Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song . . . in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness . . . and lay the foundations of the vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. — W.E.B. Du Bois
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 dominant notions.
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 White Creation
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 Spaniards.
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 man.”
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 invention.”
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.
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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 posterity.”
Confronted 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 Circuit
Everyone—or almost 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 Depression-level unemployment. 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 Workers
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 is day?
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 Black workers.
8 The Myth of the Missing Economic Gene
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 Dole
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 each other.”
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 sick.
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 Barrel
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?
It 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.”
*Before The Mayflower, revised edition, 1982.
Source: EBONY · February 1984,
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