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2020

Claire Parfait, Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry, Claire Bourhis-Mariotti (ed.), Writing History from the Margins: African Americans and the Quest for Freedom

Anne Stefani

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1This 174-page book is a collection of nine essays by French and Anglophone scholars specializing in African American history and culture. It covers United States history from the late eighteenth century to the present, with a focus on African Americans as subjects of, and contributors to, historical analysis. The volume serves several purposes as stated in the introduction: first, to provide visibility to the role of African Americans in national history and its writing; second, to present African American history as a “site of resistance” (3); third, to demonstrate the agency of early black historians by analyzing “the productive power of the margins” (3); finally, to reflect on the practice of history as a discipline while discussing new research methods and perspectives. In pursuing these objectives, this collective work enhances our knowledge of African American history while providing a rich and solid state of the field. It also invites scholars and the general public to rethink their conceptions of history, both as a human experience and as an academic discipline.

2The collection is organized in two parts. The first one, including the first four essays, examines through print sources the unacknowledged pioneering work of early African American historians. It mainly demonstrates the dialectical link between African American history writing and resistance to racial oppression or activism. The second part, consisting of five chapters, focuses on the use of alternative sources to propose an alternative way of writing history.

3Claire Parfait begins by exploring the “unchartered area” of early black historians’ publishing work (14), through a comparative case study of two books published in the post-Civil War era. She shows how two African American authors, George Washington Williams and Joseph T. Wilson, both historians, strove to redress the neglect, if not the erasure, of black soldiers in the contemporaneous historiography “by underlining the patriotism and bravery of black soldiers in the nation’s wars, and especially in the Civil War” (15). Her very detailed study of the two books’ histories—from writing through distribution and reception to the bibliographies of later historians—not only makes these two men known, but also rectifies the dominant interpretation of the role of black people as negligible in United States history.

4In the second essay, Cheryl Knott reveals the forgotten action of another African American historian, a Nashville history professor who ran a “race against obscurity” (26) between 1928 and 1960. In the thick of the segregation era, Merl Eppse published black history textbooks “to compensate for the lack of black history in mainstream textbooks” (26). Knott interprets his efforts as a direct response to racial oppression and analyzes his work within the larger frame of black intellectuals’ strategies of resistance, with their strengths and limitations. Like Claire Parfait, she gives visibility to a forgotten protagonist of history while discussing the significance of his  action.

5The third contributor goes on to demonstrate the importance of early individual histories in the development of black histories from the 1850s on. Nicole Topich fills in a scholarly gap by focusing on a neglected source in the historiography of abolitionism: the black personal histories included in petitions against slavery in Massachusetts since the Revolutionary war. Arguing that the influence of such texts on later published histories has not been recognized for what it is, she reveals the continuity between the black activism of the Revolutionary War and pre-Civil War abolitionism. She thus reasserts the dialectical link between history writing and activism in the African American experience, arguing that recognized black historians of the 1850s, such as William C. Nell, “acted as both historian[s] and activist[s] by collecting, documenting, and disseminating black narratives, then leveraging these stories to advocate for support from the Massachusetts legislature” (48).

6In the fourth chapter (and the last of part one), Michael Benjamin corrects a historical misconception by tracing the origins of the idea of an encyclopedia dedicated to Africans and people of the African diaspora. These origins should not be attributed to W.E.B. Du Bois as commonly assumed, but to John Edward Bruce, a self-taught historian, and C.A. Johnson, a business partner. Benjamin assesses the significance of the idea of an African encyclopedia within the context of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. He shows how the discourse on civilization conveyed by the Exposition, denying Blacks’ contribution to such civilization, fostered the idea of “disseminating encyclopedic knowledge”   (62) as a response to racist slander. Benjamin insists on the notion of “cultural agency”   (60) to reveal the long overlooked resistance of African American intellectuals to oppression at a time when their abilities were openly denied by a white supremacist ideology.

7Part two starts with Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry’s essay on Robert Roberts’s House Servant’s Directory (chapter five). Although the main object of this case study is a printed source, as are the objects examined in the first part, this one can be defined as an alternative source for its belonging in everyday life and popular culture. In this essay, Le Dantec-Lowry analyzes the function of prescriptive literature in African Americans’ negotiation with the cultural norms of their time and place (here Boston in the 1820s). The interest of the guidebook as a historical source lies in its being directly influenced by its social, economic, and cultural context, thus informing us about the dominant norms the author had to cope with and the strategies he devised to assert some form of cultural agency within the social and racial constraints of his condition. By studying this guidebook in close connection to its context, Le Dantec-Lowry shows how Roberts both “embraced some of the cultural norms of [his] employers” (75) and resisted “imposed models (74),” thus redefining “respectable black manhood” (77) in his own terms.

