new beginning until we have faced all the horror and agony of the past with absolute honesty. Perhaps integration is indeed irrelevant until the assessment of a long, unpaid debt has been made and significant payments begun. Perhaps atonement, not integration, is the issue at hand.


Of course, one last, shattering possibility may remain. It could be that the message of the Afro-American past is this: only one branch of the chosen people has really paid the dues of suffering-with the scars to show for it.
Therefore it may be that only the black branch will be allowed to shape the future of the nation and determine its calling for the world. Perhaps only black people are open, sensitive, and scarred enough as a group to lead this nation into true community with the non-white humiliated world. Perhaps that world of suffering will trust no American leaders save those who bear the marks of oppression in their souls. Perhaps it will listen only to those who know the tragic sense of life and are not blind and calloused bearers of death.


May the Last be First?


Perhaps it is already time for the last to be first in our nation. How shall that overturning come? That knowledge may be too great for even the Afro-American past to bear. Perhaps our black history can only bear witness to the truth, and living men must shape that truth into new action and new history.


To those who would close their ears to such interpretations of the black past, to those who would tune out because such strange musings seem unrelated to the historian’s vocation I cite the word of a white radical who read black history with some care. Before an audience of well-meaning whites, in a time of similar crisis, he spoke on the Afro-American past, focusing on the greatness of a black leader named Toussaint, holding L’Ouverture above the great white heroes of the age. Then Wendell Phillips set out these words : You think me a fanatic tonight, for you read history not with your eyes but with your prejudices.


So spoke a man who believed that there was no healing for America either in small black drops of history or in small black drops of Negro freedom. Had the nation heard his word and followed his uses of the past, we might well have been spared most of the bloody days between and the terror filled nights yet to come.


Will there be time before the last night? We who have lived in night and waited long in darkness may have a special word of light for a stumbling power-bound people. We do not panic easily. Shall the word be heard? Only those with ears can say. It is our calling, our vocation, to speak it. And if the last darkness should fall, it is preferable that we be found standing faithful to all the agonizing sorrow-joy of our Afro-American past than lost and sullen black defenders of a world that sucked out our memory and bleached our minds.


Such a land deserves no defense. Better that it pass and make way for whatever is yet to come-even if it be the long-delayed last silence. Or will it be the drums of morning? I do not know. The Afro-American past leaves a man with no illusions, but even in the heart of chaos it does not strip him of his hope. We have come too far, through too much chaos, to cop out here.


Source: Motive April 1968

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