A Usable Black History
Professor John McWhorter, linguistics professor at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, has written a compelling essay in City Journal (Summer 2001) titled "Toward a Usable Black History." Last year, he wrote Losing The Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America arguing there's a culture of black anti-intellectualism, impeding academic excellence, resulting from an ideology of victimization and separatism. The pursuit of academic excellence is seen as "acting white" and as such amounts to racial betrayal. In his City Journal article, McWhorter says that while it would be folly not to teach the history of the injustices of slavery, Jim Crow and gross racial discrimination, "but a history of only horrors cannot inspire."
Professor McWhorter says, "When 'Learn your history' means 'Don't get fooled by superficial changes', and 'Today's New York City Street Crimes Unit can't be distinguished from yesterday's Bull Connor', and our aggrieved despair over our sense of disinclusion from the national fabric remains as sharp as ever. Could any people find inner peace when taught to think of their own society as their enemy?"
Instead, a better, more usable history would be one that gives greater emphasis to black successes in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. That kind of history inspires instead of breeding victimhood. McWhorter says today's education chaos is not business-as-usual but something entirely new. From the late 1800s to 1950, some black schools were models of academic achievement. Black students at Washington's Dunbar High School often outscored white students as early as 1899. Schools such as Frederick Douglas (Baltimore), Booker T. Washington (Atlanta) P.S. 91 (Brooklyn), McDonough 35 (New Orleans) and others operated at a similar level of excellence. These excelling students weren't solely members of the black elite; most had parents who were manual laborers, domestic servants, porters and maintenance men.
Professor McWhorter says that instead of "romanticizing failure" in black communities young people should be taught that successful economic communities can be had. Chicago's "Bronzeville" is a handy example. After 1875, blacks occupied a three by 15 block enclave on the South Side. During the early 1900s, Bronzeville was home to several black newspapers and 731 business establishments by 1917 in 61 lines of work. The Binga Bank opened in 1908 by its founder Jesse Binga who started out with a wagon selling coal and oil. By 1929, Bronzeville blacks had amassed $100 million in real estate holdings.
Chicago wasn't the only city where blacks established a significant business presence. Other cities would include New York, Philadelphia, Durham, Atlanta and Washington D.C., and Tulsa's Greenwood district that was destroyed by rioting whites.
Keep in mind when blacks established business successes such as those in Bronzeville and Durham it was accomplished in a harsh racial environment. No one can attribute their successes to SBA minority loans, business set asides, affirmative action and measures deemed indispensable by today's race experts. It was accomplished through hard work, sacrifice and, as my father used to say, coming early and staying late.
Ignoring or downplaying black achievement promotes the victim attitude where people believe that in order for them to be successful somebody else must perform some benevolent act. The bottom line indisputable fact of business is that black Americans have made the greatest gains, over some of the highest hurdles, in the shortest span of time than any other racial group in mankind's history. That speaks well of the intestinal fortitude of a people and it also speaks well of a nation in which such gains were possible. Today's whining and portrayal of black people as a victim class amounts to an unspeakable betrayal of the sacrifices and the successes of our ancestors.
Walter E. Williams
August 20, 2001
Return to Articles Page