If George Santayana is right about people who are ignorant of history, Americans are doomed to repeat a lot of mistakes. Let's face it, we don't like history. And, every year another survey reminds us of how little of it sticks in the brains of our youth. This doesn't bode well for those of us who regard teaching and learning black history to be morally important for everyone. (If slavery is America's 'second original sin', and conquering Native American peoples was the first, then all Americans who believe in justice have an obligation to understand and eradicate the vestiges of these transgressions.)

Fortunately, in 1926 February was designated Black History Month at theagitation of Chicago-educated African-American historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson's achievement has provided us with an annual opportunity to pay attention to African-American contributions to American society and culture.

Despite this, I have come to feel that America substitutes (mistakes?) its occasional commercial tributes to heroes and heroines for the kind of radical education that can transform people into moral agents. I also think that ordinary Americans (as opposed to those who subsist on the academy's thin air), need a more user-friendly "frame" for thinking about this vast and intimidating subject. I offer a tentative version of such an outline here.

Black history can be conceived as an epic story in three acts: Stability, Struggle, and Striving.


Part one of this epic unfolds amidst the verdant and vast lands of Africa. It was a continent blessed with extraordinary natural resources. Use your imagination and you can almost catch the aroma of coconut and banana, pineapple and pomegranates. The villages of central West Africa were highly organized and stable, and the people self-determined, and proud. Historians like John Hope Franklin remind us that the village empires of Africa were smelting iron for tools and weapons while Asia and Europe lived in the stone age.

Thanks to their stability and social organization, villages expanded and prospered and grew into massive empires during the medieval period of the West. The empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay gave rise to the export and trade of African agricultural and manufactured products throughout the Mediterranean world, Middle East, and Asia. Monarchs throughout the world proudly displayed gold rings and exotic animal skins from the Gold Coast.

With the dawn of the 16th century, Portugal, Holland and Spain rapidly expanded the trade of African men and women. The African chiefs and traders who conspired in this awful scheme became parties to one of the most horrific chapters in the world history of slavery. Nor could they have foreseen how the entire continent of Africa would be divided among seven European nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) at an 1884 conference in Berlin. This development ended the era of self-determination amidst social stability and the opening of a new chapter.


Slavery in what would become the United States began in 1619, when the first 20 Africans arrived at Jamestown. At that time, they were indentured servants who worked for seven years and were then permitted to go free, a practice known as "manumission." This practice led to the growth of a free black population in the colonies. Manumission continued for four decades until Virginia and Maryland passed laws making slavery a lifelong, permanent status. No longer would baptism and conversion enable freedom and enfranchisement.

During these years, blacks initiated a patient struggle to reclaim self-determination. With the support of sympathetic whites and Indians, black people began to chip away at the moral and economic foundations of slavery. Slaves escaped, revolted, and organized to agitate for change. African people in America lived each day with the haunting uncertainty that their lives might be permanently changed in the blink of an eye. Husbands and sons could be lynched, mothers and daughters raped, children sold to another owner, and brutality visited upon anyone with the audacity to insist upon humane treatment.

But, through it all, classics were born. Songs developed to help people endure endless hours of monotonous, backbreaking work soon evolved into something unexpected: They began to absorb and express the inner lives of African slaves. Their rage and resentment as well as their faith and hope fused into the classics we know as Negro spirituals.

Meanwhile, independent black churches were founded; black people refused to endure the humiliations of worshiping in the rear pews or in balconies of the master's church and instead started their own. In 1773, the First African Baptist Church was established in South Carolina. Later, that congregation moved to Savannah and, today is regarded as the oldest continuous black congregation in America. In the 1780s, African Methodist Episcopal churches followed in Philadelphia and New York.