Noted Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
History, like law and race, is a human construct. It has no physical existence, yet it is still a very real phenomenon. When we study history, we study the recordings and explanations of past events in narrative form as they have been told.
But it is not enough to study the narratives of past events. If we are not to be victimized by history, we must know who created these narratives and why. We must know the truth of the telling. And to know this truth, we must study historiography.
History is only the study of the past as told to us. The study of the telling is historiography. It is the study of what came out of the minds of the individuals who created these narratives.
It is important to understand that histories are not always factual. Narratives known to consist of falsehoods often are accepted as myths, while those built upon undiscovered falsehoods are generally deemed to be truths.
Like any other social construct, history can be used for good or evil. Slavery and the murderous laws of Germany’s Third Reich are two examples of this. Also, histories constantly are written in ways that create advantages for one group of people while causing suffering for another.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy has worked vigorously with historians for more than the last 150 years to create myths about the South’s Lost Cause that they knew were underpinned with falsehoods. Then they peddled those myths as truths to maintain white supremacy and promote the Ku Klux Klan. They saturated Southern towns and counties with statues honoring Confederate dead to perpetuate those myths. They also controlled what myths would be included in textbooks used by to public school children. Their campaign of lies and miseducation was intended to maintain a social order guaranteeing the dominance of the white race by venerating vicious slaveholders and denigrating the enslaved and their descendants.
But myth creation positioning Black and white folk in history is nothing new. Centuries ago, Western historians erased Black emperors and Black popes from the stories of the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. Emperors like Septimius Severus and Macrinus were not erased from history, but their African ancestry was rarely, if ever, mentioned in histories. Popes Victor I, Miltiades and Gelasius I all were acknowledged by contemporary writers as having been born in Africa, but this fact often has been omitted from later histories.
Even though Black folk have fought for America in every war since the nation’s beginning, there was very little awareness of the significance of African Americans in U.S. military until movies like “Glory” and “Red Tails” arrived on the big screen. The histories of America’s battles have been written time and time again, and with each re-write, Black warriors were written out of the narrative.
According to a report by 1st Lt. (later General) John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, Black soldiers of the 10th Cavalry led the attack on San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders did not get to the top of that hill until the fighting was over. A few years later, however, Roosevelt was campaigning to become vice president of the United States, and hoping to secure Southern votes, he denied the heroism of the Black troops that he had witnessed and claimed they had performed poorly during the fighting. Casting himself as the hero of the battle, Roosevelt claimed that he and his 500 Rough Riders defeated 10,000 Spaniards defending San Juan Hill.
Continuing this trend of warping history, Black environmental activists most recently have been written out of the narrative of the struggle over climate change. This omission was highlighted when a young Nigerian woman who was part of a delegation of five activists was cropped out of their group photo by the Associated Press. Journalism is the first draft of history, and this news photo showed four smiling young European activists with no hint that an African was involved. When people of color are written out of the first drafts of history, it is no surprise that we are written out of later versions.
Each February in the United States, Black history is grudgingly celebrated as a gift to undeserving people of color and treated as separate and apart from American history. This is a continuation of people of color being written out of history. Celebrating Black History Month as separate from other histories segregates it as a category of ethnohistory, rather than as an integral thread not only of American history but world history. World history and American history must be taught in ways that include the various histories of Black people. The Black popes must be acknowledged in the histories of the popes, the Black Roman emperors must be visible in the histories of the Roman Empire.
Black folk need to create our own true narratives so that it is understood that our history is woven throughout the fabric of world history, and not a loose thread, clinging sadly at its edge.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.