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Mapping the World, Mapping the Race: The Negro Race History, 1874–1915

  • Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp (a1)


In 1883, the African American Baptist preacher George Washington Williams published his History of the Negro Race in America, 1619–1880. The book, a fundamentally optimistic account of the black presence in the New World, represented an attempt by the well-educated, northern divine to balance his commitments to an American evangelical tradition with an awareness of the ongoing oppression of his fellow African Americans at the hands of whites. “I commit this work to the public, white and black,” he noted in the preface, “to the friends and foes of the Negro in the hope that the obsolete antagonisms which grew out of the relation of master and slave may speedily sink as storms beneath the horizon; and that the day will hasten when there shall be no North, no South, no Black, no White,—but all be American citizens, with equal duties and equal rights.” The work revealed much about Williams: his upbringing in antebellum Pennsylvania as the child of an interracial union, his training at Howard University and Newton Theological Seminary, and his work experiences at Baptist churches in New England and Ohio. But this particular passage highlights the motivating force behind the book: it reveals, in anticipation of a historical narrative of over two hundred years of African enslavement, Williams's desire to recast much of the American past. Williams's historical account was, at heart, an attempt to impart moral meaning to the present by reconstructing the historical consciousness of both blacks and whites. In this desire, Williams fit precisely Friedrich Nietzsche's characterization of “historical men,” those who “believe that ever more light is shed on the meaning of existence in the course of its process, and they look back to consider that process only to understand the present better and learn to desire the future more vehemently.”



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1. Williams, George Washington, History of the Negro Race in America, 1619–1880: Negroes as Slaves, As Soldiers, and As Citizens (1883; repr. New York, 1968), p. x.

2. On Williams's life, see Franklin, John Hope, George Washington Williams: A Biography (Chicago, 1985).

3. Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Preuss, Peter (Indianapolis, Ind., 1980), p. 13.

4. The term “Negro” is used throughout this essay synonymously with “black” and “African American,” inasmuch as postbellum authors themselves use “Negro” to speak of themselves.Johnson, Edward A., A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1890 (New York, 1911);Quarles, Benjamin, “Black History's Antebellum Origins,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 88 (1979): 89122;Barber, J. Max, The Negro of the Earlier World: An Excursion Into Ancient Negro History (Philadelphia, Pa., n.d.), p. 5.On the use of black history as a counter against the late-nineteenth-century pro-slavery argument, see Smith, John David, “A Different View of Slavery: Black Historians Attack the Proslavery Argument, 1890–1920,” The Journal of Negro History 65 (1980): 298311.The year 1915 is an appropriate endpoint for this study because in that year the first two blacks to receive doctorates in history published works: W. E. B. DuBois, the first black history Ph.D., published The Negro, a study of the race in both Africa and America; and Carter Woodson published his first work, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. These studies, as well as the growth of black professional historical societies that limited membership to those educationally and economically qualified, signalled the shift from denominationally-based historical production to the professionalization of history as an objective science. See Meier, August and Rudwick, Elliott, Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915–1980 (Urbana, Ill., 1986);Moss, Alfred A. Jr, The American Negro Academy: Voice of the Talented Tenth (Baton Rouge, La., 1981);and Sinnette, Elinor Des Verney, Schomburg, Arthur Alfonso: Black Bibliophile and Collector (Detroit, Mich., 1989).

5. I am indebted to the work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and specifically to his notion of representation as racial reconstruction, for my understanding of the significance of these histories. See especially his “The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black,” Representations 24 (1988): 129155.

6. Jonathan Z. Smith helpfully suggests that when we study religion, we are examining “one mode of constructing worlds of meaning, worlds within which men find themselves and in which they choose to dwell,” as well as “the variety of attempts to map, construct and inhabit … positions of power through the use of myths, rituals and experiences of transformation.” Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Leiden, The Netherlands, 1978), pp. 290291.

7. From just five percent of the black adult population in 1860, black literacy rose dramatically to seventy percent by 1910. Higginbotham, , Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), pp. 11, 44.See also Foner, Eric, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York, 1988), pp. 88102;Litwack, Leon, Been in the Storm So Long: the Aftermath of Slavery (New York, 1979);and Montgomery, William E., Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865–1900 (Baton Rouge, La., 1993).

8. Barber, , Negro of the Earlier World, p. 5.

9. Brodhead, Richard, Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago, 1993), p. 193.

10. I am indebted to the work of Richard Brodhead, who emphasizes the extent to which any act of writing is culturally proscribed: “A work of writing comes to its particular actual instance, writing orients itself in or against some understanding of what writing is, does, and is good for that is culturally composed and derived.” Cultures of Letters, p. 8.

