Ten myths, half-truths and misunderstandings about Black historyJune 16, 2007 |
by Paul Ruffins
Black history may have seemed “lost, stolen or strayed” at one time, but since then much of the African American past has been rediscovered and reanalyzed.
Unfortunately, this new research hasn’t yet filtered down to high schools, and many students and others still base their thinking on the information that existed in 1968 when CBS News produced the film Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed. At that time, many important works on Black history were more than thirty years out of date. For example, W.E.B. DuBois wrote History of the African Slave Trade in 1896 and Black Reconstruction in 1935, and Dr. Lorenzo Green finished The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776 in 1942.
Over the past thirty years, historians, anthropologists, and other scholars such as John Blassingame, Dr. Eugene Genovese and Ira Berlin have revolutionized the study of African American life, history, and culture.
Some facts are indisputable. A few free Africans came to the New World with Columbus. African slaves first arrived in the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean in 1502 and came to what was to become the United States of America in 1619. Over the next 250 years, some African Americans were freed or freed themselves. The U.S. banned the external slave trade in 1808, and states from Maine to Maryland gradually enacted abolition laws.
Unfortunately, some historical questions may never be answered. For example, although estimates range from thirteen million to thirty million, we will probably never know exactly how many people were taken out of Africa during the slave trade because boats and people were counted differently in different African and European languages.
Black Issues presents some of the latest thinking to help educators lay to rest these ten common myths and misconceptions that distort and oversimplify nearly 500 years of African American history.
The Black Family Structure was Destroyed in Slavery.
This outdated perspective was developed in the early 1900s by a group of racist historians known as the Dunning School Unfortunately, it was adopted by Dr. Edward Franklin Frazier, an African American professor at Howard University, while working on The Negro Family in the United States (1939) Frazier believed that the family problems of African Americans during the 1930s could be explained by the “catastrophe of slavery.” In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would join the U.S. Senate eleven years later, based much of his infamous report, The Negro Family in America: The Case for National Action, on Frazier’s work.
However, a wealth of new information reveals that earlier conclusions seriously underestimated the strength of the Black family According to Dr. John Hope Franklin, Herbert Gutman’s classic book, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976), “successfully challenged the traditional view that slavery virtually destroyed the Afro-American family.” Black families were under incredible stress during slavery but they also evolved new structures to meet the crisis Blaming all of the problems of some Black families on the past influence of slavery underestimates contemporary factors such as racism, unemployment and drugs.
Suggested Readings Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery, 1619-1877 (1993); Alan Kulikoff’s Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake (1986); Theresa Singelton’s The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life (1985); Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally’s History and Memory of African American Culture (1994); Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African Americans, 1650-1800 (1992); and John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972).
African Americans were the only people who were ever enslaved in the New World.
Millions of Native Americans were also enslaved, particularly in South America In the American colonies in 1730, nearly 25 percent of the slaves in the Carolinas were Cherokee, Creek, or other Native Americans. From the 1500s through the early 1700s, small numbers of white people were also enslaved by kidnapping, or for crimes or debts.
SUGGESTED READINGS: Herbert Klein’s, African Slavery in Latin American and the Caribbean (1986); Ramon Gutierrez’s When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico 1500-1846 (1991); Great Documents in American Indian History (1995), edited by Wayne Moquin: J. McIver Weatherford’s Native Roots. How the Indians Enriched America (1991); Native Heritage: Personal Accounts by American Indians 1790-Present (1995), edited by Arlene Hirschfelder; Robert Edgar Conrad’s Children of God’s Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slavery in Brazil (1983); and Sidney Mintz’s and Richard Price’s An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past: A Caribbean Perspective (1981).
Slave communities were clearly divided into two classes of people: House Negroes, who led easy lives, and Field Negroes, who bore the brunt of slavery’s brutality.
This myth reflects another of Frazier’s conclusions. As a sociologist, he was interested in the origins of class divisions in African American society. Newer research indicates that there were no distinct classes among enslaved African Americans. Most slaves who worked in houses were women who often suffered much abuse. In addition, some slaves–usually men who were blacksmiths, tanners, and other artisans–didn’t work in either houses or fields.
SUGGESTED READINGS: Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life (1993), edited by Ira Berlin and Philip Morgan; Ira Berlin’s and Roland Hoffman’s Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution (1983); Nathan Huggins’s Black Odyssey: The African American Ordeal in Slavery (1990); and Discovering the Women in Slavery: Emancipating Perspectives on the American Past (1996), edited by Patricia Morton.
During and after slavery, social status within the Black community was primarily determined by who had the lightest skin.
This is at best a half-truth. First, the Black people with the highest status were always those who were free–and they came in all shades. The Afro-American Communities Project, conducted by James Horton of George Washington University, looked at communities in ten northern cities between 1790 and 1865 and suggested that the relationship between skin color and status was very complicated. In the northern and midwestern free communities studied, there is no pattern showing that people with lighter skin had better jobs or higher incomes.
