STAFF & GUEST BLOG

Are Whites Entitled to Write Black History?

February 15th, 2011, byALAN KURTZ

Mark Twain, left, with John Lewis, a lifelong friend and inspiration for the character Jim in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
Mark Twain, left, with John Lewis, a lifelong friend and inspiration for the character Jim in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

“Until the lions have their own historians,” begins an African proverb, “the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s worth noting that the African American experience has often been chronicled by whites. Do such accounts, in effect, glorify the hunter at the lions’ expense? And if so, is the solution to declare Black history off limits to “white hunters?”

African American culture has long been irresistible to white authors, and often to the dismay of Blacks. In 1957 the NAACP condemned Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, citing its unseemly Negro dialect and lavish use of the N-word. As late as 2007, the book was banned from a Connecticut high school after a parent objected to its language. Now an Alabama publisher is selling a sanitized version that replaces the N-word with “slave.” Such controversies, writes Twain biographer Ron Powers, “have left deep imprints on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, encouraging students and general readers to approach the work not so much as literature but as battleground in the American culture wars.”

In a recent blog at Technorati.com addressing this subject, I argued that America’s story is no one’s property. It’s our collective experience and belongs to all races. Three days later, The Huffington Post adopted my title “Are Whites Entitled to Write Black History?” for an article that attracted hundreds of online comments, mostly from readers who identified themselves as African American. Not everyone answered my question, but of those who did, a ratio of 4 to 1 were in favor.

However, many Huffington posters attacked the question itself, calling it “a non-issue … a question that does not need to be asked … dumb beyond words … irrelevant … insane … nonsensical … ridiculous … silly … most stupid question ever … blatantly racist … racist and really ignorant … this is why racism is alive and well.”

Several Huff posters went so far as to flatly deny the existence of African Americans today who oppose a white author’s claim to write Black history. One even accused me of race baiting. “Ah yes,” he wrote, “nothing like a little Jewish race baiting to get the Blacks and whites worked up.”

Yet consider the following extracts from this same Huffington Post thread.

“White people should stay away from writing about other people. Leave Black history to Blacks.”

“Whites have written as much Black History as I’d like to see written by them. How about we let Black people write their own history for a change!”

“Whites have misquoted, outright lied about Black history. I prefer the offspring of the people tell the story.”

“When whites have the unmitigated gall to write about Black history they inevitably find a way to venerate themselves, no matter how undeserving. Their white racial frame makes it necessary. We have nearly 300 years of white folks writing American history and we have nothing but a one-sided lie.”

“One cannot possibly write the history of a people who were here on earth hundreds of thousands year before they were. We are tired of your lies about history.”

Given that 20% of these African American respondents reject on principle a white author’s legitimacy in writing Black history — without reading a word of what he wrote — anyone who calls this a non-issue or a question that doesn’t need to be asked is celebrating Black History Month by wearing a blindfold. It’s something that must be discussed, if only to dispel the myth that “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” If the historian is honest and true to his trade, the color of his skin should not matter.

Alan Kurtz blogs at Technorati.com and is the author of Stereotypes in Black Music: The African-American Crossover Compromise.

  • Rodney Knolton

    As long as the person writing the accounts of black history are “reporting” history and not injecting their own agenda, there should not be a problem with whites writing about blacks, jews writing about arabs, or christians writing about muslims. A true historian should not be influenced by political correctness or prejudices, but rather by a factual account of what they’re “reporting”.

  • PoliBohoGlam

    “If the historian is honest and true to his trade, the color of his skin should not matter.”
    Yet many, if not most, ARE NOT true to their craft. Even if they are true to it, they are more true to themselves. It is human nature.
    Also, even if YOU are true to your trade in every way, it does not mean that MOST are. So, while the color of one’s skin should not matter, it usually does; not because of color alone, but because of the history around that skin color in America.

  • LS

    The question does have a racist premise, much like: did the antebellum white South have the right to keep black slaves? It presumes the question is open to debate. To make the racism behind the question overt, merely role reverse it: Can a black man represent the US Presidency for whites? I would suggest the question is manipulative race baiting and unseemly.

  • MsKimmy

    I think it’s a matter of what is written and the perspective of it. I enjoyed “Slaves in the Family” and “There are no Children Here” (latter by Jonathan Kozol). I also recommend (again) “The People’s History of the United States” by the late Howard Zinn. I also enjoyed Studs Terkel’s “Race” also. I think as long as African-Americans read, question and debate what is written by whites, and write their perspectives themselves, there should be no monopoly on who write one’s own history.