11. Ricoeur, Paul, Time and Narrative, trans. McLaughlin, Kathleen and Pellauer, David (Chicago, 1984), 1: 162. Ricoeur provides a helpful definition of narrative as a semantic innovation created through employment of a plot, through which “goals, causes, and chances are brought together within the temporal unity of a whole and complete action” (1: ix).

12. Ricoeur, , Time and Narrative, 1: 151152;Thelen, David, “Memory and American History,” Journal ofAmerican History 75 (03 1989): 1122.On the ways shared stories and memories reinforce collective identity, see Bodnar, John, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, N.J., 1992);Bourguet, Marie-Noelle, Valensi, Lucette, and Wachtel, Nathan, Between Memory and History (New York, 1990);Fentress, James and Wickham, Chris, Social Memory (Oxford, 1992);Halbwachs, Maurice. Orc Collective Memory, trans. Ditter, Francis J. Jr, and Ditter, Vida Yazdi (1950; repr. New York, 1980);Hobsbawm, Eric and Ranger, Terence, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, U.K., 1983);Lipsitz, George, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis, Minn., 1990);and Lowenthal, David, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, U.K., 1985).

13. Through the use of this phrase, I distinguish between the possession of historical consciousness, which antebellum African Americans surely had in the form of oral traditions and limited access to education, and the possession of a mobile and complex “representational technology” that later enabled the largescale dissemination of ideas. See Greenblatt, Stephen, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago, 1991), pp. 912.Lawrence Levine makes a case for the strength of oral narrative traditions in the antebellum era in Black Culture, Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery To Freedom (New York, 1977).

14. Some accounts, such as Tanner's, Benjamin TuckerThe Negro's Origin (1869),Perry's, Rufus L.The Cushite or the Descendents of Ham (1893),Barber's The Negro of the Earl World (n.d.), and Augustus T. Bell's The Woolly Hair Man of the Ancient South (n.d.) concentrated on the ancient and scriptural origins of the Negro race.Others focused on the roles played by blacks in American history, as in Williams, , History of the Negro Race in America (1883),Alexander, William T., History of the Colored Race in America (1887),Wilson, Joseph T., The Black Phalanx (1888),Stanford, Peter Thomas, The Tragedy of the Negro in America (1898),Tarver, H. M., The Negro in the History of the United States (1905),and Johnson, Edward A., A School History of the Negro Race in America (1911).Still other authors, including William Wells Brown, The Rising Son: or, The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (1874),Wilson, Joseph T., Emancipalion, Its Course and Progress from 1481 B.C. to A.D. 1875 (1882),Smith, L. T., A Great Truth in a Nutshell (1883),and Thomas, William Hannibal, The American Negro (1901),attempted topical overviews of racial history. Several more works, including James T. Holly's “The Divine Plan of Human Redemption in its Ethnological Development” (1884),and Steward's, Theophilus GouldThe End of the World; or, Clearing the Way for the Fullness of the Gentiles (1888), forecast future events within a broad scriptural narrative framework. Evidence internal to both Barber's and Bell–s histories leads me to date them both in the first decade of the twentieth century, probably between 1904 and 1910.

15. Albert J. Raboteau discusses the larger context for some of these theological concerns in “‘Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Forth Her Hands’: Black Destiny in Nineteenth-Century America,” A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History (Boston, 1995), pp. 3756.

16. Emancipation: Its Course and Progress from 1481 B.C. to A.D. 1875 (Hampton, Va., 1882), p. 150;Williams, , History of the Negro Race, 2: 547.

17. Thomas, , The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become (New York, 1901), pp. xii–xvii.

18. ibid, pp. xxi, xxiv, 165, 145.

19. ibid, p. 44.

20. For example, Edward A. Johnson, Rufus L. Perry, Peter Thomas Stanford, Theophilus Gould Steward, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, William Hannibal Thomas, George Washington Williams, and Joseph T. Wilson.

21. ibid, pp. 146–48.

22. Williams, , History of the Negro Race, 2: 464, 534.

23. Eisenstein, Elizabeth J., “Some Conjectures About the Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought,” Journal of Modern History 40 (1968): 25.On the connections between collective identity and the rise of print-capitalism, see Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983), p. 44.

24. Moses, , The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850–1925 (New York, 1978).

25. Contemporary debates over “Afrocentricity,” which are often reliant on black precedents in ancient Egypt, have been surprisingly neglectful of the history of those representations. Ironically, much of the nineteenth-century impetus for the study of African antiquity came from black Protestants, whose reliance on Christian tradition was subsequently rejected by Afrocentrists. See Bracey, John H. Jr, and Meier, August, “Black Ideologies, Black Utopias: Afrocentricity in Historical Perspective,” Contributions in Black Studies 12 (1994): 111116.

