For quite some time now, there’s been an extensive, heated and ongoing debate in the African-American community — particularly among its intellectuals — about who should be allowed to recount the stories of African-American people, and whether or not it matters.
Can a white man honestly tell a black man’s story, given the ingrained nature of racism in the United States? Or can he perhaps tell the story even more honestly and dispassionately, as an outside observer not quite so emotionally attached to the subject, as one who might not feel the sense of obligation to present the story in a more racially uplifting way?
Should it be automatic that Alex Haley’s widely acclaimed Autobiography of Malcolm X is more credible and whole than Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson, the likewise widely acclaimed biography written by Marshall Frady, simply because Haley was black and Frady is white?
It is difficult to come up with an absolute and definitive answer, since to do so could easily open the gates to even more racial division and classification. However, Boyd’s compilation lends credence to the position that the history of African-Americans in America is more honestly told when we are the ones doing the telling.
In Autobiography of a People, Boyd employs the autobiographical format most often used to chronicle the life and times of certain “worthy” individuals, and expands that format to its broadest context, thereby attempting to encompass the life and times of an entire race.
The attempt is remarkably successful and enlightening, even for those who may have read volumes upon volumes of African-American history.
It’s not that the book exposes the reader to any major untold historical events, not that it adds much significant detail to the already known horrors of slavery or the turmoil of the civil rights movement. We know this stuff already, at least in general.
But what isn’t known nearly so well is the first-person accounts and remembrances of those who actually experienced these times and events. In chronological order, as far back as the early 1700s and stretching all the way up to 1996, Boyd’s extensive research has rounded up some of the most interesting voices from the front lines — and not all of those voices are well-known. The result is a history that is, in many ways, more consistent with the whole truth of the past than many lengthy documents that attempt to frame, dissect, analyze and explain a series of events.
Consider the difference between me telling you what somebody else said they heard from a buddy about the way things used to be at your cousin’s house, versus your cousin simply telling you what the deal was.
Granted, your cousin might forget a few things or embellish a few others, but if your cousin’s brother, sister, mother and father all seem to recall a similar story, then there’s a pretty good chance the story is on the mark.
In short, this is a peoples’ history told from the point of view of the people who were part of that history. Sometimes the language is flowing and elegant, other times it’s stripped bare and raw, but it’s always true and it always hits the mark. No middle man is needed to translate the meaning.
All you need to do is listen to James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African prince born in the city of Baurnou:
“About this time there came a merchant from the Gold Coast (the third city in Guinea) he traded with the inhabitants of our country in ivory, &c. he took great notice of my unhappy situation, and inquired into the cause; he expressed vast concern for me, and said, if my parents would part with me for a little while, and let me take home with him, it would be of more service to me than any thing they could do for me. He told me that if I would go with him I should see houses with wings to them walk upon the water, and should also see the white folks ... and he added to all this that he would bring me safe back again soon.”
Or to Langston Hughes, born on American shores more than 200 years later: “It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem. And when the parties of A’Lelia Walker, the Negro heiress, were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy. It was a period when Harold Jackman, a handsome young Harlem schoolteacher of modest means, calmly announced one day that he was sailing for the Riviera for a fortnight, to attend Princess Murat’s yachting party. It was a period when Charleston preachers opened up shouting churches as sideshows for white tourists. It was a period when at least one charming colored chorus girl, amber enough to pass for Latin American, was living in a penthouse, with all her bills paid by a gentleman whose name was banker’s magic on Wall Street. It was a period when every season there was at least one hit play on Broadway acted by a Negro cast.”
Or to the imprisoned Mumia Abu-Jamal: “Don’t tell me about the valley of the shadow of death. I live there.”
Naturally, when any author attempts to chronicle such a lengthy portion of such a complex history by choosing the individuals who best represent that history, there are going to be questions asked and protests made about the nature of these decisions. Some big-name people were left out, and many will wonder why. I plead guilty to having made that criticism myself in a separate review of this book.
Although I still question the absence of such luminaries as Jesse Jackson or Miles Davis, despite the author’s introductory explanation, I nevertheless bow to Mr. Boyd’s integrity in making the very difficult choices he made for all the right reasons.
And in the end, despite the absence of this individual or that, the one thing that is not absent at all is a well-researched and invaluable history of the African-American experience.
Also read a review of Helen Zia's Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of An American People. Herb Boyd and Helen Zia were both involved in the early days of the Metro Times, Zia as a freelance writer, Boyd as writer and editor. Their recent books enrich our understanding of their people — and our America.
Return to the home page for other stories and features celebrating the Metro Times' 20th anniverary.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer and musician. E-mail him at [email protected].