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Scholarly books: An authoritative look at African and African American history

Anthony W. Neal
Scholarly books: An authoritative look at African and African American history

 Anthony W. Neal is the author of “Unburdened By Conscience: A Black People’s Collective Account of America’s Antebellum South and the Aftermath.”

Fearing that black people would become a “negligible factor” in human thought and stand “in danger of being exterminated,” Carter G. Woodson in 1915 founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History).

In the following year, he established the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History), the intent of which was to present a formal structure that would attempt to document the achievement of African Americans. In turn, future generations could grow up with “an appreciation of their own possibilities through knowledge of the contributions other blacks have made to history.”

By 1926, Woodson’s efforts led to the creation of Negro History Week. Over the years, Negro History Week was expanded to Black History Month, generally accepted as the month of February.

Today, the celebration of Black History Month consists chiefly of inviting guest lecturers to college and university campuses, stressing the need to study, know and appreciate African American history, and creating suggested reading lists such as this one. With the wealth of black scholarship on black history, preparing a list of recommended reading for Black History Month is not an easy task. Inevitably, valuable books will be excluded; nonetheless, the following titles strike me as crucial to a competent understanding and appreciation of black history.

For the beginner, I suggest Maulana Karenga’s “Introduction to Black Studies, 4th ed.” (2010), which is an excellent introductory text on black studies. The book is a comprehensive survey of seven major areas of black culture, i.e. history, religion, social organization, politics, economics, creative production (art, music, literature) and ethos (psychology). Karenga “clearly recognizes history as the key social science which illuminates and is indispensable to the introduction and development of all other subject areas in black studies.” By focusing on “black struggle and achievement as the substance of black history rather than victimization,” he helps students develop an appreciation of the black past. The value of the text is heightened by the suggested bibliographies.

Since the earliest recorded civilization may be found in Africa, the original homeland of black people, it is only fitting that any selection of suggested reading for Black History Month should include reference to that civilization. Cheikh Anta Diop’s “African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality” (1974), edited and translated by Mercer Cook, provides the best available documentation to date. Realizing that the West has never been honest or objective enough to present African history without crude falsifications, Diop rescues Egypt from Europe, establishing both its African origin and its significance to world history.

He writes, “Instead of presenting itself to history as an insolvent debtor, the black world is the very initiator of ‘Western’ civilization flaunted before our eyes today.” Mathematics, modern science, Greek philosophy, and major Western religions all find their origin in Egyptian culture, science and philosophy. Diop meticulously refutes many theories and ideas previously presented by European scholars, using historical, archeological and anthropological evidence to support his thesis.

Other notable works which have been fundamental to the rescue and reconstruction of African history and humanity include “Stolen Legacy” (1992), by George G. M. James, “The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D., 3rd ed.” (1987) by Chancellor Williams, and John Jackson’s “Introduction to African Civilization” (2001).

As did Diop, George James traces Greek philosophy back to the socio-religious philosophy of Egypt, which served as a source and framework for higher education in both Egypt and other regions of the ancient world. Among the students who studied in Egypt or borrowed knowledge from Egyptian libraries were Pythagoras, Democratus, Thales, Herodotus, Aristotle and Plato.

Writing from an Afrocentric perspective, Chancellor Williams cites several factors which contributed to massive destruction of ancient African civilizations. Among these factors were European and Asian conquest, religious conversion to Christianity and Islam, miscegenation which led to a lack of appreciation of black heritage, internal problems of ethnic chauvinism, natural developments such as the expanding desert, and ideological war by European scholars determined to conceal and distort African history. His unique interpretation raises issues about the black past that are rarely discussed.

John Jackson’s greatest contribution is his documentation of Moorish contribution to Europe. According to Jackson, the Moors pulled the Spaniards out of the Bleak Ages, 500-1000 A.D. in the Christian era, and gave them a level of civilization enjoyed by no other people in Europe at that time. Moorish contributions were made in such areas as agriculture, engineering, mining, architecture, commerce and education. The so-called Spanish motif in architecture one finds in the Southwest region of the United States is in fact a Moorish legacy passed from Spain to Mexico.

Blacks in antiquity did not confine their presence to regions west of the Atlantic. Readers who are curious about the presence of Africans in America before Columbus, and even before Christ, will profit from a reading of Ivan Van Sertima’s “They Came Before Columbus: the African Presence in Ancient America” (1976). Easily the most definitive work on African presence in ancient America, Van Sertima’s book adds an unexpected dimension to the study of black history that some believe is overly dominated by chronicles of American slavery and the slave trade.

