The 10 Biggest Myths About Black History
That a people, once proud members of mighty African tribes, who had gone through slavery, pestilence, discrimination, segregation, and even natural disaster were able to survive and prevail against the odds is a prime example of the indomitable tenacity of the human spirit. Such a painful journey would have destroyed lesser beings but the story of the transplantation and transformation of the African American community has been one of the greatest flights of the human spirit in recorded history. That story, however, has been distorted and reconstructed originally as a means of control to discredit Blacks and to assuage the conscience of racists. Through continued repetition by the media and popular belief systems generation after generation of African Americans have also begun adhering to such false beliefs about their Black history and cultural identity that they themselves don’t know the truth behind these stories and notions commonly held true but with no factual bases. 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 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 Europeï¿½s eminence came after the fall of Africa and as a direct result of one of historyï¿½s 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 statesï¿½armies, courts, internal revenue departments. Indeed, more than one scholar has paid tribute to the “legal genius of the African.”
2 The Myth of Original Slavery
That Black people came to English America in slavery and White people came in freedom is not true at all. In fact 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. They came, these first Blacks, the same way that many, perhaps most, of the first Whites came ï¿½ under duress and pressure. They found a system ï¿½ indentured servitude ï¿½ 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
This myth fostered the erroneous idea that America was the exclusive creation of Europeans and the sons and daughters of Europeans when, in fact, America 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. As a matter of fact, Black explorers ï¿½ servants, slaves and free men ï¿½ 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.
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.”
4 The Myth of 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.
5 The Myth of Sambo
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. 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.
6 The Myth of the Broken Circuit
It is a myth promoting the false belief that the African American family bond is weak because Black love short-circuited during slavery and that the family unit further disintegrated during the Jim Crow era. But these stories have been proven untrue, for we now know from research and social studies that the Black family was a strong institution until at least the third decade of the 20th century. According to Herbert G. Gutman, author of The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, Black families were as stable as Southern White households and Northern White ethnic households until the 1930s.
7 The Myth of the Wayward Workers
The myth of the wayward workers makes its victims work and derides them for working. It maintains, in the face of the whole of American history, that Blacks are lazy and shiftless vagabonds who wonï¿½t work. But as everybody over 40 knows, the truth is an exact opposite. 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 Americaï¿½s debt to Black workers.
8 The Myth of the Missing Economic Gene
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
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 beginningï¿½read the slave narratives and the new studies by Black and White scholars ï¿½ 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.”
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.
10 The Myth of the Crab Barrel
The myth refers to the behavior of crabs in a barrel, pulling down the one climbing higher up the container in order to get away first. This false belief compares human behavior to crabs, that people act like captured crustaceans who, according to the myth, pull down lucky crabs who reach the top of the barrel.
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.
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 parentsï¿½ shipmates ï¿½uncleï¿½ and ï¿½aunt,ï¿½” and for men and women “to look upon each otherï¿½s 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 of the spirit than the force that tried to pull them apart.
Excerpts from The 10 Biggest Myths About Black History by Lerone Bennett Jr., EBONY, February 1984.
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