  • Dee

    The last line is an excellent point, largely because if the “natives” of a history are writing it and writing it from different perspectives and including facts left out, it makes any future non-native writers compelled to be more thorough and less biased in their renditions of the histories. It’s the competition factor, in this case, competition for credibility.

  • Tyrone Wedgworth

    Simply put, truth, whether written or spoken is absent of color. Those in pursuit of truth are by nature just and righteouss. 44 male & BlackAmerican in truth.

  • Dwayne E. Mahon

    I believe in the past we had no choice in who wrote it for us. I personally believe everyone has the right to write. I also believe that time is of the essence and we need to write before those that know the truth are gone.

  • CC

    As a second grader in the 60′s, I remember reading an American history text book with a recount of slavery going something like…and the slaves served their masters and the slaves were happy. I became angry and from that day on I took a disliking to being taught or reading anything about American history or European history because I believed that the books consisted of lies and I then had no respect for the teachers that taught lies. The proverb is true, but the problem is in 2011 no one can recount what was true in the past unless they were there. Much of what we might think we know now has been so distorted it cannot be considered the truth.

  • Adam M.

    The concept of this article is blatantly racist right out on the surface! Let me just ask this question “Should blacks be allowed to write about European history?” To disqualify someone based soley on race is the very definition of racism. To those who will respond that the actions of whites have disqualified or shown their inability to wrie on such topics, I ask if it is valid that an old lady clutch her purse a bit tighter when a black youth approaches her?

  • Issac Doone

    History without interpetation is just a list of facts. White historians who write about the black experience in America is, even in their best effort, presents a contrivance. This in itself is not a bad thing if it spurs remembrance, acknowledgement and appreciation of the culture. But only a person who has lived under the residual effects of slavery, has seen and experienced the residual effects of jim crow, has tasted the injustice of institutional racism in the employment market and other arena of America society can present an empathic account of black americans. Not all subjects are exclusive, but a vast majority that require an understanding of the culture are.

  • John LaFosse

    I’m reading “Different Mirror” by Ronald Takai whom is a 5th generation Japanese American. People often have asked him about his uncanny ability to speak english and then he explains. He taught African american studies back in the day in Berkley.
    what I’m understanding the more I read Takai is that is perspective is objective and he writes about several cultures. The bottom line is he is a great writer. As far as white people are concerned, so what? many people consider me white and sure I am for the most part, yet I am partly native (very small percentage) but it still forms my internal opinions. It is up to the individual to write about whatever subject one wants. We have free press for a reason. The history of anglo saxons writing clearly rascist literature doesn’t mean they should be banned from evolving into writers that are more educated about race. Writing is a growing experience and a person’s interests shouldn’t be boxed out or limited. I am deeply interested in East Asian Studies and it has nothing to do with my race.
    The majority of whites are tranformed by Black culture and some (i don’t care what the percentage is) know more about African american history. I personally met a hip hop producer that didn’t know what the underground railroad was. huh?

  • Sean D.

    While I’d say a white historian might lack the initial empathy and understanding an African American would, the same can be said of the same white American historian writing of 19th century frontiersmen. If a white person today said I remember back when I was living in the 19th century, they’d sound ridiculous. As H.L. Gates has argued that a separatist, Afrocentric education perpetuates racist stereotypes. He maintains that it is “ridiculous” to think that only blacks should be scholars of African and African-American literature. He argues, “It can’t be real as a subject if you have to look like the subject to be an expert in the subject,” adding, “It’s as ridiculous as if someone said I couldn’t appreciate Shakespeare because I’m not Anglo-Saxon. I think it’s vulgar and racist whether it comes out of a black mouth or a white mouth.”

  • -U-

    Yes, If they are telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, the truth, as they researched it. Leaving OUT, their personal comment’s. Race don’t write the word’s, people do.

  • Jakousi Keita

    It is absurd to tell someone what history he/she can write. Anyone can the history of anyone else. It is the past; it has happened. There have been some great white historians, who have shed light on many watershed issues in black history, and just because they are white, doesn’t descredit their work. Anyone can distort history or manipulate facts. Just because an author is black doesn’t follow that the work is automatically credible. If I am black, does that mean I can’t write history of non-blacks? A man can’t write a history of women? A southerner cannot write the history of notherners? The list can go on until we get to the point that the only history one can write is that of author’s own life, and nothing more. That, however, is autobiography, not history. A scholar is a scholar, and if that scholar reaches the goal of scholarship, then who he/she is remains unimportant in terms of the work he/she produces. Judge a scholar by his/her scholarship rather than the author’s identity.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 10:49 am