Clark Atlanta University

Review: Shapes of the Black American Past Author(s): John Henrik Clarke Source: Phylon (1960-), Vol. 38, No. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1977), pp. 212-215 Published by: Clark Atlanta University Stable URL: . Accessed: 10/04/2011 21:38
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disciplined account that engages us in the rhythm of Africa, her seasons and her people. The subject matter, if not quite the style, is reminiscent of Camara Laye's Dark Child. But Haley's narrative becomes difficult in recounting the African-American experience. The development of a distinctive African-American culture is a complex chapter in our history. It does not lend itself to the clarity and simplicity which characterize Haley's portrayal of boyhood in eigtheenth century West Africa. How, for example, should the slave's accommodation and resistance to the slave master, his culture and his oppression be treated? Haley acknowledges African survivals among the slaves: gestures, facial expressions, cries of exclamation and "these blacks' great love of singing and dancing." These traits, however, are interpreted as incidental and unconscious. What the author apparently considers as weightier matters of culture seem to survive only among the Kintes. For example, the slave community which Haley describes appears not to be composed of families. In sharp contrast to the Kinte family unit, the other slaves in Roots appear as a collection of unattached individuals. The implication is that most slaves lived outside the bonds of kinship and marriage. At issue is not literary style or emphasis, but rather the interpretation of the African-American experience. While the Kinte family is among an elite in its oral tradition, it is not unique in its family structure and function. Recent scholarship on the slave family would have informed Haley's work. Haley's perception of average slaves comes apparently from prevailing assumptions that their families were unstable, their marriages casual and their culture chaotic. Herbert Gutman, in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 17501925 (which like Roots was published in late 1976), presents evidence that slave marriages were of long duration; that families were structured in kinship networks with strong intergenerational ties; and that some aspects of slave culture, specifically marriage customs and naming practices, apparently developed independent of and in spite of Anglo-American culture and the circumstances of slavery. This kind of evidence calls for further revision of the African-American story. With a careful reading of history and an imaginative working of art, the story will continue to unfold in all of its complexity. Our debt is to Haley for introducing this story to the public and for engaging the nation in pursuit of its past. Carole Meritt Emory University SHAPES OF THE BLACK AMERICAN PAST by Charles Bennett, Jr. Illustrations White. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1975. In his previous book, The Challenge of Blackness (1972), Lerone Bennett has said: If Black people are not what white people said we were, then white America is not what it claims to be. What we have to deal with here therefore is a contestation at the level of reality. We are engaged in a struggle over meaning, a struggle over truth. And it is my argument here that Blacks and not whites embody the common interest and the truth of American society. In a collective way, this is what the present book, The Shaping of Black America, is about. In a general way this is what all of the books of Lerone Bennett are



about. His books are inquiries into the contradictions in American society in its relationship to black people. Lerone Bennett writes history, social science, and political science and engages in prophesy all at the same time. His talent reflects a special kind of development that needs to be looked at, at least briefly, if we are to understand his achievement as a social historian. He is of that new generation of restless black Americans who have given birth to what is referred to as the "Black Revolution." This movement literally demanded a reevaluation of the part that people of African descent have played in the making of America and the circumstances that brought them here. In his first book, Before the Mayflower (1961), Bennett began to answer the demand for reevaluation of Afro-American history. This book ends with a warning that is also prophecy. "If we do not stand up and create the America that was dreamed," he says, "if we do not begin to flesh out the words of the creed, the commonwealth of Silence will come to a definite and apocalyptic end." In his writing Lerone Bennett brings the reader face to face with the uncomfortable truth about America's racial conflict. This is the essence of his value as a social historian. The Shaping of Black America represents the flowering of his talent. All of his previous books seem to have been part of the preparation for the writing of this book, his most profound commentary to date on the nature of the black experience. He calls his book "an essay toward a new understanding of the long and continuing attempts of Africans and African descendents to possess themselves and the new land." He calls attention to the need for "a new conceptual envelope for Black American history." He says further: "It should be clear by now to almost everyone that understanding the Black experience requires new concepts and a radically new perspective." At once, Lerone Bennett demonstrates what he means by new concepts and a radically new perspective in the opening chapter of his book called "The First Generation." Because, as he says, "blacks lived in a different time and a different reality in this country," it should then stand to reason that the honest interpretation of their history requires a different insight and a different frame of reference. The book begins dramatically as follows: In August, when the shadows are long on the land and even the air oppresses, the furies of fate hang in the balance in Black America. It was in August, in the eighth month of the year, that three hundred thousand men and women marched on Washington, D.C. It was in August that Watts exploded. It was in August, on a hot and heavy day in the nineteenth century, that Nat Turner rode. And it was in another August, 344 years before the March on Washington, 346 years before Watts, and 212 years before Nat Turner's war, that "a Dutch man of Warr" sailed up the river James and landed the first generation of black Americans at Jamestown, Virginia. The Dutch ship and its cargo altered irrevocably the destiny of what was to become the United States. The seeds of the only original culture that America can show to the world were arriving on this Dutch ship. Also arriving was the embryo of a conflict that, after more than three hundred years, is still' unresolved. Lerone Bennett refers to this cargo as "the black gold that made capitalism possible in America." In this reference he is completely on the case. Nationally, it gave America the means to become a world power. Internationally it created the basis for the industrial revolution and the maiden world of science and technology. These first Africans were not chattel slaves. They were indentured servants, a major point that is often missed. Bennett deals with this aspect of slavery



