Herbert Aptheker and African American History

Historians in the News
tags: Herbert Aptheker

Mark Solomon is Emeritus Professor of History at Simmons College.

HNN Editor's Note: After Mr. Solomon posted the statement reprinted below at Portside's website, Jesse Lemisch submitted a note to Portside on 10/22 (where it was not posted).  Click here to read Lemisch's note. 

If one discusses Herbert Aptheker's work in African American history in the midst of controversy over Bettina Aptheker's assertion that her prominent father molested her as a child, one is left open to the charge of unjustly changing the subject from the deadly serious issues of repressive patriarchy and sexual predation.

However, Aptheker's writing in Black history was first raised by Bettina in her book, "Intimate Politics," in Christopher Phelps' review of the book in the Chronicle of Higher Education and in Jesse Lemisch's comment on Phelps' review on the History News Network website. Phelps wrote:

"Aptheker ... adamantly denied the possibility of 'objective' history. 'It is intense partisanship on the side of the exploited and therefore on the side of justice,' he once wrote, 'that makes possible the grasping of truth.'

"Perhaps only a daughter who internalized that norm could so piercingly identify its author's faults -- and I do not primarily mean his abuse of her.

"The psychological scars left by her father's violations lent Bettina Aptheker an acute understanding of the traumatic consequences of oppression, allowing her to intuit that the history of black Americans was far more complex than Herbert allowed for in his interpretations.

"She writes that her father tended in his public talks to portray the history of blacks one of 'undaunted heroism.' She reflects on 'how foolish and condescending' that was 'without meaning to be' when viewed from the 'interior' reality of black experience, where weakness and betrayal are just as common."

Lemisch urges the search for a connection between molestation and Aptheker's writings in African American history and other areas: "I continue to wish for discussion on how the attitudes expressed in Herbert's awful acts might have been reflected in books like the centrally important American Negro Slave Revolts and or the truly terrible The Truth About Hungary." In a note to Phelps, Lemisch returns to that point: "I am interested in seeing what connections people might be able to sketch in. There might be some." (In a panel discussion with Eric Foner and Manning Marable on October 30, 1996, Lemisch praised Aptheker and his influence on Lemisch's own work, singling out American Negro Slave Revolts for its exploration of an "alternate moral code" in the individual acts of slave resistors.)

Bettina Aptheker's thoughts about her father's historical writing constitute only two paragraphs in a 545-page memoir. Focusing on those brief comments, Phelps however did not quote Bettina's important qualification: "He [Herbert Aptheker] accurately reported betrayals in his writings, for example, in slave revolts, but in lectures he represented the history as one of undaunted heroism."

Some years ago, in a conversation with Herbert Aptheker, he voiced an awareness of pathologies and scars in African American life. His historical labors accounted for the savage nature of white supremacy and the inevitable physical and psychic damage it inflicts on the oppressed. He noted that both scholarly work and popular culture were rife with characterizations (themselves manifesting racism) of social pathologies but sorely lacking was the record of black resistance, social survival and the building of a powerful institutional life in the face of remorseless racism. His scholarly work was dedicated to baring that history. Given the essentially educative character of lectures compared to exhaustively documented writings, it is not surprising that Aptheker sought to stir his live audiences to the richness of African American resistance.

In the mid-1930s Aptheker began his exploration of African American history. Acknowledging his debt to the Black scholars who preceded him, Aptheker, working without academic appointments, research assistants, computerized data, or fulsome grants, nevertheless produced a massive body of work in that history. John Hope Franklin, the dean of African American historians, said Aptheker's studies "made it more and more difficult to neglect the history of the Negro in America."

It's important to note the scholarly environment when Aptheker began his work. Dominating the field of history were open apologetics for slavery wherein slaves were considered innately inferior, invisible or marginal or endowed with childlike dependence -- characterizations often extended to Blacks in general. (Even into the early 1950s, Morison's and Commager's widely used standard US history textbook, The Growth of the American Republic, characterized slaves as happy and indolent.)

In those early years, Aptheker challenged openly racist schools of history as well as sentimental, liberal interpretations of African American life and race relations such as Gunnar Myrdal's contention that "The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American." That view ascribed no important role to Blacks in struggling for their own liberation. For Aptheker, the oppression of African Americans was rooted in concrete relationships based upon economic and political power; it had to be fought not in the subjective and inert realm of sentiment, but in the economic and political arena.

