They came out of the sun; bringing with them
the gift of the sun.
Founders without heralds,
benefactors without banners, they transformed the new land,
creating the foundations of the wealth and giving it a new music
and a new spirit.
The forgotten founding
fathers and mothers, the ancestors of contemporary Blacks, did all
this in the face of obstacles and proscriptions that would have
destroyed a lesser people. By
all odds, they should have been destroyed physically and
spiritually, on the slave ships and plantations.
But they were so tough that nothing—neither slavery, nor
segregation, nor discrimination—could destroy them.
They came up from slavery, up from segregation, up from
fire, blood, pestilence and pain.
And by some mystery no historian can truly fathom, they not
only endured but prevailed, leaving behind imperishable testimony
on the indomitable tenacity of human spirit.
The story of their
transplantation and transformation and survival is the story of
one of the greatest flights of the human spirit in recorded
history. But that
story has been distorted and pushed into strange shapes by a
massive propaganda campaign based on power myths that hide Black
people from themselves and their greatness.
These myths—defined here as stories, belief, and notion
commonly held to be true but without factual basis—inform almost
all popular discussions on Black history.
Propagated day in and day out by almost all media and
passed on from generation to generation in the cultural
bloodstream, the myths affect the dreaming, desiring and acting of
both Black and White Americans.
And although the myths were fostered originally as a means
of control to discredit Blacks and to assuage the conscience of
racists, they are reported by some Blacks who have been negatively
conditioned by the popular history taught in nurseries, movies,
bars and too many classrooms.
As a consequence, millions of Black and White Americas act
on images and myths which are grossly exaggerated or have no basis
in fact. The myths
are many and varied, but they are generally organized around ten
1 The Myth of Tarzan and the Black Void
The image of Tarzan, whether
accompanied by Maureen O’Sullivan or Bo Derek, is the organizing
focus of a recurring fantasy based on the myths of “the
primitive African” and “the Dark Continent.”
The myths persist despite overwhelming evidence—from
archeologists, historians, and contemporary writers and
travelers—which places the African-Americans at the center of
the human drama. According
to this evidence, which has forced a scholarly reappraisal of
African and world history, the human race was born in Africa where
Black people, or people who would be considered Black today, were
among the first humans to use tools, paint pictures, plant seeds,
and worship gods.
The popular myth depicts
conquering Europeans carrying the blessings of civilization to
naked “savages” who sat under trees, filed their teeth and
waited for fruit to drop into
their hands. This is
a gross perversion of European and African history, for Europe’s
eminence came after the fall of Africa and as a direct result of one of
history’s greatest crimes, the 400-year horror called the slave
trade. When this
event started, life in some African states compared favorably with
life in some European states.
In fact, in some areas of Africans were a step or two
ahead. Thus, on the
West Coast of Africa, from whence came most of the ancestors of
American Blacks, there were complex institutions ranging from
extended family groupings to village states and territorial
empires. Most of
these polities had all the characteristics of modern
states—armies, courts, internal revenue departments. Indeed, more than one scholar has paid tribute to the
“legal genius of the African.”
Bearing these things in mind,
we can readily see that African-Americans, contrary to the common
belief, came not from the void but from traditions that were, in
Stanley Elkins’s words, “essentially heroic in nature.”
2 The Myth of Original Slavery
||Nothing is more common than
to hear people—Black and White—say that the crucial difference
between Black and White history is that “we didn’t come here
in the same way.” By
this they mean that Black people came to English America in
slavery and White people came in freedom.
But the first Black immigrants, the 20 Africans who landed
at Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619, a year before the arrival
of the Mayflower, were
not slaves. Nor, for
the most part, were the first Whites free.
This is a point of capital importance in the history of
Black America. They
came, these first Blacks, the same way that many, perhaps most, of
the first Whites came—under duress and pressure.
They found a system—indentured servitude—which made it
possible for poor Whites to pay for their passage by selling their
services to planters for a stipulated number of years. Under this system, which TV and textbooks generally
overlook, tens of thousands of Whites were shipped to the colonies
and sold to the highest bidder.
In Virginia, then, as in other colonies, the first Black
settlers fell into a well-established socioeconomic groove that
carried with it no implications of racial inferiority.
After working for a number of years as indentured servants,
some were freed according to law and custom.
