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Respecting History of the "(black) woman and man"
Published:
11/6/2013 12:53:49 PM


Lisa Randle
 

By Lisa B. Randle



In America, scholars have been interested in documenting and preserving the collective memory of well-to-do individuals. As a matter of fact, this can be traced back to 1791 when the Massachusetts Historical Society became the first state historical society. These organizations gather documents that support publications and histories. In turn, publications give their topics legitimacy and authenticity. The end result – a sense of identity and belonging.

Needless to say, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America has benefitted from this process more than any ethnic group in America. How many people know George Washington or Strom Thurmond? The American educational system has done its job instilling the story of the “white man.”

It was once commonly thought that because the majority of slaves were illiterate and unable to leave a written record, that African Americans had no history. Early 20th century racist scholarship depicted black people as imitative of whites. Evidence was drawn primarily from plantation records, letters, and southern newspapers that reflected the slaveowner’s viewpoint. Scholarship of slavery has come a long way.

In the 1930s and 1940s, scholars began moving away from “overt” racism but continued to emphasize slaves as objects. Emphasis focused on mistreatment and abuse of slaves. Black people were portrayed as victims.

Gradually, scholars began challenging these portrayals of the docile, emasculated slave who identified totally with the owner. New scholarship began recognizing the effects of the slave-owner relationship. Slavery was not a closed institution but rather one in which slaves pursued important relationships outside of those with the master and developed strong families, churches, and communities.

Beginning in the 1970s, scholarship took a decidedly different turn. Historians and other researchers began reexamining slave life. Far from being depicted as either a victim or totally content with their circumstance, scholars began recognizing that black people were resilient and autonomous in many ways.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, scholars expanded their research on slave life - not as one shared common experience, but as many multi-layered common experiences. Scholars examine community building and political aspirations of black people not only during slavery but post-slavery. More importantly, scholars started combining slavery history with social history – the history of ordinary people and their strategies of coping with life. By the late 1990s, cultural historians began augmenting scholarship with an emphasis on language, the importance of beliefs and assumptions, and their role on group behavior.

It is important that access to history goes beyond the “great white man” or “historical figures.” For too many years, people (both black and white) in this country have dismissed the struggles of the everyday wo/man. These are the people who contribute to our “sense of belonging” as a society. Our interest in the lives of African Americans should not end when slavery ended. People continued to live, breathe, and experience the world.

What good does it do? Why research common people? What is the curiosity about their private lives? Remarkably, these are the same questions students ask in school when learning about “historical figures” that we deem important. When a person is associated with a particular place or space, they become a part of the story. They make a contribution that should be recognized regardless whether one person might think it’s important or not. Adding their story to publications gives their lives legitimacy and authenticity. They provide us with a sense of identity and belonging.

Most scholars, researchers, and genealogists are not out to make a “name for themselves” or create “interpretative fiction” for profit. Many involved in researching/writing/interpreting African-American history, whether it’s about slavery or post-slavery, give back to the community through various means such as books, tours, lectures, programs, and articles such as this one. These are the forums available to share this history. Just because someone or their ancestor didn’t experience the institution of slavery first-hand doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share the experience of all involved.

It is true that not everyone has access to information. Those who do have access, through archival and scholarly research, create venues for sharing. Yes, it is unfortunate that there is often a monetary cost (tours, lectures, conferences, etc.) associated with receiving access to the scholarship. A higher price would be to never perform the scholarship at all. Burying or hiding the past because it might be uncomfortable is not an excuse for preventing current and future generations from partaking in the process.

What is really sad is that so many talented and smart young African Americans in this state and elsewhere are not stepping up to the plate to participate in educating the public about their ancestors who are just like the rest of us – leaving a mark in history.

 

Visitor Comments

Submitted By: Shelley@minkyadoo Submitted: 11/13/2013
Lisa Randall Agreed. I grew up in a home that was filled with family stories and we were given black history, not when it came around for one week on February. I have tried to pass this down to my children , but must say I'm in competition with all the reality shows. So I have started a genealogical blog which they follow and I'm getting the stories and family history out that way, but what I come away with from your excellent article is perhaps I need to include current information on their lives and perhaps they can see that they are a part of this history


Submitted By: Shelley@minkyadoo Submitted: 11/13/2013
Lisa Randall Agreed. I grew up in a home that was filled with family stories and we were given black history, not when it came around for one week on February. I have tried to pass this down to my children , but must say I'm in competition with all the reality shows. So I have started a genealogical blog which they follow and I'm getting the stories and family history out that way, but what I come away with from your excellent article is perhaps I need to include current information on their lives and perhaps they can see that they are a part of this history


Submitted By: Lakencia Greene Submitted: 11/13/2013
Great article Lisa! Keep up the wonderful work! Best wishes on behalf of the Haynes family.


 
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