After all of these years — and thirty-seven years’ worth of Black History Months — I sometimes forget how emotionally charged Black history can be. After all, I’m an academically trained historian, one whose emotional range varies from sarcastic to ironic with most things US, World and African American history. But ever so often, I’m reminded by my students about the sadness and pain involved in learning history. I surprise myself sometimes at how passionate or angry I can become in revisiting a piece of history that I otherwise would show no emotion for on most days.
Black history, though, can bring out both the water works and the daggered eyes. My African American history students at Carnegie Mellon University surprised me one day in October ’96 during a discussion I tried to have about lynching and the KKK. It was based on the Indiana PBS documentary, A Lynching in Marion, Indiana, about the lynching of two Black men and the almost lynching of a young Black male for allegedly killing and robbing a White male and raping a young White female in 1930.
The forty-five minute documentary showed clips of defaced and emasculated Black men hung from trees, beaten beyond recognition and even burned postmortem. It also showed films of KKK rallies in the 1920s and early 1930s Indianapolis and other towns in the state, as well as pictures from the Marion lynching itself. The young Black man in Marion, one James Cameron, was only saved from lynching because a member of White mob actually protected him. It turned out, per usual, that the alleged murder and rape was a false accusation, but Cameron still had to spend four years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
My students could barely speak to me or each other after the film, much less be part of a dispassionate discussion of the film. My Black students were tearful and angry, and my White students were pale and scared. I let them express their emotions for about ten minutes, but waited until the next class to draw out a more comprehensive discussion. As this was the first standalone class I’d taught as an adjunct professor, I was a bit unprepared for the how emotional my students became, how personally they took the film and its content.
But I should’ve been better prepared, especially given my own emotions about Black and other histories over the years. I remember the first time I watched Roots, along with millions of other Americans, in February ’77. I cried or was stunned that whole week. Twelve years later, in my undergraduate readings seminar for History majors at Pitt, I found myself angry with my classmates. My eventual first graduate advisor Larry Glasco was leading a discussion on slavery and the Middle Passage. I didn’t know why, but I was angry that whole class. It wasn’t just a knee-jerk anger. It was a low-heat rage, beyond anything my idiotic classmates were saying about slavery in the eventual US not being as brutal as slavery in the Caribbean or Brazil.
The following semester, I took my first graduate course as a Pitt junior, Comparative Slavery with Sy Drescher. We got into a discussion of Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), a study in which the authors tried to show scientifically that slavery wasn’t as bad for Africans in the US as it was for Africans in the Caribbean and Brazil. Using records from one plantation, Fogel and Engerman tried to show that since few slaves were whipped, that therefore slavery wasn’t brutal for my African ancestors. I was pissed when some of the grad students in my class defended Time on the Cross idea that 1,800 calories a day was sufficient for the average slave. It pissed me off so much that I had to leave the seminar room for five minutes to make sure I didn’t punch someone.
I see some of this in my UMUC students sometimes. Students who turn every issue in US history into a referendum on race. “Immigrants exploited? Well, not compared to African Americans as sharecroppers!” Or “Jim Crow was really a second slavery,” some of my students have said emphatically, as if Blacks did nothing during Reconstruction or Jim Crow to make their lives better. They feel, and rightfully so for the most part, that Blacks have gotten a raw deal throughout American history, and that it is my job to expose the hypocrisy of racism in every lecture and discussion.
It’s emotional and it’s personal. But it’s also historical, which means not so much putting emotions or personal investment aside as much as it does putting these emotions and personal investments in perspective. I’ve never been dispassionate about history – I’ve just learned how to use my New York-style sarcasm to hide my passion pretty well.