searchingly and very carefully shows how the indentured-servant status was transformed into chattel slavery. After the period of indenture, this first generation of blacks became early Americans in many ways. Some of them became the owners of land and slaves. Others became part of the craft and technology class that helped to tame a young and raw America. Labor was needed and this is what these first blacks meant to the colonists. The indentured servant system was not created for the blacks who landed in Jamestown, Virginia. The system was intact long before they arrived, with large numbers of white indentured servants. In the second chapter, Bennett examines this rather neglected issue of white servitude. In the following passage he explains some of the reasons for the neglect: Although great care has been taken to hide the fact, black bondsmen inherited their chains from white bondsmen, who were, in a manner of speaking, America's first slaves. And as America moved, in the middle of the seventeenth century, toward a fateful decision that would define it forever, increasing attention was directed toward the status of these white bondsmen, who pioneered in both servitude and slavery. To understand what happened to blacks in the second half of the seventeenth century, one must first understand what happened to these whites in the first and second half of the seventeenth century. For they ran the first leg of the marathon of American servitude before passing on the baton of anguish to the reds and the blacks. Bennett continues his explanation in this manner: The second and possibly more important reason for the centrality of white servitude is that it was, as Eric Williams noted, "the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed." In other words, white servitude was the proving ground for the mechanisms of control and subordination used later in African-American slavery. The plantation pass system, the slave trade, the sexual exploitation of servant women, the whipping post and slave chain and branding iron, the overseer, the house servant, the Uncle Tom: all these mechanisms were tried out and perfected first on white men and women. Also tried out and perfected first on white men and women was the theory of racism. It is not the least of the paradoxes of this period that Colonial masters used the traditional Sambo and the minstrel stereotypes to characterize white servants, who were said to be good-natured and faithful but biologically inferior and subject to laziness, immorality and crime. And thus the seed that was going to develop into modern racism was planted. That is worth noting. For the first one hundred years during the period of European exploration into the broader world, Europe as well as Africa was a hunting ground for slaves. Sometime during the second century of the settlement of America, the white slaves began to shake off their bondage. They became racists rapidly in order to identify themselves with the rest of white America. They measured their identification and their status to the extent that they were furtherest from the red man and the black man in appearance and in human consideration. It was only then that the color factor became prevalent in black and white relationships. In his chapter "Red and Black" Bennett shows that the relationship between blacks and Indians was both good and bad. Some blacks joined whites in a fight against the Indians and some blacks joined the Indians in a fight against the



whites. In the Seminole wars in Florida, blacks and Indians joined in the most meaningful alliance of those groups that is on record about the Seminole wars. General Thomas Sidney Jesup was moved to say in the 25th Congress, 2nd Session, 1837-38: This, you may be assured, is a negro, not an Indian war; and if it be not speedily put down, the South will feel the effects of it on their slave population before the end of the next season. Because the winters were long in New England and black labor could not be used the year round, slavery in this part of America was not as successful as in the South. In the chapter "The Black Founding Fathers," Bennet shows how a class of freed blacks developed into the first responsible black elite. These men took it upon themselves to use their acquaintanceship with the basic literature of their day in order to ask relevant questions about the promise of America. Against great odds they founded the early black churches, newspapers, magazines, and community institutions. To a present generation of young blacks who talk so much and know so little of nineteeth century black culture, this chapter should be compulsory reading. In the chapter "The World of the Slave," Bennett gives us a panoramic view of the way slaves lived and how they struggled against their environment. It was during this period that the slaves began to learn what most slaves learned eventually, that their masters were unworthy of ruling them. This was the beginning of the liberation of the mind that would ultimately loosen the chains on the slaves no matter how tight they had been. Freedom came at last and was well paid for in spite of the denial by many white historians, Lerone Bennett tells us in "Jubilee." From the latter part of the eighteeenth century to the eve of the Civil War, blacks were instruments of their own liberation as well as partners with white abolitionists who had their own reasons for participating in black liberation. These nineteenth century blacks, written about with such great feeling and understanding in this book, laid the basis for black radical activity in the twentieth century. I do not think that we are going to understand present-day movements until we have a antecedents. We have the pictures clearer picture of their nineteenth-century here. All we have to do is to view them and understand them. John Henrik Clarke Hunter College CLASS AND CASTE AGAIN



phia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1976; 314 pp. No Price Indicated. In Social Inequality Lucile Duberman sets for herself the task of disentangling the complex lacings of social inequality. Three explicitly stated objectives for the book are offered: to acquaint undergraduate sociology students with the study of inequality; to bring some clarity and order to the chaotic state of this field; and to treat the caste component of the stratification system. The author offers several closely connected reasons for the need of a book of this type, all of which in her view are in turn related to a general neglect of the area by sociologists. Accordingly, she reasons that since sociologists, like most other Americans, have geneuinely believed that opportunity is open to individual effort and that America is truly a democratic society (with all that that implies) they have been unwilling to face the social realities that counter this smug view of the American society.

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