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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, 2010
352 pp., $31.50

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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 ...

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