Recently I came across a brief but very rich historiographic essay by Vincent Harding, “Power From Our People: The Sources of the Modern Revival of Black History,” published in The Black Scholar (Jan/Feb. 1987). Harding’s essay was originally delivered as a lecture during a summer seminar for college instructors hosted by the African-American World Studies Program of the University of Iowa. I’ll be discussing the essay today in connection with my own research, and my colleague Robert Greene will have more to say tomorrow about how the essay connects to his research interests.
I found Harding’s essay in a search for scholarship that could speak to the significance of Ebony magazine in Black intellectual life. Specifically, I was looking for work that could shed some light on the role Ebony played in providing a forum for Afrocentric classicism or Afrocentric histories of Western civilization.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Ebony highlighted the work of Black historians and intellectuals like Leo Hansberry and John Henrik Clarke, who argued for the central place of African learning and cultural expression in shaping the intellectual legacy of the West, from the pre-classical period to modernity. This basic line of argument – that Western civilization was shaped from its very beginnings by intellectual and cultural influences from Africa (and Asia/the Middle East) – gained wide attention in 1987 when Martin Bernal published the first volume of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.* Indeed, some Black scholars saw in Bernal’s widely read and hotly debated book an unacknowledged or underacknowledged intellectual indebtedness to Black thought — very similar to the sort of unacknowledged intellectual indebtedness that Bernal was critiquing. “In this reading,” Jacques Berlinerblau wrote, “Martin Bernal figures as a sort of ‘Academic Elvis,’ watering down African-American traditions previously unknown to the mainstream, presenting them to a infinitely larger audience, and prospering handsomely for the replica he produced” (Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals, 145-146).
While Afrocentric historiography was perhaps not widely known “to the mainstream” of American culture, it was certainly part of the mainstream of Black intellectual life, thanks in no small part to Ebony magazine. In his historiographic essay, Harding singled out Ebony for its crucial role in popularizing and passing down the work of Black historians, intellectual work that carried important political implications.
Harding described a flowering of Black history during the Civil Rights movement, and he emphasized how the demand for or interest in Black history was not a result of some “inner logic” of academic inquiry (as, for example, Bernard Bailyn claims for Atlantic history). Rather, the growth of Black history came from a grassroots desire for a usable past.
The resurgence of interest in black history, Harding wrote, “is not simply an academic happening. Indeed it was not primarily an academic happening as it began” (40). To be sure, Harding credited the students involved in the Civil Rights struggle, as well as the professoriate at historically black colleges and universities, for the rise of new Black history. “When the students moved into the struggle,” he wrote, “the black history they knew had usually come from those quiet, sometimes not so quiet, disciples and students of Carter G. Woodson who were teaching five, six, and seven different courses each week in the black colleges. Many of the black teachers would never write a book because of their course loads, would never have long bibliographies of their work, but often fed young people in the deepest parts of their spirits. What they did was much more important than long bibliographies” (45).
One of the crucial roles played by Ebony magazine was to bring that intellectual tradition, passed down primarily through classroom instruction or activist-organized community education seminars, to a readership many times larger than the audience that could be reached in a classroom. “It is impossible in my opinion to have any real appreciation of the significance and sources of the post-1955 black history revival without paying attention to the role of such periodicals as Ebony, Negro Digest (later Black World) and Freedomways,” Harding wrote. “These journals – outside of the academies, often scorned by the academies – have nonetheless been some of the most important guides and stimulants to and repositories of the modern black history revival” (48).
Many of the student activists protesting at Stanford in the 1980s were influenced by – and carrying forward – that “modern black history revival.” In my archival research, I have found that members of Stanford’s Black Student Union were making arguments that – read retrospectively – sound very similar to Bernal’s. But they were making these arguments in the early 1980s, well before Bernal’s book came out. While it’s possible that these students were drawing upon knowledge and texts that they had first encountered at Stanford – maybe in an anthropology class, or a classics course, or a course in African-American studies – I wouldn’t automatically assume that this is the case.
College freshmen are not tabulae rasae – they do bring ideas with them into the university, including ideas about history, ideas about a usable past. Many Black student activists in the early 1980s seem to have brought with them to Stanford the expectation that they would be learning more about the Afroasiatic roots of the classical world, upon which rested the idea of the West. As Harding’s essay suggests, there are several means by which this intellectual tradition, this usable past, was passed down within Black communities. So it is certainly possible — and perhaps even likely — that these students picked up these ideas because they grew up in families that read and discussed and debated the historiographic traditions they encountered in the pages of Ebony magazine.
*In this blog post – as well as in my dissertation – I am setting aside the question of whether or not Bernal was right in detecting racist underpinnings of the 18th-century historiographic turn in classical scholarship, a turn aimed at suppressing (Bernal argued) the influence of African and Asian thought on the classical world. A recent, riveting work by European intellectual historian Peter K.J. Park makes a very strong case that in the late 18th century “racist ideas and attitudes induced major revisions in historiography” among historians of philosophy (6). See Peter K.J. Park, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 (SUNY Press, 2013). I will have more to say about Park’s book in a future post.