Before the introduction of slavery, they accumulated land,
voted, testified in courts and mingled with the masses of Whites
on a basis of relative equality. And it should be borne in mind, in considering the myth of
original slavery (read: sin), that freedom preceded slavery, and
integration preceded racism.
3 The Myth of Immaculate
Words whispered in nurseries
and images stamped on impressionable minds and repeated day in and
day out, year after year, foster the erroneous idea that America
was the exclusive creation of Europeans and the sons and daughters
of Europeans. This
propaganda onslaught, which is more overwhelming than convincing,
glosses over the extraordinary complexity in the peopling of
America, which was founded not by Europeans alone but Europeans,
Africans and Indians working together and in opposition in a
complicated and counterpoint of interests, dreams and passions.
The relative importance of the African factor varied from
time to time and place to place, but it was never negligible and
it extended over the entire period of settlement.
As a matter of fact, Black explorers—servants, slaves and
free men—were among the first non-Indian settlers of the land,
and there is some evidence that African sailors explored the New
World before Columbus. Blacks
were with Pizarro in Peru, Cortes in Mexico, Menendez in Florida.
They “accompanied DeSoto,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “and
one of them stayed among the Indians in Alabama and became the
first settler from the Old World.”
Perhaps the best known of the early Black explorers was
Estevanico, who opened up New Mexico and Arizona for the
Later, as we have noted,
Black pilgrims preceded the official (White) Pilgrims in the
settlement of English America.
There were skilled artisans and farmers among the first
group of Black immigrants, and there are indications in the record
that they were responsible for some innovations later credited to
English immigrants. An early example of this was reported in Virginia, where, in
1648, the governor ordered rice planted on the advice of “our
Negroes,” who said conditions in Virginia were as favorable to
the crop as “in their Country.”
After the introduction of
slavery, Blacks played key roles in creating the economic
foundations of the country. The
strain of slavery was too much for ten of thousands who died of
old and new diseases and the shock of psychic mutilation.
But millions, testifying to physical and spiritual strength
that transcended the heroic, survived.
And, surviving, they ensured the survival—and
prosperity—of America, which fashioned out of their misery the
take-off capital that financed the growth of America in the 18th
and 19th centuries.
Not only in slavery but also
in freedom, not only in the South but also in the North and West,
Black pioneers contributed to the common cause, building schools,
constructing roads and blazing new paths into the interior.
William Alexander Leidesdorff, for example, played a key
role in the founding of San Francisco, and at least 26 of the 44
founders of Los Angeles were descendants of Africans. Nor can we forget Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, who founded
the city of Chicago, an event the Indians immortalized in the
saying: “The first White man to settle in Checagou was a Black
This happened in more
communities than historians care to remember.
And it entitles us to say that America, myths
notwithstanding, “is an African as well as European
4 The Myth of Absence
In American history, as in
American life, Black Americans are invisible presences.
They are not seen, not because of their absence but because
of the presence of a myth that prepares and requires their
absence. The myth of
absence, which expresses this idea and intention, operates not by
misinterpretation and slander but by silence and exclusion.
By simply not mentioning certain realities and by removing
Black actors from scenes in which they played supporting and
sometimes starring roles, the manipulators of the myth change the
color of the past and control perceptions and acts in the present. It is not accident, therefore, that the dominant images of
popular history, the images of Minutemen, Pilgrims, Cowboys and
Soldiers in Blue, are white
images. But these
images, which are the staples of mass media, are selections from a
multicolored whole which included both Black and White Actors.
And to grasp the American experience in its fullness, we
have to remember that Blacks were present and acting at almost
every major event in American history.
They were the bridge in Concord and on Bunker Hill in
Boston. They were at
Valley Forge with Washington and at Appomattox with Grant.
And they are the keys to an understanding of Thomas
Jefferson and Monticello and Abraham Lincoln and Gettysburg.
Neither the Civil War nor Reconstruction can be understood
without reference to the missing images.
For it is the Black presence or, to be more precise, the
presence of Black actors which explains the Old South and the New
South and the urban North. One
can go further and say that a precise understanding of the Old
West would necessarily include Black images.
For although TV and the movies have managed somehow to
overlook them, Black cowboys rode and wrangled in the West.
They were at Abilene and Dodge City and Cheyenne.
