Black History vs. Black Resistance: A Quandary

Black History vs. Black Resistance: A Quandary

Black History vs. Black Resistance: A Quandary

Why American learning remains allergic to non-assimilationist history.


Carter G. Woodson, the Black intellectual now remembered as the father of Black History Month, laid out the case for a national campaign of remembrance for Black history in a 1926 essay announcing the institution of “Negro History Week.” “If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” Woodson wrote.

Negro History Week was designated as the second week of February, to encompass the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It set the precedent for the introduction of Black History Month in 1976, which President Gerald Ford announced would “honor the too-often neglected achievements of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” This core message of uplift has been the watchword of Black history month ever since. Ford, like Woodson, sought to expand the Whiggish narrative of American democracy to chronicle not only Black survival against horrendous adversity but also the flourishing of Black aspiration. That way, Black Americans systematically denied the opportunity to wrest a sense of valor from the nation’s history could at least cobble together a narrative of hope from it.

Woodson understood that history was more than a charter for the production of knowledge and the conflict of interpretations; it was the key to a new collective sense of identity for Black Americans as a vanguard force in the reclamation of American democracy. But in scoping out this ambitious project, he also exposed its limits; as he lobbied for a new Black history, he referenced the counterexample of Native Americans: “The American Indian left no continuous record,” he wrote. “He did not appreciate the value of tradition, and where is he today?” By avoiding this fate, Woodson argued, Black Americans could help America make good on its democratic promise, and efface the invidious libels of white supremacy.

Woodson’s aims were honorable, but it’s fair to ask, a century into the official commemoration of the nation’s Black past, whether the project has succeeded on its own terms. In particular, I struggle with Woodson’s premise that honoring Black achievement will teach white people and Black people that Black people are human. There’s no reason to suppose that the five Black cops who bludgeoned Tyre Nichols to death with their bare hands and boots lacked access to knowledge of their history. For that matter, despite Woodson’s claim to the contrary, the Lucayans Christopher Columbus enslaved had culture, tradition, and history, but Columbus decided that their history did not represent the values of property-holding Christians and therefore did not render them recognizably human. He had the agency and power to negate their history and justify their conquest—so he did

This is not to call the validity or importance of Black history into question in any way. It is, however, to challenge the American dictum that for a race to be rendered human, it must have a recognizable “history” that contributes to the aggregate progress of humankind.

In his 2022 essay “An Afropessimist Account of History,” David Ponton III spells out the terms of this challenge: “History has very little to offer black people except if history becomes a way by which historians expose the values that are most sacred to Humans”—which, in the Anglo-American construction of humanity, means the right to property and the veneration of social hierarchies above any collective vision of struggle and solidarity.

As Ponton points out, Blackness is a consequence of racial slavery and cannot be untethered from the condition of subjugation. Enslavement demarcated what it means to be, as Ponton puts it, “encumbered by social death.” In other words, to be Black in the American context is to be antagonistic to societal notions of humanity.

The idea of “social death” was pioneered by sociologist Orlando Paterson in his 1982 book Slavery and Social Death. Patterson outlines three basic forces that produce an individual’s social extinction. The first is brute domination: the element of total power enforced through coercion—so that even when the enslaver is not physically present, the threat of force is omnipresent. The second is “natal alienation”—the system ensuring that slaves are denied markers of basic autonomy otherwise held to be inherent for other members of society (such as a last name). The third is the ritual dishonoring of enslaved populations via encounters with the dominant caste that enact their complete powerlessness. In all these ways, slaves are rendered socially dead by their exile beyond history as a subhuman category of being; only capital-H Humans can dictate the basic terms of historical belonging to other Humans.

This means that Black people have not possessed the historical agency to define what constitutes “mankind.” They thus also lacked the agency to appraise what or who is valuable as history. That dominion was the exclusive province of white men, who believed their racial identity was an unassailable badge of divine favor. This metaphysical privilege bestowed on them the power to denote the “ideal man” and create a racially exclusive understanding of history.

You can discern the imprint of this legacy in the ongoing furor over the teaching of Black history in our public schools. In 1892, the National Education Association appointed the “Committee of Ten” to create the first standardized curriculum in American education. This all-white team of educators organized nine conferences around the topics it deemed proper for intellectual inquiry and convened for three days. Their rushed and circumscribed labors produced what would become America’s first standardized mass curriculum.

The conference on history, which included racist President Woodrow Wilson among its members, said “general European history has the advantages of offering subjects capable of detailed and intensive study, and of furnishing a contrast to that development of the Anglo-Saxon race which is the main thought of English and American history.”

In 1895, the National Education Association’s President-elect Newton C. Doughtery gave his inaugural speech. He used the occasion to explain the group’s chief pedagogic aims. “We belong to the Anglo-Saxon race, whose mission I believe it is to educate the people, and lead all other races in this great work; a race whose very foundation of belief is that the more perfect the culture of a people, the greater is the individual freedom, the individual happiness, and the higher the grade of manhood in the people. These are the ideals which we as teachers seek to establish and maintain. It is for this purpose we have been organized.”

