Negro Finds His History
By Howard Fast
It has been said, with as little thought as goes into the contriving of most epigrams, "Happy are the people with no history." But happiness has been variously interpreted, and it is usually a most unhappy people who lack a history. And it should be added that no people, however exploited, however insignificant, actually lack a history--the word itself being simply a tag for the process of life in terms of mankind.
The history is there, in the case of all peoples; and where that history is forgotten or blotted out, it pays to inquire into the causes of that extinction, to see what ends it has served. A people without a remembered history is like a man who suffers from amnesia; his life has been deprived of meaning, direction, perspective, and to a degree, hope. It is recognition of that fact which has prompted during the past decade so astonishing and original an interest in the history of this nation; and it is the same recognition which has brought us to new study of the history of the Negro.
Look at history for a moment in a slightly new fashion; regard it as a process which is responsible for every single factor, every attitude, every complexion of the life you live. The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the things you do, your work, your hopes--set all that in a world frame of a terrible struggle against fascism and for democracy--and the sum, as well as each part of the sum, is directly and specifically the result of a process of history. And how far can you go toward understanding even the simplest of the factors if the forces which produced them are distorted or blotted out?
Nor is it purely a question of understanding; a host of other matters are linked to an awareness or lack of awareness of a historical past--pride, dignity, hope, courage, moral strength, political action, indeed all the many facets of living hinge, in one way or another, upon a full and correct memory of a people's past.
Apply the theory specifically, and take up the question of the Negro in America today. We know fairly well what his situation is in political, economic and social terms; we know it is better than it was a decade ago, and we believe it will be better a decade hence; but we must admit that his situation today, for all the progress we have made, is a sore on the face of the democracy, a perversion of its best tradition--and a constant threat to the whole concept of national unity. Remembering that, think of our scholars, our many, many scholars, who have complacently reiterated, in work and by word, that the Negro has no history.
They've done their work well indeed; twisting, distorting, expunging, until today a great section of this country's 14,000,000 Negroes, as well as the majority of the whites, accept their conclusions. And thereby, the Negro, like the man with amnesia, cannot remember, and not remembering, cannot draw hope, sustenance and direction from his past. Instead of his history being an integral part of his life, he must organize and fight, in intellectual terms, for the recovery of that history. That he is doing--and already there are striking advances which he can show. But the pain of what he lost is not easily forgotten--and the reeducation is slow.
Lest all this be dismissed as coddling of precious sensitivity, let us take a few instances from the "nonexistent" Negro history and apply them to today.
Today, the Negro is beginning to take his place on the political stage, both as an organized mass from below and a participant in government from above. And today, more than ever before--witness the frantic actions of the Reader's Digest, the New Leader, etc.--an organized attempt is being made to maintain the lie of Reconstruction, the lie which states that during the one time Negroes were given almost full political rights, they failed, tragically and completely. Instead of being able to lean on the history of those eight years, to learn through a study of them, he is forced to engage in a struggle for the historical truth.
Today, by hundreds of thousands, the Negro is actively engaged in the war for national liberation. It is true that he is discriminated against; but it is also true that he has made more rapid strides during this war in industry, in the Army and Navy, than in decades before. For all that, he has encountered confusion; he has been divided, troubled. And on the white side of it, that confusion was tenfold. How many of the fears and doubts could have been dissolved if the whole of the nation knew the full tale of the Negro's glorious role in the Civil War! How the perspective would change if we were as aware of Frederick Douglass' statements as we are of Washington's and Jefferson's! If 10,000,000 whites and 5,000,000 Negroes knew Douglass' address to the Negro soldier as well as they know Lincoln's Gettysburg address! If the whole nation knew the saga of Colonel Shaw's black 54th Massachusetts Regiment! If we could read in every school history the tale of the black slave volunteers in Andrew Jackson's people's army, and how they fought at the battle of New Orleans! We know the story of Valley Forge, but what schoolbook talks of the black Virginia regiment, no man of which deserted, the only regiment in the army to hold that record? We have as fine and splendid a roll-call of heroes as any nation on earth, from our first war of national liberation to this--but how many history books relate that a black man was the first to die for this nation, Crispus Attucks, who was killed during the Boston Massacre?
This is the barest, thinnest beginning; I could fill a volume, and still tell only a small part. But I would like you to dwell on the qualitative difference in the role this country plays today that would be possible if both black and white Americans knew how completely and honorably bound to each other they have been in every struggle for existence as a free nation.
I spoke of pride before, of dignity and hope--and in that sense, would it be a bad thing or a good thing if the people of this land knew that only once in the whole history of mankind did a nation take the full and fateful step from slavery to democracy--and that was a Negro nation, Black Haiti?
How many shibboleths would be blasted were it known widely that the Negro never accepted slavery in America, that he was incapable of accepting it, that during the course of his slavery he organized over twenty major revolts. Think of the dignity he would assume, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, if he knew the whole tale of the brave black men who had fought and died for freedom.
It is a dangerous mistake to think that we are uninfluenced by the great men of the past. While it is true that forces within the nation go into their making, they in turn become active and potent forces, leaving their imprint in no uncertain terms on the national consciousness.
The Negro hero exists; almost without exception, he was a man who fought against the long odds--and won; he walked in the democratic tradition, and he walked proudly, with dignity and humility. And today, among his people, there is both a need for him and a hunger.
He must live again, just as all of the Negro's past must live again. It must live because the question of national unity can no longer be postponed--the Negro question must and will be solved, and this is one of the many steps toward solving it.