26. Smith, , A Great Truth in a Nutshell. A Few Ancient and Modern Facts of the Colored People, by One of their Number (n.p., 1883), pp. i–ii, 9.

27. Perry, , The Cushite, or the Descendents of Ham (Springfield, Mass., 1893), pp. 9798.

28. Barber, , Negro of the Earlier World, pp. 6, 16; Perry, Cushite, pp. ix–x.

29. Perry, , Cushite, p. v; Barber, Negro of the Earlier World, p. 24; Smith, A Great Truth, p. 9.

30. A fuller discussion of the nineteenth-century biblical and scientific debates over monogenetic vs. polygenetic theories of humanity lie beyond the scope of this paper. All of the race histories written by African Americans that I have consulted adhere to a monogenetic biblical interpretation. See Frederickson, George, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (New York, 1971);Gould, Steven Jay, The Mismeasure of Man (New York, 1981);and Smith, H. Shelton, In His Image, But … Racism in Southern Religion, 1780–1910 (Durham, N.C., 1972).

31. Wilson, , Emancipation, pp. 9, 99.For biographical information on Wilson, see Haley, James T., comp., Afro-American Encyclopaedia; or, the Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race (Nashville, Tenn., 1895), p. 228.

32. Wilson also raised an interesting question that he never answered: if the Emancipation Proclamation was the acme of modern history, was Abraham Lincoln an instrument of the divine will (p. 72)? If so, what does this reveal about white agency in the abolitionist struggle? It is intriguing, in any event, that John Brown is seen as a martyr for the slaves, but Lincoln's role is somewhat more ambiguous.

33. Stanford, Peter Thomas, The Tragedy of the Negro in America (Boston, Mass., 1898), p. 43.

34. Stanford, , Tragedy, pp. 62, 66.

35. Williams, , History of the Negro Race, 2: 214, 223.

36. Johnson, , School History, p. 92.

37. Williams, , History of the Negro Race, 2: 86, 90, 91.

38. Thomas, , American Negro, pp. 2–3, 12.

39. Williams, , History of the Negro Race, 2: 534535;Wilson, , Emancipation, pp. 100–101.

40. Wilson, , Emancipation, p. 121.

41. Stanford, , Tragedy, pp. iii, 9.

42. Fulop, Timothy E., “‘The Future Golden Day of the Race’: Millennialism and Black Americans in the Nadir, 1877–1901,” Harvard Theological Review 84 (1991): 85;Tuveson, Ernest Lee, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago, 1968), p. 78.

43. Barber, , Negro of the Earlier World, p. 28.

44. Steward, , End of the World (Philadelphia: AME Church Book Rooms, 1888), pp. 6869, 7, 71.For more on Steward's views of African American destiny, see Fulop, “‘The Future Golden Day of the Race,’”; Raboteau, “‘Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Forth Her Hands’”; and David W. Wills, “Aspects of Social Thought in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1884–1910” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1975).On Steward's career, see William Seraile, Voice of Dissent: Theophilus Gould Steward (1843–1924) and Black America (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1991).

45. Steward, End of the World, pp. 76, 3–4.

46. ibid, pp. 14, 16–17.

47. Holly, James Theodore, “The Divine Plan of Human Redemption, in its Ethnological Development,” AME Church Review 1 (10 1884): 83.

48. This caveat is prompted by the work of Michael McGuire, who reminds us that in order to understand the sociology of historical narratives we must examine not simply their authors or their contents, but also their reception by an intended audience.(“The Rhetoric of Narrative, in Narrative Thought and Narrative Language, eds. Britton, Bruce K. and Pellegrini, Anthony D. (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990), p. 228.

49. These questions will be taken up in the larger study of which this essay will be a part: Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F., African-American Communal Narratives, 1780–1915 (in progress).

50. Moses, , Golden Age, p. 78. Moses, like many other observers of nineteenth-century black nationalism, is well aware of the religious character of virtually all of its manifestations. He asserts that “In the nineteenth century, black nationalism was almost inseparable from religion. … Rather than thinking of religious black nationalism as one of the varieties of black nationalism, one might almost say that black nationalism is a variety of religion.” The Wings of Ethiopia: Studies in African-American Life and Letters (Ames, Iowa, 1990), pp. 35, 113.St. Clair Drake makes similar arguments in The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion (Chicago, 1970). Yet neither Moses nor Drake traces the institutional means, especially the black churches, through which black nationalist ideologies were disseminated.

51. In a suggestive study that has many potential applications to the study of race and racism, Sandra Lipsitz Bern analyzes the various cultural ’lenses“ that govern our perceptions and articulations of gender difference in the United States. See Bern, , The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Equality (New Haven, Conn., 1993).


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