Latter-day Republicans have organized themselves as stewards of this legacy. In January, the Florida Department of Education rejected a proposal for an AP African American History course, saying “the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” Shaken by this precedent, the College Board, which administers the national AP program, issued its own revised directives for African American studies, excising many leading Black writers and thinkers such as Ta-Neheisi Coates, bell hooks, and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw—the kind of figures who should be justly celebrated as major contributors to the Black intellectual tradition.

During a visit to a Jacksonville school to discuss teacher pay, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis reiterated his opposition to AP African American studies, claiming that it was devoted to “indoctrination, not education.” Still, African American History is already a core requirement in Florida’s state teaching standards. Those standards stipulate that “instructional materials shall include the roles and contributions of individuals from all walks of life and their endeavors to learn and thrive throughout history as artists, scientists, educators, businesspeople, influential thinkers, members of the faith community, and political and government leaders and the courageous steps they took to fulfill the promise of democracy and unite the nation.”

This mandate clearly echoes Gerald Ford’s assimilationist vision for Black History Month, and Woodson’s prescription for a counternarrative of race to ensure the survival of Black Americans. Now that Republican political leaders are weaponizing this vision to expunge projects like critical race theory and the 1619 Project from our classrooms, we are coming up against its conceptual limitations—much as Woodson himself did when he employed the idea of Black history to derogate Native Americans’ understanding of their own past.

Since 1928, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History has selected an annual theme for the celebration. “Black Resistance,” is the theme for 2023; the aim is to highlight the ways in which Black Americans have opposed racial inequality. But what if the very notion and practice of resistance must also reject the assimilation of Blackness that serves the capitalistic underpinnings of the American education system? As Ponton suggests, Black history might afford an invaluable vantage to expose how American history is bracketed within the confines of American interest and values. If Black Americans never achieved the coveted position of being “first” to accomplish anything in the dominant American narrative, we’d still be worthy of being recognized as human. Had there never been a Black schoolteacher, Black Supreme Court justice, Black astronaut, Black scientist, or Black person in any position America holds in high esteem, Black Americans would still have traditions worthy of being recorded in history.

DeSantis said he deemed the AP course as illegitimate because it includes “Black Queer Studies” among the topics in the curriculum; another concentration involves a discussion of prison abolition movements. “Queer theory is not Black history,” DeSantis said, “Who would say an important part of Black history is queer theory?” DeSantis, who apparently has never met a gay Black person, has unilaterally concluded that the experience of Blacks who are not heterosexual has nothing to offer students.

“I view it as American history,” DeSantis said, speaking about Black history. “I don’t view it as separate history.” This is a common and flawed rhetoric that pretends history is color-blind. In the celebration of Black History Month, we often hear the refrain “Black History is American History”—but following the argument advanced by Ponton, what if we were to spurn this framework, and instead embraced a vision of Blackness that simply refuses to be rendered human through white, Western notions of history?

This core question—and the many difficult tensions that spring from it—-often gets watered down, because Black history is deemed valid only to the extent that it’s permitted to coexist with American history. Still, it surfaces again and again in right-wing efforts to dismiss or delegitimize what a Black past could mean. In 2010, the Arizona legislature passed HB 2281—a measure that expressly forbids teachers from teaching anything that will “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

Ironically enough, white Americans’ own history furnishes a critical template for the recursive course of racial backlash in the 21st century. The paranoid conservative crusade against the “woke” doctrines allegedly infiltrating American schools harkens back to the origins of the Confederacy. Michael Bernath, author of the 2010 book Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War, chronicles the Confederacy’s successful effort to create a Southern culture marked by ongoing antagonism to both Black Americans and the Northern enemy. Drawing on education journals, quarterly magazines, and the writings of key leaders in Confederate education, Bernath writes about the South as an anxious society haunted by an acute fear of extermination. “In order to be permanent and meaningful,” writes Bernath, “the separation between North and South had to be cultural as well as political.”

“Let the State Legislatures at the South at once take up the subject, which is of more importance than any other that can be brought before them,” wrote the editors of De Bow’s Review, an influential periodical in the antebellum South. The subject in question was the presence of books “infected with abolitionism” in Southern schools. The editors’ commentary introduced an article called “The Future of Revolution in Southern School Books,” penned by an anonymous Virginian who bemoaned Northern influence in Southern education: “The books rapidly coming into use in our schools and colleges at the South are…polluted with opinions and arguments adverse to our institutions, and hostile to our constitutional views.”

“They have left behind them a legacy of school books,” the Virginian wrote of the slaveholding South’s Northern antagonists. “Let us complete the work by banishing them, too, from our land.” However we conceptualize the logic behind a Black history charged with a mission of individual uplift, it’s important for us to attend deeply to the lessons of this history, as it continues repeating.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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