Other evidence indicates that having lighter skin was only more prestigious in places, such as plantation communities of the “Deep South,” where light skin probably meant that you were related to a prominent or wealthy white person. In the “Upper South,” where light-skinned children were more likely to be the product of relationships with poor whites, there was no great status attached to light skin.
In the early twentieth century, the idea that “lighter is better” probably only became common in the North and West when the great migrations dispersed Southern African American culture and attitudes to other communities. More recent studies of the 1940s and 1950s suggest that light skin seems to be valued much more in women than men, and that these attitudes may have more to do with gender than class.
SUGGESTED READINGS: James O. Horton’s Free People of Color Inside the African American Community (1993).
It was illegal to teach a slave to read.
This is another half-truth. Between 1619 and 1820, there were no laws concerning the education of slaves. In both the North and even the South, African American churches and other groups sponsored schools for Black children, though very few actually attended. During the last and most repressive generation of slavery, a few Southern states made it illegal to teach a slave to read because some slave rebellions were led by people who had read the Bible or the Declaration of Independence.
SUGGESTED READINGS: The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, by Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson (1919); or Eric Foner’s, The Unfinished Revolution (1988).
Black people couldn’t or didn’t resist slavery.
The weight of historical evidence suggests that enslaved Black people throughout the new world developed a culture of continual resistance. In every community, some slaves ran away, committed suicide, or died fighting back. In Jamaica, Surinam and Brazil, slaves escaped to the mountains and established independent free communities. In Haiti, Black people ended slavery by defeating both the Spanish and the French armies. In the United States, slaves fled north and west to freedom and organized several slave rebellions. In addition, the continual agitation of Black people like Frederick Douglass helped spark the Civil War, which ended slavery in the United States.
SUGGESTED READINGS: Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts (1944); Gerald Mullen’s, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth Century Virginia (1972); Dr. Eugene Genovese’s From Resistance to Rebellion: African American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (1981); and George Frederickson’s Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (1993).
The 500 years Blacks have spent in the New World have erased any African influences on modern African American culture.
This is a myth scholars have been trying to disprove for decades. African culture not only continues to flavor African American culture, it influences all Americans–whether they realize it or not. African words entered the English language. African legends changed American folklore. African instruments and musical ideas revolutionized American music. African spices and foods (such as yams and okra), design motifs, and skills (such as boat building) permanently influenced European tastes and technologies.
SUGGESTED READINGS: The Miseducation of the Negro, by Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson (1939); Sterling Stuckey’s, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987); Joseph Holloway’s The Origins of African American Culture (1990); Charles Joyner’s Down By the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (1984); and Dr. Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977).
The last names of Black people all come from the names of the white people who owned the plantation on which they lived.
This is a yet another half-truth. Some newly freed Blacks used the names of white families, though not necessarily the name of their last owner. This trend was more pronounced in Mississippi and Alabama, where more slaves had been sold South and West, away from their families on the East Coast. However, there were always some African Americans who got their names from their parents or who, when acquiring freedom, chose new names like Freeman or Newman. In addition, records show that most slaves on the same plantation didn’t have the same last names.
SUGGESTED READINGS: Charles Blockson’s Black Geneology (1977); and Tommie Morton Young’s Afro-American Genealogical Sourcebook (1987). For more information, contact the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society at P.O. Box 73086, Washington, D.C. 20056-3086.
Most lynchings started when a Black man was accused of a sexual incident involving a white woman.
This is a myth. Sexually motivated lynchings made sensational national headlines. However, local research revealed a more complicated story. In 1892, crusading African American journalist Ida B. Wells published Southern Horrors, which investigated hundreds of lynchings. Wells found that more than 70 percent of the lynchings occurred when the victims tried to vote, demanded their rights, purchased land, or owned successful businesses. Between 1920 and 1950, the NAACP also investigated scores of lynchings and those investigations supported Well’s conclusions.
SUGGESTED READINGS: Ida B. Wells’s Southern Horrors (reissued 1991); W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s Lynching in the New South, 1880-1930 (1993); and Stewart Tolnay’s and E.M. Beck’s A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 18821930 (1995).
The Civil Rights Movement began in 1955 and is a magnificent example of a spontaneous uprising that freed an oppressed people.
This is a myth. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t just “spontaneously arise” with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black people had been circulating petitions, bringing court cases, and organizing and agitating against slavery and oppression since before the American Revolution. Efforts against segregation began in the 1880s, but did not have much of an impact until the late 1930s.
SUGGESTED READINGS: Aldon Morris’s The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement Black Communities Organizing for Change (1984); Genna Rae McNeil’s Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights (1983); Richard Kluger’s, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (1977); John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement (1992); Sean Cashman’s African Americans Quest for Civil Rights, 1900-1990 (1991); and Claynorne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960 (reissued, with new introduction, 1995).
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