They fought with and against Billy the Kid. And if the Black cowboys and soldiers and Minutemen are
invisible today, it is not because they were absent in the past;
it is because men and women have manipulated the images of the
past in order to make their descendants invisible in the present.
* * * *
5 The Myth of Sambo
The image of Sambo, the image
of the carefree, shiftless, irresponsible Black who shuffles and
grins and scratches where he doesn’t itch, dominates the popular
(and scholarly) dialogue on American slavery.
To more Whites than I think would admit, there is always at
the back of the mind this image, this myth of Gone
With The Wind, with Clark Gable and Scarlett O’Hara in the
Big House and Blacks—happy, irresponsible, faithful and grateful—in
their appointed places in the kitchens and the fields.
And to understand this national passion, one has to
investigate its origin in the traditional picture of slavery.
In almost all popular (and too many scholarly) discussions
of this period, we are asked to accept a portrait of fat, happy,
docile slaves who were almost members of the family, slaves who
loved old “marsa” and “missus” with a passion and cried
bitter tears when Lincoln “freed” them.
Practically all of this is sheer fantasy.
For although some Blacks (then and now) exploited the White
fantasy for personal gain, most slaves maintained a sense of
expectancy and resistance that is, to borrow Kenneth M. Stampp’s
phrase, “one of the richest gifts the slaves have left to
with perhaps the most coercive social systems the world has ever
known, these slaves resisted with every weapon they could lay
hands on. They slew
masters and mistresses in hand-to-hand combat.
They poisoned whole families.
They staged more than two hundred revolts and conspiracies.
And they ran away in droves.
So many slaves ran away that Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a
specialist at the University of Louisiana, discovered a new
disease, “Draptomania, or the Disease Causing Negroes to Run
Away.” In a now
visible, now invisible struggle which continued until the end of
slavery, the slaves “quietly and subtly and deliberately
sabotaged the system from within.
By resisting, maintaining, enduring and abiding, by holding
on and holding fast and holding out, they provided one of the
greatest examples in human history of the strength of the human
spirit in adversity.”*
6 The Myth of the Broken
everyone—“knows” that the Black family is weak because the
current of Black love was short-circuit in slavery.
The only problem is that the story almost everyone knows is
almost totally false. For
a series of pathfinding studies have established that most slaves
lived in families headed by fathers and mothers and that Black
fathers were strong and respected members of the family circle.
These studies, based on plantation records, census reports,
and Freedmen’s Bureau documents, have also established that
slave marriages were buttressed by extended family groupings that
covered a wide range of relationships.
There is equally no case, one
may emphasize, for believing that the Black family disintegrated
in the Jim Crow era. For
we know now—thanks to the research of Herbert G. Gutman (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom) and other scholars, Black
and White—that the Black family was a strong institution until
at least the third decade of the 20th century.
According to Gutman, Black families were as stable as
Southern White households and Northern White ethnic households
until the 1930s.
Since that time, the
situation has changed, primarily because of racism, urbanization
and a 50-year run (except for World War II and the Korean War) of
What is astonishing, under these circumstances, is
certainly not that some Blacks have fallen but that so many still
stand and hope and love.
7 The Myth of the Wayward
Oppression has no shame.
It makes its victims work and derides them for working.
It gets rich on the sweat of its victims’
brows and taunts them for being poor and dependent.
The myth of the wayward workers is the primary instrument
of this strategy which maintains, in the face of the whole of
American history, that Blacks are lazy and shiftless vagabonds who
won’t work. So
persuasive is this myth, so intimidating is its constantly
repeated phrases, that Blacks who know better, Blacks who were
raised in communities where Blackness was a synonym for hard work,
are apologetic and defensive about the Black work record. Is there a more astonishing example in human history of the
power of myth to change reality and make people think that night
In fact, as
everybody over 40 knows, the truth is the precise opposite of the
myth. The wealth of
this country was founded on what Abraham Lincoln called “the 250
years of unrequited toil” of Black men and women.
It was the work of Black workers, it was the work of unpaid
and underpaid slaves and sharecroppers, that changed the flora and
fauna of America and created the capital that made possible the
economic growth from which they were excluded by fraud and
violence. And one can
say, with only slight exaggeration, that before Blacks were forced
out of the work force, they were the only people in America who
did any real work. This
fact is embedded in the language, where the phrase, “to work
like a Negro,” acknowledges in an underhanded and often
derogatory manner the falsity of the myth and America’s debt to
8 The Myth of the Missing
One is always being told, as
unarguable proof of the fairness of the game, that the economic
position of Blacks can be explained by “the absence” of Black
business tradition. But
this argument overlooks a lot of history and a lot of facts.
