White guys advance black history

July 02, 2000|By Gregory Kane

Sitting at the bus stop, I was quietly reading David Robertson's book "Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It."

A guy beside me -- he happened to be white -- glanced at the book and felt the urge to comment.

"That's a good book," he said. "Very informative." He went on to describe how the photos added to the book, finding the picture of the housing projects that now stand on the site where Vesey was imprisoned in 1822 revealing.

"You're right," I answered. "This one's pretty good, too." I hoisted up a copy of Douglas Egerton's "He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey." Both books were published last year.

"I couldn't make up my mind about which one to buy," I continued, "so I decided to buy them both. How often do two biographies about Vesey come out at the same time?"

We continued on in pleasant tones for a few minutes. Then it hit me. Why, I asked myself, wasn't I having this conversation with any one of the many blacks waiting at the same bus stop? Why were this white fellow and I the only ones reading?

I answered myself the way I usually do when this topic comes up. Black people simply don't read enough. And, for all the ruckus we raise about Black History Month -- woe betide the white person who doesn't genuflect when it's mentioned -- we surely don't read much about our history.

Only a few bold and dedicated black scholars even dare to write about it. But they all missed the boat on Vesey. Both of his biographies were written by white guys -- and they did their homework well.

Robertson, a librarian and historian, lives in Cincinnati. He moved there one year ago from South Carolina.

"I moved for the most practical of reasons -- I was offered a job," Robertson said from his home Thursday night. He lived in South Carolina for 10 years. He visited Charleston regularly to research his first book -- a biography of former Secretary of State James Byrnes. Byrnes lived in Charleston and vehemently opposed the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 Robertson's biography of Byrnes -- titled "Slay and Able" was published in 1994.

"As I was researching Byrnes' life, I was determined to learn about this city [Charleston] and everything in it," Robertson recalled. His research led him to one Denmark Vesey, whom residents talked about but official Charleston literature never mentioned. Robertson noticed there were no monuments, statues, plaques or other markers honoring Vesey. Historical resources about Vesey's life were few.

"History is written by the winners," Robertson noted. His main source for the book were the records of Vesey's trial held in June 1822. Vesey was the slave of Joseph Vesey, a former ship captain and Charleston businessman. Denmark Vesey won a lottery in 1800 and bought his freedom. He was fluent in French and Creole and was one of several literate "house slaves" in early 19th century Charleston.

From December 1821 to June of 1822, Vesey and several lieutenants -- all of them the "house Negroes" today's militant blacks ignorantly vilify -- planned a slave insurrection that called for participants to take over the armory, kill whites, burn Charleston and board ships in the city's harbor and sail for Haiti. Vesey's plan was so well-conceived that even the white men who judged and hanged him July 2, 1822, felt it would have succeeded had not one slave betrayed them by telling authorities.

The sales of Robertson's Vesey biography "have gone quite well," Robertson said. Mercifully absent from any discussion of his work has been the claim that, as a white man, he had no business writing about Vesey's life.

"I anticipated that," Robertson said of the controversy that didn't materialize. "I'm a white, middle-aged guy from Alabama. There has been absolutely no criticism on that. The only criticism was from the white, old boy network for writing `revisionist history.' I'm white, I'm old, but I'm not part of the network."

Robertson admitted he was "very surprised" that no black authors had written a Vesey biography.

"That might have to do with the ambiguity of Denmark Vesey himself," Robertson allowed. "He's a very edgy character."

It might have to do with Vesey's character -- a guy whose plan included mass murder is probably going to be more a villain to most than a hero -- but it might be that black writers simply weren't on the case.

The biography of Harry Moore -- who led Florida's NAACP from 1934 to his death by bombing in 1951 -- was written by yet another white guy: Ben Green. Moore's life, unlike Vesey's, is not obscure. There's been plenty of information available for years. But I guess all of us were so busy celebrating Black History Month that none of us had the time to write a book about either Vesey or Moore.

So thank heaven for white guys like Robertson, Egerton and Green. Without them, who knows what a pathetic state black history would be in?

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