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.