The literal truth that history is made before it is committed to the volumes in our libraries and classrooms carries, of course, additional symbolic meanings with the presidency of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. And in this first Black History Month following his historic inauguration, we have an unprecedented opportunity to expand our approach to African-American history, to usher in a new era with a look back to black pioneers who, although largely forgotten, are particularly resonant heroes for our time.
During the candidacy of President Obama, questions arose that suggested unresolved tensions about African-American history. Where does Obama, son of a white mother and an African father, raised for many years in the Hawaiian home of his white Midwestern grandparents, whose heritage involved immigration rather than slavery, fit into our views of the black American experience? While some tried to make sense of this question in terms of old paradigms, the majority of Americans ultimately embraced a new hero and new ways of discussing race.
In this moment it bears noting that, unique as his background is, Obama’s heritage is not completely anomalous in African-American history. Many famous black Americans, such as Frederick Douglass, had a white parent. And others, like General Colin Powell, are the children of immigrants. If these facts challenge our models of African-American history, we must embrace new ways of thinking. As the late African-American historian Nathan I. Huggins declared nearly two decades ago, we can separate neither white from black history nor slavery from freedom; we must “comprehend that slavery and freedom, white and black, are joined at the hip.” Yet because we have failed to understand the intertwined nature of these categories, Huggins asserted, “we have never understood properly the peculiar condition of blacks who were not slaves.” Activist and Black Entertainment Television correspondent Jeff Johnson aptly noted in a speech at Ithaca College during Black History Month last year that a focus on slavery alone is problematic, narrowing the African-American past to stories of oppression alone.
There are numerous other narratives that necessarily involve discrimination but that also challenge conventional categories in ways that are particularly relevant to the Obama era. Consider, for example, the generally forgotten nineteenth-century figure John Brown Russwurm, the nation’s third black college graduate and one of the editors of Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper, published in New York from 1827 to 1829. Notably, Russwurm’s story shares with Obama’s certain important features; born to a white American father and a Jamaican mother, Russwurm was raised after his mother’s death by his father and white stepmother and educated at private schools, including the prestigious Bowdoin College, where he was in a literary fraternity whose president was Nathaniel Hawthorne. As our president’s editing of the Harvard Law Review (its first African-American editor) helped propel him into public life, Russwurm’s editorship of Freedom’s Journal enabled him become a key civic figure of the late 1820s.
Yet Russwurm never saw himself as other than an African American, or, in his terminology, a “man of colour,” and he felt keenly the impact of America’s conceptions of race on his life. After breaking new ground through his editing of Freedom’s Journal—an achievement which established the importance of the black press and whose legacy continues in the more than two hundred African-American newspapers today—the weight of racism impelled him to leave the United States for the newly formed colony of Liberia. “We consider it mere waste of words to talk of ever enjoying citizenship in this country: it is utterly impossible in the nature of things,” he informed his readers. “The man of colour,” he had determined, “must be sensible of the degraded station he holds in society; and from which it is impossible to rise, unless he can change the Ethiopian hue of his complexion.”
Despite his key contributions to African-American history, Russwurm is a figure who is not often invoked during Black History Month. No doubt this is due in part to his departure from the United States, but also perhaps because his narrative has been difficult to classify in the rigid terms we have too often favored. In the age of Obama, not only the “outdated” history books of my sons' classrooms but also our ways of seeing history must be reevaluated and rewritten. In this atmosphere of excitement and promise, “new” heroes such as Russwurm can emerge, connected as he is to our current president through heritage, education, public service, and leadership. And if Russwurm saw the country as one in which the “nature of things” made it impossible to imagine an African-American president, he also was part of the struggle that slowly but fundamentally changed that reality. African-American history is the history of Frederick Douglass and John Brown Russwurm, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Barack Hussein Obama II. It is time for a hope-filled updating.
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