Black History

I’ve been doing a lot of writing for a publication called Contemporary Black Biography over the last year or so and stories about slavery and civil rights have become an interest of mine. Most of the short biographies I’ve written have been about living people, but a few have concerned historical figures, for whom the historical record is not always very reliable. Descendants of slaves can sometimes find out where their ancestors were taken from, but for most there is a definite point where their “modern” family histories begin and the record ends. Slave narratives–autobiographical books and pamphlets written by former slaves–were often an attempt to set the record straight about what life was like under slavery, as well as a form of boosterism for the anti-slavery campaign. But even they need to be read with care as this article shows. I think what suprises me most about this is the strength of feeling among academics in the field. One of the things I find interesting about black history is that so much of it is conjectural, unfixed, and unsettled. This is the spirit in which Vincent Caretta seems to be writing (if we can believe the newspaper) when he suggests that Elaudah Equiano,a slave narrative writer who claimed to have been a West African slave, may actually have been born in the Carolinas. One of the problems faced by black history is that there is so little written record that ideas passed on by word of mouth become fixed and almost unchallengeable. It’s ironic that in trying to establish black history as a respectable academic subject and explore it seriously, academic historians themselves seem to want to fix their own approved verson.

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