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Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories
Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2010
352 pp., 42.0

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Paul Harvey

"Race Histories"

Recovering a forgotten tradition.

"Africa is no historical part of the world," wrote Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the 19th century. Blacks, he thought, had no "sense of personality; their spirit sleeps, remains sunk in itself, makes no advance, and thus parallels the compact, undifferentiated mass of the African continent." In short, Africans were a people without history. The World Historical Spirit that moved history forward never breathed over the continent.

"We all got history …. It's there. You just got to look for it," said Ellen L. Hazard, descendant of a friend of Amos Webber, a free black Union Army veteran, churchman, political activist, and fraternal order member in 19th-century Massachusetts. Webber and his family and friends lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction. Black Americans were not just a people with history; they practically embodied American history.

With some notable and honorable exceptions, white Americans from the Revolution to the early 20th century were Hegelians at least in terms of their relegating of Africans and African Americans to the historical dustbin. Black Americans like Amos Webber knew otherwise. And so did the legion of historians, dreamers, denominational chroniclers, intellectuals, philosophers, poets, schoolteachers, journalists, and sociologists, both educated and self-taught, whose writings Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp discusses in her carefully nuanced survey of the varied historical narratives produced by literate (and mostly northern) African American authors from the 1780s to World War I.

From the opening pages, which introduce us immediately to the little-known text The Rise and Progress of the Kingdoms of Light and Darkness (by Lorenzo Dow Blackson, an African Methodist minister), to a concluding argument placing the entire sweep of African American race histories within the context of the "New Negro" writers, Maffly-Kipp presents a vital but virtually unknown story of the "pre-professional" era of African American history writing. She surveys "race histories" produced by African Americans from the revolutionary era to the eve of the Harlem Renaissance. Along the way, we get full descriptions and analyses of a huge variety of texts. Some are obscure denominational histories, collecting dust for decades; others are fairly well-known texts, here set in a context that sheds fresh light on them.

Maffly-Kipp resists simpler analyses that would cast these race histories in unapologetic "heroic" mode or cram them all into the model of "liberatory" texts or (going the opposite direction) decry their tendency to follow European and Protestant models of historical narrative. Instead, she gives a rich and satisfying account of texts in which "race" was only a partial unifier. Other identities—sectional, denominational, gendered, and national—played into these "narrative acts" and the self-conceptions of the authors.

So did a mythopoeic vision which drew from biblical stories to envision the future of lands which were inconveniently already inhabited by people who failed to live up to American Protestant models. For example, in a chapter about the "serpentine trail" of black American responses to Haiti (inspirational in terms of being a free black republic, troubling in terms of being a land of vodou and stark class divisions), Maffly-Kipp points out that, like Canaan, Haiti could provide "refuge to the modern-day Israelites fleeing the Egypt of the United States," but that, like Canaan as well, the land was "already occupied" by people who might be resistant to a foreign power with millennialist dreams. Black American authors held up Haiti as a potent symbol, but they were loath to acknowledge—in public discussion, at least—the disastrous failures of Protestant African Americans bent on remaking the land in their own image. After all, the "grand vision of pan-African unity was underwritten by narratives of Protestant unity and American imperial progress." Much the same held true for narratives about Africa, popularized by black missionaries in the late 19th century who crisscrossed the United States lecturing to churches and missionary societies. Their accounts "instilled a historical memory of Africa and ushered ordinary African Americans into both a global evangelical project and a localized colonial endeavor."

In a separate chapter on female authors of the 19th century (Maria Stewart, Anna Julia Cooper, chroniclers of women's denominational societies, and others), Maffly-Kipp considers how the grand historical narrative became gendered as a male form, not unlike the formal sermon delivered from a pulpit, and how black women writers responded by casting their narratives in genres considered appropriate for their gender: stories, plays, biography, social protest, and poetry. In this way, black women "found ways of writing history without announcing it as such" and left the field of "Race Histories—narratives with a vast chronological sweep and controlling themes"—to men. Still, the black women writers knew, too, that "we all got history," men and women alike.

A consistent theme through all these grand narratives is the impulse to write a history of everything from the ancient world to the present. Stories from the Old Testament, scenes from ancient Egypt and Israel, episodes featuring Africans in the New Testament, accounts of glorious African civilizations, chronicles of slavery and the slave trade and the "progress of the race" in the contemporary world: all this and more found a place in these ambitious narratives. From the earliest efforts at black history writing in the United States, with figures such as John Marrant (a black loyalist) and Prince Hall (a pioneer of black Masonry), black authors discovered a "countervailing narrative of human origins that both glorified Africa and connected African Americans, through blood and secrecy, to a sacred community of origin." Black Masonic lodges were instrumental in revaluing the sacred origins of black people, in claiming Ham not as a dishonored Old Testament figure but instead as a progenitor of nations and peoples (including ancestors of Jesus).

At times, I wondered if Maffly-Kipp's emphasis on conflicting loyalties and "collective identities [which] were relatively fluid, contested, and shifting" might be overstated. In surveying these race histories, she consistently stresses diversity and variety over unity. Ultimately, though, the sheer weight of the evidence and the finely tuned analysis make up a persuasive case. "Africans became African American as a necessary response to Euro-American persecution," Maffly-Kipp explains:

Yet that same Euro-American society, and particularly evangelical Protestantism in both its intellectual and its institutional guises, also furnished the media necessary to construct counter-narratives of unity and sacred purpose. Ultimately, as is the case with all collective memories, this process of narration resulted in the affirmation of a group identity that came to be seen as "natural" and inevitable rather than humanly constructed, denying its own genesis in a particular historical circumstance.

Not only were African Americans a people with history, but like all other peoples with historical narratives, they were a people with specifically constructed histories "grounded in a historical consciousness that was at once thoroughly Protestant and thoroughly African American."

Like much scholarship on African American religious institutions recently, Maffly-Kipp historicizes the concept of the "black church" itself. The race histories of the early 20th century authored by Carter Woodson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and (later) E. Franklin Frazier adopted secularized models that created a "black church" out of what had been, in the 19th century, a swirl of conflicting denominations and theologies. The "black church" they discussed was all about present-day utility, shorn mostly (Du Bois sometimes excepted) of the grand sweep of the race histories of an earlier era.

In her conclusion, Maffly-Kipp explains why contemporary observers have a hard time "identifying the motives behind" the "self-understandings" that emerge in these race histories. The problem, she suggests, lies with the "polarized racial lenses through which we ourselves view these histories." I see a different cause at work. What the material presented here makes clearer to me is that we lack both the deep classical narratives and the Protestant Christian narratives that drove so many of these race histories. Educated people today may generally know of these narratives, but they don't mean the same things to us as they did to the people being discussed here, who knew them by heart and felt them in their bones. We simply are steeped in a different intellectual world.

Thus, when we encounter such grand narratives nowadays (often in church histories, or in the productions of self-published authors intent on reifying or sacralizing a subject), we understand them to be relics of a bygone age. They are; they come from the epoch of history writing in the 19th century. Bygone, but not lost, not inaccessible, thanks to Maffly-Kipp's impressive feat of intellectual history and literary recovery.

Paul Harvey teaches history at the University of Colorado and runs the blog Religion in American History, at usreligion. blogspot.com.

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