Quarles saw how blacks transformed America

November 24, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

THE DEATH OF the great African-American historian Benjamin Quarles last week fell by chance almost exactly on the 133rd anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, that brief but unforgettable utterance that remade America.

In the seeming coincidence are deep symbolic connections. Quarles' fellow historian, Garry Wills, wrote that it was Lincoln's genius to use the address to transform the ugly reality of the battlefield into something rich and strange, giving the nation a "new birth of freedom" to set against the horror, missed chances and muddle of the war.

Yet, it was Quarles who broke new ground in understanding how Lincoln evolved as a historic figure. He was, for example, among the first to recognize that it was African-Americans themselves who initially made Lincoln a symbol of American freedom and who therefore played an indispensable part in creating the Lincoln of popular legend.

In "Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography," published in 1988, Quarles wrote that "Blacks were instrumental in creating the image of the [emancipation] proclamation that was to become the historic image. Assuming the role that blacks had given it at the outset, the edict was destined to take on the evocative power reserved only for the half-dozen great charter expressions of human liberty in the entire Western tradition."

Such an evaluation was wholly in keeping with Quarles' lifelong insistence that blacks, rather than being passive objects of white actions, were themselves major actors in the struggle for their own freedom and influential shapers of American history.

"If, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as Afro-American history," he wrote in 1964, "it is because this past has become so interwoven in the whole fabric of our culture. Except for the first settlers at Jamestown, the Negro's roots in the original 13 colonies sink deeper than any other group from across the Atlantic."

For Quarles, moreover, the contributions of blacks were not simply material. They were intellectual and spiritual as well. "If in the eyes of the world today the United States stands for man's right to be free," he wrote, "certainly no group in this country has sounded this viewpoint more consistently than the Negro."

Starting point

Three decades ago, such statements were viewed as revolutionary. Today they are recognized as the starting point for any broader concept of America as a multi-ethnic, multicultural society.

Indeed, the emerging multicultural concept of America, which Quarles did so much to pioneer, holds that diversity is one of America's richest historical endowments. It is in no small measure due to Quarles that this view has come to be accepted as the truest interpretation of our national experience.

Yet, throughout his life, Quarles insisted that the proper evaluation of the achievements of African peoples in the making of America was no mere academic concern. For him, the judgments of history had a direct and dramatic bearing on the conduct of the present.

He believed, for example, that "a proper perspective of Negro history" would refute "those who believe that the colored man has an unworthy past and hence no strong claim to all the rights held by other Americans."

"Books that seek to present an accurate picture of the Negro's past are, in effect, bridges to intergroup harmony," he explained. And he went on to express the hope that "the Negro would be accepted more readily into the full promise of American life if his role in our history were better known."

Quarles rejected the idea that American race relations could be understood as a minor imperfection in an otherwise healthy society.

He was fond of quoting the black sociologist Kelly Miller, who once said: "We are so anxious to solve the race problem that we do not take time to study it."

Yet, Quarles ultimately was no pessimist. He had a scholar's faith in the usefulness of historical perspective in providing insight into human relations. And he agreed wholly with his great predecessor W. E. B. DuBois' assessment of the proper perspective from which to analyze America's racial dilemma:

'Warp and woof'

"We have," Dubois noted, "woven ourselves in the very warp and woof of this nation."

Neither Quarles nor DuBois had any use for the invented, fanciful racial histories popularized by later black nationalist and "Afro-centric" writers.

"Afro-American history brings out the centrality of the Negro, his identification with this country's avowed goals of freedom and equality, and his role in the making of America," Quarles wrote. There was no need for false pride or puffed-up accounts of black accomplishment.

"The black historical experience in the United States is a vital part of this country's experience from its beginnings. Would America have been America without her Negro people?"

For Quarles, the history of black Americans was already epical. It was the story of how African peoples engaged, under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, "in the dual, simultaneous processes of assimilating and transforming the culture of their country," he wrote.

"The Afro-American stamp is indelibly etched on the United States, both in the rich and varied contribution of the blacks, and in the depth and scope of the white responses to the black presence."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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