The African-American story is not just activism and resistance.
It's Black History Month yet again. With several years of university teaching under my belt, I've begun to wonder what black history my students have actually learned during this month or any month before entering college. It's clear the students know a version of black history that moves rather quickly from slavery to Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to the election of Barack Obama.
They describe black history with words, such as "real," "struggle," and "overcoming." "Real" captures the racial authenticity that privileges those stories, which emphasize the ways in which black people have fought back against an oppressive system through invention, revolution, and political activism. What the students have learned seems to suggest that a history of the black experience documents how black Americans have "kept it real" in spite of racism.
After numerous classroom discussions, I've come to understand that though this "real" history is important, it overshadows the moments where resistance and activism are not obvious concerns. There is a black history that exists outside of the "real" story. Here, I am reminded of 18th century poet Phillis Wheatley, whose poems possess no apparent literary activism. Her well-formed elegies barely discuss slavery and certainly do not seem to oppose its practice. Before we place her outside of black history or chastise her lack of racial consciousness, we must recognize that Wheatley may offer an alternative story. Let's assume that Wheatley's intention was not to inaugurate this "real" history. Let's concede that Wheatley does not keep real the narrative of struggle and resistance that has become synonymous with blackness.
What Wheatley does offer is a story where choice is privileged alongside resistance and struggle. Her poetry makes evident her choice to write about that which makes her human. In the 18th century, it's God and faith. Wheatley is not alone in choice. She is joined by countless others—such as the famed trans-Atlantic minister and Prince Hall Mason chaplain, John Marrant and the poets, Jupiter Hammon and Lucy Terry—who write poems, autobiographical narratives, sermons, and stories that may not appear rife with literary activism.
Though the examples I cite here are all from the 18th century, Wheatley, Hammon, and Terry, nonetheless, represent the less-known black histories that span all centuries since the colonization of North America. They represent the women and men that altered the course of history through their choices. Some of those choices may look like resistance, as in the case of Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, or David Walker. Other times, these choices may look to us like survival or complacency as with Wheatley or the actor Bert Williams.
But these words—resistance, survival, and complacency—limit black history and deny the varied way in which black people have contributed to this history. Instead of resistance, let's heed Ralph Ellison's charge to pursue that which he could only describe as the "something else" of black life. Let's document not only the moments when we actively struggled but also those times when we lived everyday lives. It should be the living that we celebrate this month because it's through the living that we make and change history.
Tara Bynum is an assistant professor of English at Towson University in Baltimore, MD