Worthy Shelf Companions
The Mis-education of the Negro (©1933), byCarter G. Woodson (1875-1950); Penguin Classic (©2023), Jarvis R. Givens (Introduction), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Editor)
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, by Howard W. French, © 2021
The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the age of Revolution, by Gary B. Nash (1933-2021)© 2006
Black History Month came and went, but it’s always a good time for reflecting on the late scholar/educator Carter Woodson’s wishes, who in 1926 created Negro History Week, now celebrated as Black History Month (February). In 1933, Woodson, the second African American Harvard PhD (after W.E.B. Du Bois) expressed hope for shattering Negroes’ mis-education comprised of the combination of strategic Black myopia (viewing only our victimhood vs. agency) and White indifference to Negro history. He added that REAL history, when eventually articulated, would accentuate the reality that slavery, although the epitome of evil itself, was also an irreplaceable Black labor contribution to monumental economic growth and change in the western world. When fully understood, documented and threaded with Blacks’ insatiable and manifest search for freedom Woodson was convinced that Blacks’ mis-education would end.
Mis-education’s demise, according to Woodson, would terminate Black and White thinking of the Negro as an inconsequential race in the progressive march of humanity. However, achieving It would demand, he postulated, that: “Some Negro with unusual insight would write an epic of bondage and freedom which would take its place with those of Homer and Virgil.” (Possible?) Until that postulate is fulfilled, portrayals of Blacks as victims only would continue to feed the “pity/revenge”argument, falling woefully short of achieving Woodson’s higher ideal of pride. Recently, the “you owe me” intensity has accelerated, propelled by the fusillade of Black victimology literature dominating today’s public square, including the overwhelmingly popular The 1619 Project and Stamped from the Beginning plus other, similarly politically aggressive diatribes.
Consider, however, the possibility that Woodson’s “some Negro” has already emerged, not as a single, Negro personage but in the form of the “overwhelming force” of exhaustive, outside-the-box research and quality, recognized reinterpretation. This reviewer’s sees two worthy candidates to represent that overwhelming force.
First, enter Gary Nash. In the 1970’s, Princeton’s (thereafter, UCLA’s) legendary historian Professor Gary Nash is my proxy for Woodson’s Virgil, a fit substitute for Turnus in The Aeneid, Book 12: “Let me rage before I die.” Nash, though White, was truly “Black celebration” in spirit, and he did rage. For over 30 years before his death, Nash called out loudly to the historiographical, university-professoriate (long negligent in telling the truth about the slavery/Americanization story) to join him in an impactful rewriting to reconceive Africans, not as victims but as people who actively affected the course of historical change. Calling race America’s Achilles heel, that plantations were actually Gulags, Nash’s vision of the reexamination would be “to create and maintain an antiracist sensibility that can help achieve America’s foundational principles of freedom, equality and social justice.” This he did with his works and leadership. In a series of his lectures (2004) at Harvard’s Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, he expanded upon his no “woe is me” book, The Forgotten Fifth. Nash reveals in historiographical integrity and detail the integral, active role played by the fully-twenty percent of the American population (slave and free Blacks) in the Age of Revolution.
Under the invitation of Institute Director Henry Louis Gates, Jr., he wrote convincingly of previously, largely unreported (1) sustained Black interaction with British forces promising and delivering emancipation,(2) serious and extensive slave revolts of scale, and (3) with unsung links, somehow previously buried or ignored by respected historians, with domestic forces of freedom in America’s 18th & 19th centuries. This included valorous, patriotic participation in America’s revolutionary war under General Washington, and later in the Civil War, lauded magisterially by General Grant when Blacks were allowed to fight: “The problem is solved. The Negro is a man, a soldier, a hero.” Nash’s passion amplified the foundational, scholarship work he inherited from Quarles at Harvard, Franklin at Columbia, and Woodson himself (at Howard), which has been joined by rich, authoritative history: by Foner at Columbia, Genovese at Rochester, Sinha at Connecticut, Gates and Brown at Harvard, Holt at Chicago, Blight at Yale, and others, a palpable counter-voice of “Black’s as agents of change” to the smothering, historical impact of the classroom’s ‘woe is me’ aria. Black agency was real.
Next, enter Howard W. French, whose book is about the era before America’s Age of Revolution, i.e., Africa’s role in the formation of the four pillared Atlantic World (i.e., North and South America, Europe, and Africa) in the 15th-to-18th centuries. French, son of two African American parents of mixed and diverse heritage, is a highly educated researcher, journalist, book reviewer and professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 2008. His writing speaks to this reviewer, imagined from Woodson’s Homer:
“And now, tell me true. Where have you been wandering, and in what countries have you travelled? Tell us of the peoples themselves, and of the cities—who were hostile, savage and uncivilized, and who, on the other hand, hospitable and humane.” -Odyssey
He is an American having lived in West and Central Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, Japan, and China, speaks English, Chinese, French, Japanese, and Spanish. In this book, he explores the enormous gold wealth of Mansa Musa of Mali; the repopulation of Europe by slaves after the 14th century Black Death and the accelerated growth of Europe thereafter; the financing by gold and slaves of Portugal’s ascendence as a world power in Asia, Africa, and Brazil. In detail, French attributes and substantiates Africa as one of the most significant contributors in the historic eclipse by the Atlantic World over the then dominant, #1 world economic power, China (which continued to decline after circa 1840). French’s work was influenced by the writings of the late British Eric Hobsbawm, the period’s pre-eminent economist/historian who proclaimed without refutation the Atlantic World’s industrialization as the greatest event in the history of mankind. In support of that conclusion, French recounts through analytically sound histories of African gold exploration by rapacious Europeans, met by centuries-wise African chieftains, followed by slavery, sugar and cotton, each a successor force-multiplier powering global financial markets in mankind’s history of modernity. He places Africans and people of African descent as “prime movers” in every stage of the Atlantic World’s progress.
Conclusion and Recommendation
These three books are prizes among serious citizens’ essential holdings, exploring the roots of Black/White mis-education and identifying a potential wellspring of racial pride.
By knitting together the works of Nash and French, the reader may envision Africa’s role in the formation of the Atlantic World in the 15th-to-18th centuries, with African American’s actions in the 18th & 19th centuries Age of Revolution.
The three authors achieve their objectives: Woodson-a wakeup call; Nash-a call for historical truth and justice; and French-insights into the sophisticated polities of Africa’s urban centers, Black slavery’s history and sprawling architecture,and the eventual crushing and collapse of the idea of Black slavery itself.
These three books offer the reader what is arguably the REAL story of the epic of bondage and freedom emerging in full bloom, no longer masked in the margins of historic racialist oratory or “woe is me” Black victimology. As a long-time classic, Woodson’s book has weathered the test of time and should be placed on your shelf, if not already there. As powerful expositions of the Black journey, Born and Forgotten are Mis-education’s worthy shelf companions.
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Published: Penguin Classics - January 31st, 2023
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (Paperback)
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Published: Liveright - October 25th, 2022
The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Nathan I. Huggins Lectures #5) (Hardcover)
Published: Harvard University Press - February 1st, 2006