Teaching Black History as a Subversive Study

JOSEPH T. DURHAM

February 23, 1993|By JOSEPH T. DURHAM

Teaching Afro-American or black history is not a simple matter of creating a pantheon of heroes and romanticizing ''the first'' in areas of art, business, education, politics or any other field. Teaching black history may, in fact, be an unsettling experience for both blacks and whites.

For whites it will mean entertaining the heretical thought that America was not exclusively a noble experiment founded on the principles of brotherhood and charity. For blacks it will mean the discovery of meanness and baseness in some ''soul brothers'' that cannot be ignored.

Moreover, the serious teaching of Afro-American history will mean that old myths are destroyed, closet skeletons will be exposed, and the clay feet of some cherished idols will be shattered. In short, teaching Afro-American history may turn out to be subversive. This subversion will not result from malice aforethought or a deliberate design of distortion. It will result, rather, from a dedication to truth, which is the essence of history.

The eminent John Hope Franklin, now of Duke University, once called for the writing of a new American history in which the contributions as well as the short-comings of the participants are frankly dealt with. Serious attention to that call will mean that the hero and the anti-hero are both discussed; the saint and the scamp will both have their niche.

What are some of the subversive pathways over which the teaching of Afro-American history may lead us? We can begin by considering the African slave trade.

In the 15th century, Portugal became the first European nation to introduce slaves from Africa directly to Europe. Portugal was soon followed by other European powers: Spain, France, England and Holland. These major maritime powers set up forts and outposts on the West African coast from the Grain Coast to the Slave Coast and drew a fortune from the trade in black gold. The lust for black gold created a sordid story of heartbreak and human suffering, and the European nations must bear their share of guilt.

Another aspect of the slave trade, however, is not often considered. Africans themselves played a substantial part in the slave trade. Most often the agents of the European powers were restricted to coastal areas of Africa while the foraging into the interior was done by Africans.

As the demand for slaves intensified, African chiefs made war on neighboring tribes and sold their victims to European caboteers. The taking of bribes called ''--'' was common. Records indicate that slaves could be obtained for a simple trinket or even a ball of red string.

The involvement of Africans selling fellow Africans to European slave hunters illustrates that both were implicated in the nefarious business. At the risk of being indicted for heresy, the conscientious teacher of black history, who is striving for a balanced presentation, must point out that Africans and Europeans were caught in the human predicament. ''The pot cannot call the kettle black.''

It has been said that ''The best blood of Virginia flows in black veins.'' Perhaps no person's life better illustrates this ironic fact than the life of Thomas Jefferson, the Sage of Monticello and founder of the University of Virginia. Volumes have been written on the various aspects of Jefferson's life as an ambassador, a philosopher, a scientist and a man of letters.

Yet, few Jefferson scholars deal with the relationship of Sally Hemings with Jefferson and the assertion that he fathered several of her children. The oral history in the family of the descendants of Sally Hemings holds that he was the father of Sally's children, and Jefferson himself recorded their names in his Farm Book, along with the dates of their births. They are Beverly, born in 1798; Harriet, born in May, 1801; Madison, born in January, 1805; and Easton, born in May, 1808.

Two other offspring of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship may have been a first Harriet, who was thought to have died in infancy and Tom, possibly born in France (where Jefferson was ambassador) where under French law he would be free. Consequently, he was not named as a slave in the Jefferson papers.

It is distressing to find that one's idol has feet of clay, but to discover that Thomas Jefferson, a founding father, was also the father of a ''family'' of mulatto children is to discover that he suffered a tragic flaw. The flaw is not only tragic, but ironic, since he claimed to be repulsed by the lack of beauty among blacks.

Another example will suffice to make the point that the teaching of Afro-American history will, at times, be controversial.

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