Perhaps the most important of these facts is the one most
frequently overlooked: Blacks
came to America with a business tradition.
They came from a culture of great traders and merchants,
and within a few years after their arrival they were hard at work
accumulating capital and plantations.
By 1651 Anthony Johnson, one of the original Jamestown
immigrants, had accumulated enough capital to import five
indentured servants on whose headrights he received 250 acres of
Virginia land. Nor
was Johnson unique. There
are records of land accumulation and business activity by Black
planters and businessmen (and businesswomen) in New York,
Massachusetts and other colonies.
By the American Revolution, there were scores of prominent
Black business leaders, including Samuel Fraunces, owner of New
York’s Fraunces’s Tavern, the favorite watering hole of George
Washington, and James Forten, who employed 40 workers, Black and
White, in his Philadelphia sail factory.
What perhaps is most
astonishing is that these pioneer Blacks operated in the
mainstream of money and dominated certain fields. In the antebellum period, according to census reports and the
testimony of travelers, Blacks were prominent in the fashion and
clothing fields, the coal and lumber industry, and the wholesale
and retail trade. They
operated foundries, tanneries, and factories.
They made rope, shoes, cigars, furniture and machinery.
They operated major inns and hotels in Southern and
Northern cities. And
they held virtual monopolies in the catering, barbering, and
hairdressing fields. This
activity was not confined to the upper levels of the free Black
class. For much of
the trading in open-air-markets near railroad stations and boat
terminals was controlled by Black hucksters, male and female.
For several years after
emancipation, Blacks held their own in the open market, serving
both Black and White customers.
Then, as Jim Crow expanded, Black barbers, caterers and
artisans were displaced and the myth of the missing economic gene
was created to explain their absence.
But the history of pioneer African and African-American
business leaders and the achievements of modern entrepreneurs, who
have created business empires despite great odds, tells us that
there is nothing wrong with the business genes of Black folk that
fair play and an open market would not cure.
9 The Myth of the Defiling
A common impression to the
contrary notwithstanding, Blacks survived in America not because
of White doles but because of Black generosity.
It was internal giving, it
was communal sharing and caring, that enabled Blacks to survive
the vilest punishment inflicted on a people in the Western world.
From the very beginning—read the slave narratives and the
new studies by Black and White scholars—the slaves assumed
responsibility for one another, and the slave tradition was
deepened and extended in free Black communities, which organized
their own United Ways. By
1831 there were more than 43 Black benevolent or mutual aid
societies in Philadelphia alone.
By that time, the free Blacks of Philadelphia and other
cities were handling their own welfare cases.
A White commentator said the free Blacks of New England
were “seldom seen in the almshouses, for they have many
benevolent societies . . . and in case of need are ready to help
After the Civil War, the
first Black schools and welfare institutions were founded not by
White missionaries, as we have been told, but by Black men and
women who pooled their pennies, organized fish fries and church
suppers and took care of themselves.
Many, perhaps most, of the large numbers of Black orphans
were taken in by Black families, and Black churches and lodges
raised thousands of dollars for indigents.
John DeForest, a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in South
Carolina, said that “however selfish, and even dishonest,
[Blacks] might be, they were extravagant in giving.”
He added, gratuitously, “The industrious were too much
given to supporting the thriftless”
The effort continued in the
1880s and 1890s. There
was no home for delinquent Black girls in Virginia, and the state
wouldn’t build one, so the Black women of Virginia organized
their own home. There
was no institution for Black boys in Alabama, so the Black women
of that state organized and funded their own institution.
This tradition of self-help
and communal support spilled over into the 20th century
with the work of Black club women and Black ministers and
fraternal organizations. There
are men and women living today who remember the old communities of
the South where it was traditional to go from house to house
collecting pennies and dimes to bury indigents and care for the
No, however we turn the
problem, whether we investigate the mutual aid societies of the
1780s or the club women of the 1880s or the rent parties of the
1930s, we come back always to the main point: the history of Black
America has been a history of generosity, not dependency.
And if the story of the past was better known, it would
perhaps inspire a greater generosity in the present and future.