8From the sixth chapter on, the essays turn away from written sources to focus on material and visual culture. In chapter six, Katie Knowles approaches the history of slavery through fashion studies. She interprets the function and use of clothing in antebellum American culture to analyze racial oppression and resistance to it. She shows in particular how enslavers first imposed monochromatic clothes on slaves who in turn individualized them with color and patching to counter dehumanization. Knowles points out that “clothing and textiles show a colorful and diverse group of sources that complicate perceptions of slave clothing as monotone and uniform simply by their existence” (89). She thus highlights the historical significance of clothes as “objects that represent the people who lived, breathed, and labored in [them]” (94). An especially interesting aspect of this essay is its reflection on the methodological difficulties inherent in the study of material culture. In the absence of written sources on her subject, Knowles stresses for instance the importance of oral tradition as a means to record the use and significance of clothing for the people she studies.

9Géraldine Chouard raises similar issues in chapter seven. Her research, like Knowles’s, focuses on material sources, here African American quilts. She draws attention to the lack of sources historians have to face when dealing with material culture, which arguably requires more scientific caution than other research. She studies quilts as a “cultural and rhetorical art form” (108), demonstrating the various functions of quiltmaking in African American history from the nineteenth century to the present, from story telling to activism through the development of a group identity and voice. She thus defines quilting as a form of counter-history, or “a counter-discourse aimed at bringing the history and stories of a marginalized group back into the spotlight” (122).

10Chapter eight goes on to discuss the function of culture and art in the writing of a counter-history. James Smalls sheds light on an unknown African American art historian of the early twentieth century, who devoted his work to critiquing the artistic representations of Blacks as passive, notably in the sculpture artwork commemorating Emancipation. Freeman Murray, like his contemporaries W.E.B. Du Bois and Alan Locke, “rejected the divorcing of art from its socio-political context” (134). By studying Murray’s work in a cultural and political context shaped by institutional segregation, Smalls can interpret Murray’s criticism as a militant tool used to “re-inscribe African Americans from the margins to the center of American cultural and political history” (132).

11The political dimension of art and visual representations is also the subject of the ninth and last chapter of the book, devoted to Romare Bearden, a black cartoonist who used his art to fight white prejudice and white supremacist violence in the first half of the twentieth century. In this essay, Amy Kirschke defines the artist as a historian from the margins (149), with an emphasis on the social and political implications of African American cultural production in the 1920s and 1930s. She shows how, in an oppressive context where even the most radical publications, for all their commitment to social justice, failed to “feature African Americans in a consistent and dignified manner”, (149) black cartoonists contributed to the construction of an alternative historical narrative through their collaboration with black publications committed to African Americans’ equality.

12All in all, although it is relatively short in length, this collection strikes the reader by its density and richness. The first strength of the book, among many, is its coherence, a remarkable achievement for an edited collection. Although the nine essays deal with a great variety of subjects and different time frames, all of them follow the main thematic threads –i.e. the specificity of African American history writing as a way to resist oppression and the stakes of writing the history of a marginalized group– with outstanding clarity and in a very convincing way.

13The choice of dealing with different approaches and subfields—book history, cultural history, art history, fashion studies, oral history—under the same title, widens the scope of history as a discipline. In centering their research on sources long discarded by historians as irrelevant because they were seen as unscientific or unreliable (notably material, artistic, visual, and oral sources), the authors and editors of the book re-inscribe marginalized people into the national historical narrative, stressing their agency and influence.

14This work actually reflects the epistemological turn brought about by the societal and cultural changes of the last decades (i.e. the empowerment of minorities long ignored in public space and discourse). By unearthing historical counter-narratives, or by demonstrating the historical significance of some neglected African American people, the authors contribute to reshaping the historical profession by developing a counter-history of their own.

15Another important strength of the book is that it never sacrifices scientific rigor for its stance. If the contributors explicitly engage their academic peers to reconsider their paradigms in the light of recent social, political, and cultural developments, their interpretations are all buttressed by sound theory and method. In their commitment to a more inclusive—and democratic?—history, the authors invite all readers to ponder over the methodological stakes of any research based on sources whose access was made difficult because the people who created them were denied the means to participate in the construction of a national history. Such a challenge is all the more welcome in French scholarship since our academic tradition differs significantly from the American one in its attachment to scientific neutrality and its insistence on the responsibility of historians to keep a distance from their subject matter. In the United States, such neutrality in the study of African American history would be suspicious at best, most scholars in the field considering it their duty to put their research to the service of racial justice in a polarized political context. Whether embracing such a view of the profession or not, the readers of this book will appreciate its highly stimulating contribution to the ongoing reflection on the definition of history and on its role in the evolution of society.

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Anne Stefani, « Claire Parfait, Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry, Claire Bourhis-Mariotti (ed.), Writing History from the Margins: African Americans and the Quest for Freedom », L'Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], Comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 08 décembre 2020, consulté le 13 avril 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/orda/5737 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/orda.5737

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Anne Stefani

Université Toulouse 2 – Jean Jaurès
anne.stefani@univ-tlse2.fr

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