Slavery in Historical Context

Staff writers at The Nubian Message were not the first to call for African Americans to remember slavery and look to the past for inspiration in the present. In fact, the African American community as a whole has a long tradition of commemoration and remembrance. This tradition has been especially important since the late nineteenth century, when white Southerners in particular sought to erase the horrors of slavery from the collective American consciousness.

"Battle Flag of the US Confederacy"

When the Civil War (1861-1865) ended slavery in the United States, remembering the past remained an important way for African Americans to challenge ongoing racism and proslavery revisions of history. White Southerners after the Civil War struggled to cope with defeat and with the overhaul of their slave-based society. Conservative thinkers and writers therefore developed the "Lost Cause" narrative of the Confederacy, which vindicated the Southern cause in the war and portrayed Confederate soldiers as honorable defenders of the Southern way of life. Part of this "Lost Cause" narrative was to refashion slavery as a benign, patriarchical institution in which benevolent white masters took care of happy, grateful slaves. For white Southerners, this "positive good" version of slavery justified and romanticized the racial structure of antebellum Southern society.[1]

Formerly enslaved African Americans, of course, rejected the "Lost Cause" narrative as truth and increasingly spoke out against positive interpretations of slavery. Slavery was brutal and harsh, these individuals argued. Moreover, the Civil War had not ended racism, and the masses of African Americans continued to suffer from poverty and lack of education.[2] To combat these circumstances and "uplift" the African American race, elite African American thinkers and activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries argued that African Americans should look to the many African influences on European civilization for inspiration. At one time in history, these elites said, Africans had been the leading philosophers and intellectuals to which the rest of the world had looked for instruction and emulation; the Ancient Egyptians, for instance, had built the Great Pyramids, the Library at Alexandria, and countless other monuments to their intellectual prowess and achievement. By realizing that Africans had once surpassed Europeans in achievement, African Americans could be inspired to take pride in their past and continue to achieve in the present.[3]

Frederick Douglass Ambrotype

In this view, slavery was an aberration in a great history of African and African American achievement. Although its brutalities were not minimized, as in the "Lost Cause" narrative, the focus was less on the experiences of slavery and the inherent value of African American culture than it was on showing that African Americans were capable of assimilating into and succeeding in white society. An outgrowth of this view was that historians in the early twentieth century sought increasingly to integrate African American history into mainstream American history and thereby prove to doubters that African Americans had contributed significantly to critical events and developments in the nation's past. One of the ways that scholars accomplished this goal was to celebrate certain African American leaders as "heroes" and role models for the African American community. Most often, these "heroes" were historical individuals, like Frederick Douglass, or groups of individuals, such as doctors and professionals, that were accepted by white America.[4]

Activists in the mid-twentieth century, however, shifted this view. While not rejecting the idea that African Americans should take pride in an illustrious African past, these activists challenged the notion that African Americans should assimilate so-called "white" values and norms, or judge their accomplishments based on "white" standards, in the face of ongoing racism and oppression nationwide. African Americans' experiences and cultural practices were valuable independently of white experiences and cultural practices, and need not be integrated into mainstream "white" history to be significant, these activists said. Moreover, slavery was not a shameful experience in African American history, and enslaved individuals were not simply victims of oppression. On the contrary, enslaved African Americans had survived the brutalities of slavery and created and maintained distinct cultures despite it; these cultures and this history deserved their own recognition and scholarly study, activists argued, independently of mainstream history and "white" culture. When adopted by individuals like Malcolm X and others involved in more radical civil rights movements, this view promoted the idea that African Americans were a separate people with a separate history in the United States. They should therefore define their own avenues for success rather than adhere to "white" success models, and continue to fight racism that kept them oppressed.[5]

Malcolm X, half-length portrait, facing right

These twin impulses--to integrate African American history into mainstream white history, and to foster an independent, nationalistic history--continue to exist in tandem within the African American community: "The first type [of history] evolved and remains to fight racism in our culture; the latter [type of history] evolved and remains to keep alive the sense of pride and the liberationist ethos that exists in the still segregated black communities."[6] Both traditions can be seen in The Nubian Message's articles in the 1990s. Whether upholding "true heroes" of the African American community like Marcus Garvey, or calling for an African American Studies Department on campus, writers at The Nubian Message clearly wanted African Americans to remember and take pride in their past despite ongoing racism in both history books and real-life situations. At the same time, writers denouncing "historical brainwashing" wanted to see African Americans' past experiences and accomplishments accurately represented in mainstream history and society.[7] These dual impulses make sense when considering the varied traditions of African American remembrance, historical interpretation, and activism.

[1] W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

[2] Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller, eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk about their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation (New York: The New Press, in association with the Library of Congress, 1998).

[3] Jeffrey Stewart and Fath Davis Ruffins, '"A Faithful Witness': Afro-American Public History in Historical Perspective," in Presenting the Past: Critical Perspectives on History and the Public, ed. Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig, 307-312 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).

[4] Ibid., 312-327.

[5] Ibid., 327-334.

[6] Ibid., 336.

[7] Tony Williamson, "Peace, Justice and Equality: Can America Provide Any of It?", The Nubian Message (January 27, 1993): 11. Digitized by the Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC; Students for the Advancement of Afrikan American Studies, "Do We Shrink Like a Raisin or Explode?", The Nubian Message 4, no. 12 (March 28, 1996): 10. Digitized by the Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.