What is an African American

Black history : How African Americans took their historiography into their own hands

"I am so happy: A black president, a black wife. I'm here to celebrate black history. ”106-year-old Virginia McLaurin spoke this message firmly into the cameras in the White House at the end of February. The video of the old lady joking and dancing with the Obamas became a Youtube hit. Their visit to the presidential couple was one of the highlights of this year's Black History Month, a tradition dating back to 1926 designed to highlight the marginalized contribution of African American history.

Since the colonies were settled in the 17th century, blacks came to the New World in many ways, but mostly as slaves. Neither the Declaration of Independence of 1776 nor the American Constitution of 1787, which in the spirit of the Enlightenment proclaimed inalienable rights and the equality of all people, changed anything. Even in areas where slavery was not so widespread, the majority of whites viewed blacks as inferior, as children who needed a “strong white hand”. For centuries whites justified and justified the oppression and exploitation of blacks with the Bible, social Darwinism or eugenics.

Second-class citizens exposed to the whims of whites

Even after the legal abolition of slavery in 1865, blacks remained economically and socially dependent and controlled as before. Newly granted civil rights (as well as the right to vote obtained in 1870) were successively withdrawn. Reading tests, election taxes and other regulations restricted access to elections. Relationships or even marriage between blacks and whites were forbidden in many countries until the 1960s. There were separate compartments for whites and blacks in trains and trams, and African-Americans had to sit in the back of buses. Separate toilets and entrances - mostly the back entrance for blacks - were built, and separate schools and military units were set up. This segregation was declared constitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1896.

Blacks became second-class citizens who were constantly exposed to whites' whims. This treatment was not without resistance. Since slavery, blacks fought first for their freedom and later for their equality and a life of peace and prosperity. They tried to expand their freedom of action and their civil rights, fought against lynching and called for the end of segregation in all areas of society.

African American historiography was initially based on oral history

Because of their African roots, an oral culture, oral traditions of their own culture and history also dominated in the New World among people of African origin. In addition, most Africans in the diaspora in America were illiterate because it was forbidden to teach slaves to read and write. African American “historiography” was therefore mostly based on oral tradition. In national historiography and memory, African Americans were only marginally represented, if at all. In its belief in the superiority of the white "race", the white majority society deliberately ignored blacks in public discourse or portrayed them in stereotypes.

In the fight against slavery and later segregation, African-Americans strove early on to make their importance for the American nation and culture clear to the white population and also to themselves.For example, escaped slaves such as the Boston King, Frederick Douglass or Harriet Ann Jacobs tried since the 18th century to make their voices heard and to put their experiences in writing. In doing so, they wanted to bring black people into American history and society as actors - in the hope that they would be ignored and thus accepted less often.

Du Bois and Woodson - the first generation

While the first generation of African-American historians consisted primarily of lay historians, the second generation had mostly been trained at universities. Particularly influential in this process of professionalization were W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson. They were the first to set up their own societies and specialist journals on African American history.

The primary goal of these historians was to show the achievements of blacks for the American nation and its rise. In this way, African Americans sought to gain control over their representation in history and in collective memory. The visualization of the black experience should build a form of race pride and change the image of whites of blacks. As the American civil rights movement grew stronger after 1945 and the number of African American college students grew, so did interest in research into African American history.

Beginning with the "Journal of Negro History"

Since the 1960s, universities and colleges have been setting up their own professorships and institutes on Afro-American history, albeit often only hesitantly. For example, Harvard University founded its African and African American Studies Department in 1969 and the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute in 1975, which has since supported outstanding research in these areas with grants. However, the possibilities for publication remained limited until the 1980s. For a long time the "Journal of Negro History", which only changed its name to "The Journal of African American History" in 2002, was the only historical journal of African American history that was taken seriously.

The focus of African American history has long been on the experience of oppression, the struggle for freedom and the “community building” of the black minority in the USA.

Social and everyday history since the late 1970s

A particular focus is on the civil rights movement since 1945. The long road to desegregation in the military, in public schools or in sport as well as the development of Black Power and Black Nationalism are analyzed in many publications. For a long time the focus was on the classic high phase of the civil rights movement. It was mostly dated to the time between the decision of the Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, which was supposed to put an end to racial segregation in public schools nationwide, and the death of Martin Luther King in 1968. Biographies about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were not only the focus of contemporary media interest, they were also found by Beginning with great approval in the academic world.

Since the late 1970s, social and everyday history broadened our perspective. Now ordinary people, often at the local level, were the focus. This approach challenged many of the basic assumptions of previous research on the national civil rights movement and led to a reassessment in favor of local groups. Last but not least, local and regional studies in particular showed the importance of black women in the civil rights movement. Black feminism, which also influenced historical research, pointed to double discrimination against African American women. Feminism of the 1970s addressed the concerns of white middle-class women almost exclusively. The civil rights movement, on the other hand, was primarily focused on the interests and demands of black men, regardless of how important black women were to them.

Against the stigmatization of black women as "welfare queens"

The central role of women in church parishes and in the Afro-American community made them powerful actors in the struggle for equality, especially at the local level. Without the workers' women and their longstanding activism, the Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955/56 would never have come into being. Beyond the direct history of civil rights, the position of the African American woman is closely linked to the status of the black family in American society and in the American welfare state. The stigmatization of black women as welfare queens and of black families as dysfunctional and fatherless is reflected, among other things, in the discussions on social legislation.

The 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools in 2004, the death of Rosa Park in 2005 and the erection of the Martin Luther King Memorial in 2011 once again highlight the importance of remembering and forgetting. Above all, Rosa Parks, Esther Brown and Martin Luther King stood as symbolic figures of non-violent resistance and integration for moral successes, not only for African Americans, but for the entire nation. The political and social legacy of slavery and segregation still weighs heavily on the American nation and its racial relations. American society is far from the post-racial status that is spoken of again and again today.

Persistent police violence against black people

The ongoing police violence against blacks and the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore made it clear how important intensive research into African American history is. American history and present cannot be understood without African American history.

The author researches and teaches North American history at the University of Tübingen. Your article is based on a contribution to the Internet encyclopedia Docupedia. The long version of the article on African American history can be found here.

You can read a Tagesspiegel article on Critical Whiteness here.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page