That arena constituted the framework for Aptheker's M.A. thesis (completed in 1937) on Nat Turner's Rebellion. Basing his analysis of the Turner uprising upon study of economic and social conditions in rural Virginia in the early 1830s and on close reading of the testimony of white Southerners, Aptheker concluded that Turner, in the midst of deteriorating economic circumstances, was motivated by nothing less than a willingness to die for the liberation of his people. He and his followers were not "deluded wretches and monsters...but rather ... further examples of the...endless roll of human beings willing to resort to open struggle to get something precious to them -- peace, prosperity, liberty, or in a word, a greater amount of happiness."

American Negro Slave Revolts was published in 1943 while Aptheker was on the battlefields of Europe. In that pioneering study of slave plots and rebellions there was neither the need nor the compulsion to exaggerate or mythologize. Rumors (false or real), unrest, plots (thwarted or consummated) and actual uprisings were accurately defined, labeled and differentiated; distinctions between conspiracies hatched in the minds of planters and actual rebellions were sharply drawn. John Hope Franklin, in a Harvard University address in 1965, vigorously rebutted an assertion from the audience that Aptheker overstated claims of rebellion, noting that Slave Revolts carefully drew distinctions between rumors, plots and uprisings.

At the same time, Aptheker noted that Southern legal, social, theological, political and cultural life was molded to undermine the "restlessness, discontent, and rebelliousness" of slaves. In addition to psychological debasement, the legal and political structure forbade slaves to read and write, to possess weapons, to testify against whites in courts, to resist the commands of white masters. Traitors and spies were cultivated; overseers, militiamen, guards, bounty hunters, posses and federal troops were all mustered to staunch plots and rebellions, real and imagined, that underlay Southern life.

The book's recapitulation of the consequences of slave transgression, real or imagined -- bleeding backs, cropped ears and the lyncher's rope -- raised a broader concern with the threat to the democratic rights of all should the physical reach and political influence of chattel slavery grow. American Negro Slave Revolts fashioned a portrait of slave plots and rebellions on a broad canvas -- linking the struggle to end slavery with realization of the nation's democratic promise.

Aptheker's historical research was largely devoted to rediscovering the exterior lives of African Americans in engagement and struggle with the nation's racist structures. (It has been alleged that Aptheker was deficient in understanding the interior lives of Blacks. But that provokes a question: how many white persons in this society, rent by pervasive social and cultural apartheid, can claim an understanding of those lives?) The capstone of Aptheker's efforts to render the voices and contributions of African Americans is his monumental multi-volume Documentary History of the Negro People. His aim was to rediscover those voices that bore witness to the falsehoods of those who would denigrate or ignore their roles in the historical panorama. Those who had been reviled or silenced reappeared: Black soldiers who bled and died in shocking numbers on Civil War battlefields, scores of petitioners who sought to end their enslavement, conductors on the Underground Railroad and many more represented in a collection of thousands of letters, speeches, articles and reports.

Professor John Bracey, at a historians' meeting, recalled the excitement among students at Howard University in the turbulent sixties when they first encountered the Documentary History. They found in the first volume the intellectual and emotional bloodlines that quickened their self-awareness and helped forge a bond with past generations. When they went into battle against Jim Crow in Washington, DC, they carried what they called "The Documents" to confirm and fortify the vast change in consciousness taking place within them and within society.

A final point: the urgent battle against sexual abuse is sullied and damaged when it is used, intentionally or not, to open a back door to discredited characterizations of the African American experience, to settle old political scores, to resurrect red- baiting, to present distorted and one sided characterizations of the record of the left (especially the Communist-led left) on gender and women's liberation -- all of which have appeared in various venues where Bettina Aptheker's memoir has been discussed. Patriarchy and sexual molestation are among the most important and lethal issues facing this society. They must be confronted clearly and without distraction, with courage, honesty and a determination to eliminate them. These efforts are inseparable aspects of the fight to free all human beings from every form of oppression.

Read entire article at Mark Solomon at the website of Portside

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