10 The Myth of the Crab
Here, once again, we are
presented with a generalization based on the behavior of
people act like captured crustaceans who, according to the
myth, pull down lucky crabs who reach the top of the barrel.
And the important thing to notice about the false—and
slanderous—generalization is that it is designed to create
the captured crab phenomenon and to check the natural tendency
of oppressed people to band together against their oppressors.
Perhaps the best evidence against the myth is the endlessly
repeated litany, from the days of George Washington to the days of
Ronald Reagan, that Black people huddle together and refuse to
betray one another. To
counter this tendency, mythmakers use every medium to persuade
Blacks, especially successful Blacks, to stand apart and stop
identifying with other Blacks.
Integration has intensified these efforts.
If we can credit the evidence in Black
Life in Corporate America, and other books to unusual lengths
to keep integrated students and executives from talking to one
another and supporting one another.
In the light of these facts,
it is nothing short of amazing that the myth of the crab barrel
persists. For despite
centrifugal forces, inevitable in a situation of oppression, the
history of Black America has been a history of “many thousands
gone,” helped and applauded by their brothers and sisters.
And old Black proverbs says, “If you knock the nose, the
eye cry.” Which
means that an injury to one member of the family is an injury to
all. This idea, the
idea of Black familyhood and the peculiar Black American stress on
brotherness and sisterness, runs like a black thread through the
whole of Black history. It
was a living reality on the slave ships where, according to
Orlando Patterson and other scholars, “it was customary for
children to call their parents’ shipmates ‘uncle’ and
‘aunt,’” and for men and women “to look upon each
other’s children mutually as their own.”
The same dynamic operated on the slave plantations and was
noted by Black and White witnesses who said that a Black who
betrayed another Black was held “in greater detestation than the
most notorious thief.” We
learn from the same source that adult slaves generally called each
other “brother” and “sister.”
The “brother-sister” principle informed the struggles
of Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods and was perhaps the only
reason Blacks survived in America. There were betrayers, then and later, but the people
survived, then and later, because the spirit than the force that
tried to pull them apart. So,
to cite a single spectacular example from the Reconstruction
period, 66,418 Blacks voted in South Carolina in November 1867,
and every Black, 66,418,
voted for a constitutional convention and the Black future.
It will perhaps be said in
objection that this happened 116 years ago and that segregation
and integration have destroyed the old-time spirit.
But how can it be denied that
the 99 per cent plebiscites of Montgomery and the recent Chicago
election were reflections of enduring roots that extend to
unfathomable depths in the ground beneath us?
is clear from this myth and the other myths cited here that
Black Americans have been sold a false bill of goods and that we
are not who we think we are or what White media say we are.
These media tell us that we
are historical orphans, impoverished by an impoverished past.
But the past tells us that we are inheritors and guarantors
of what Ralph Ellison called “one of the great human experiences
and one of the great triumphs of the human spirit in modern times,
in fact, in the history of the world.”
The Mayflower, revised edition, 1982.
* * *
* * * *
Lyrics by Peter Gabriel (1980)
Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead, the man is dead
When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead, the man is dead
And the eyes of the world are
Oh oh oh
Oh oh oh
Oh oh oh, na na na na na
Oh oh oh, na na na na na
So Biko, Biko
Oh Biko, Biko
Live 1986 /
* * * *
Lyrics By Tracy
They throwed him in jail
And they kept him there
Hoping soon he’d die
That his body and spirit would waste away
And soon after that his mind
But every day is born a fool
One who thinks he can rule
One who says tomorrow’s mine
One who wakes one day to find
The prison doors open the shackles broken
And chaos in the street
Everybody sing we’re free free free free free (3
They throwed him in jail
And they kept him there
Hoping his memory’d die
That the people forget how he once led and fought
for justice in their lives
But every day is born a man
Who hates what he can’t understand
Who thinks the answer is to kill
Who thinks his actions are god’s will
And he thinks he’s free free free free
Yes he thinks he’s free free free free
He thinks he’s free free free free
Soon must come the day
When the righteous have their way
Unjustly tried are free
And people live in peace I say
Give the man release
Go on and set your conscience free
Right the wrongs you made
Even a fool can have his day
Let us all be free free free free (3 times)
Free our bodies free our minds
Free our hearts
Freedom for everyone
And freedom now
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
14 March 2012