Van Sertima said, “We have evidence of at least half a dozen visits by Africans to the New World before European contact. Some of these were planned and some of these were accidental.” The most significant of these visits “was between 948 and 680 years before the birth of Christ in the Gulf of Mexico.” Blacks came as Nubians from the 25th Dynasty of Egypt (751-656 B.C.) to the Olmec Heartland at a time when the Olmec civilization began to establish itself. They also came from the Mali Empire to Mexico in 1310 and 1311 under Emperor Abubakari II.

While an understanding of the downfall of pre-colonial Africa may be gathered from Chancellor Williams’ book, other works provide a detailed examination of colonial Africa. The primary purpose of colonial regimes in Africa was to make the continent’s natural and human resources available to emerging capitalist power systems of the West. These regimes pursued only that measure of political development necessary to realize this purpose.

“The World and Africa” (1972) by W. E. B. Du Bois and Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” (1974) give the reader an in-depth analysis of the colonization process and its impact on world history. Indeed, Rodney’s book is central to an understanding of how Africa has paid the price for the development of the United States and Europe.

Part of that price was the loss of her people to the slave trade. Although many prominent historians of American slavery have gained a measure of respectability and legitimacy from their colleagues, and their works have been included as required reading in courses throughout America’s colleges and universities, unfortunately, the color line has traditionally guided much American historiography. Some mainstream historians have tended to conceal the full horrors of the American slavery regime in order to present the slaveholders in a more favorable light. In doing so, they have minimized the guilt and culpability of white America. Despite adherence to chronology, ideological considerations have traditionally and necessarily rendered historical accounts of race relations in the United States a tall tale.

Having read most of the scholarship on American slavery, I find that no single study provides a complete understanding of the period and the experiences black people endured. Having said that, recommended are John W. Blassingame’s “Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South,” Rev. and enl. ed. (1979), Peter Kolchin’s “American Slavery 1619-1877” (1993), and Anthony W. Neal’s “Unburdened By Conscience: A Black People’s Collective Account of America’s Antebellum South and the Aftermath,” 3rd ed. (2011). 

Blassingame’s book shows that black people’s brutal ordeal in America did not totally destroy their African culture. The African in America retained elements of his native tongue, native folk tales, native song and dance and religious rites. Indeed, Blassingame argued that enslaved black people were able to develop their own cultural forms of expression, and they did establish viable culturally autonomous communities under the American slavery regime.

Peter Kolchin’s book is recommended because it presents an honest, accurate and straightforward overview of American slavery from its inception in 1619 to its end. “Unburdened by Conscience,” which examines the period of slavery just before the Civil War, permits the reader to see American slavery from black people’s point of view. Freed people talk candidly about the break-up of their marital unions and families, and about matters rarely examined in most slavery texts.

Abolitionist William Goodell once said, “No people were ever yet found who were better than their laws, though many have been known to be worse.”  Those interested in the history of America’s laws as they relate to race will benefit from a reading of A. Leon Higginbotham’s “In the Matter of Color (1978), his “Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process (1996), and Mary Frances Berry’s “Black Resistance White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America” (1994).

All three books should be required reading as each meticulously demonstrates that the United States has never had the tradition of a colorblind legal process. Higginbotham forcefully argues that race has been an important factor in the Anglo-American legal system from its very inception, and that there is little in the way of legal or social precedent for a colorblind society.

He wrote, “The poisonous legacy of legalized oppression based upon the matter of color can never be adequately purged from our society if we act as if the slave laws had never existed.” Berry shows how, historically, the Constitution of the United States has been used to subjugate African Americans.

There is a wealth of texts that could be included in this suggested reading list. However, space will permit only a mention of some. For a closer look at the black musical tradition, recommended is “Blues People” (1963) by Leroi Jones. In the area of black religion, I recommend Carter G. Woodson’s “History of the Negro Church” (1972).  Great anthologies of African American culture and literature include “Chant of Saints” (1979), edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Steptoe, and “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature” (1997), edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay.

The best black protest anthology is “Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal” (2000), edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings.  Other books I would include on this list include: “From Slavery to Freedom,” 6th ed. (1988) by John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr.; “Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in an Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America”(1935), by W. E. B. Du Bois; “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1964); Harold Cruse’s classic “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” (1967); Joel A. Rogers’ “Worlds Great Men of Color,” Vol. I and II (1947); Eric Williams’ “Capitalism and Slavery” (1944); Manning Marable’s “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America” (1983), and Douglas A. Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name: the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” (2008).

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is suggested with the hope that it will inspire more extensive study. For as Maulana Karenga once said: “Key to knowledge and appreciation of African history is a profound and widespread commitment to study it.”

Anthony W. Neal is a Boston-based attorney and author of “Unburdened By Conscience: A Black People’s Collective Account of America’s Antebellum South and the Aftermath,” 3rd ed. (2011).