Publication Date

September 1, 1993

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning

My experience and that of Vince Nobile in teaching African American history underscore differences in our preparations and research specializations, in our approaches, and in our two institutions. Faculty members at a community college not only teach more courses but are expected to offer a diversity of subjects, many of them outside of their research focus and not necessarily reflective of their graduate training and scholarship. The problem of preparation, however, has not been confined to community colleges. In the 1960s, four-year colleges and universities found themselves under pressure to establish courses in black history, and they often applied different standards to faculty assigned to teach such courses. The suspicion grew, often with good reason, that departments failed to treat the subject with the same respect, the same intellectual rigor they applied to traditional “mainstream” subjects. On some campuses, the paternalism which characterized the establishment and tolerance of black studies exceeded in cynicism the previous era of hostility and indifference and left a legacy of mutual suspicion and distrust. The quality of black studies programs and courses varied from campus to campus; on some, they were subordinated to political and ideological goals or died from administrative neglect, but on others they became and have remained thriving and serious academic endeavors.

The insistence that only blacks can teach, understand, and penetrate the black experience reveals a contempt for both learning and history, and in particular a disparagement of the history of black Americans. I have taught the History of African Americans and Race Relations at the University of California at Berkeley since 1968. My responsibility has been the second half of the course, 1865 to the present; the first half has been taught at various times by Winthrop Jordan, Albert Raboteau, Earl Lewis, and Waldo Martin, all of them historians whose research focused on the black experience. During these 25 years, no student has ever challenged my right or qualifications to teach the course; students have, on occasion, expressed an interest in how I came to be committed to this field of study as an undergraduate and graduate student at Berkeley in the 1950s. I have always welcomed student responses to the course, and they have made valuable suggestions concerning the content of the lectures and readings. (Several years ago, for example, students asked for more material on black women.) Enrollment in the course has varied from 250 to 500, sometimes limited by the size of the room and the number of graduate readers available. The number of African American students in the course has increased, along with their enrollment at Berkeley.

It would never occur to me to explain in the first lecture why as a white scholar I was teaching the course. Hopefully, as with any course, the way it is taught will persuade students of the depth of my commitment to the subject as a teaching and research field. My first lecture examines over the past 200 years the names by which African Americans have referred to themselves (Africans, colored Americans, Negroes, Afro-Americans, blacks), and how these various terms have reflected changes in black consciousness. The remainder of the first lecture tries to make clear what students should expect from the course: that the history of African Americans is an academic discipline as intellectually demanding and rigorous, as complex and difficult, as rich and rewarding, as full of paradoxes, contradictions, and ironies, as the history of any people or any nation. It does not lend itself to consensus, to sweeping generalizations, or to eulogistic sketches of heroes and heroines. If they are expecting celebratory history, racial politics, and racial therapy, in whatever guise, they will be deeply disappointed.

No course in African American history should confine itself to the most articulate leaders—that is, educated black men and women who were able to express their feelings in a language understood by whites. The teacher of black history needs to be sensitive to the varieties of cultural documentation, to the diverse, usually nonpolitical ways in which people convey their thoughts and feelings about matters of daily and far-reaching concern to them. In documenting the black South, for example, in both my teaching and research, I have learned as much from novelists, poets, musicians, storytellers, and artists as I have from academic historians; they have illuminated the past for me in ways that are difficult for an historian to capture. The course draws primarily on the lives, the experiences, and the rich oral expressive tradition of black Americans, the variety of ways in which they have articulated their thoughts and aspirations. I require that my students be familiar with the narratives of Nate Shaw, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, but I want to expose them as well to the narratives sung by a Robert Johnson, a Charlie Patton, a Tommy Johnson, a Bertha “Chippie” Hill, a Son House, and a Muddy Waters, among others. The “textbooks” assigned in the course consist of a variety of narratives—the written, the spoken, and the sung.

The object of a course in African American history, as my colleague Nathan Huggins once suggested, is not to become a part of the historical mainstream but to transform and redefine the mainstream. To view the American past through the eyes and voices of black men and women is to reconceptualize American history, to alter the way we think and talk about American history and American life. This is much more than a history of victimization, a story of what white people have done to and thought about black men and women. The mechanisms used by whites to control black labor and black life are critical to an understanding of the African American past, but so is the extraordinary resourcefulness of black men and women in responding to those mechanisms, the ways in which they have acted in their own cause. The story of race relations in the United States is necessarily painful and ugly, as it includes some of the bleakest examples of violence and dehumanization in history, but it is also the story of men and women who found ways to survive, and who in many instances managed to draw a meaningful line in their day-to-day lives between accommodation and submission.

The new voices, the new historical experiences and cultural perspectives brought to the writing and teaching of history over the past 30 years have transformed profoundly how we think about the past. The doubters persist, however, using charges of “political correctness” to mask their skepticism about African American history and multicultural studies as serious academic endeavors. The race hustlers and propagandists continue to ply their wares as well. Throughout our history, various groups and individuals (including presidents) have invoked history for their cause and abused history for their purposes. This is hardly a new phenomenon. It has sometimes been good therapy, it has never been good history.

Leon F. Litwack is A.F. & May T. Morrison Professor of History at University of California, Berkeley.