A new book on African-American history has just been published that presents slavery from a new perspective. Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture is a series of essays and photographs that presents the story of a people not as victims, but as survivors of a cruel and oppressive institution and, who in spite of all that, emerged to become an integral part of American history and its culture.
The institution of legal slavery in the United States spanning the 16th to mid-18th centuries is a blight on this nation's history that most people would just as soon forget, both the descendents of slave owners and African-Americans whose ancestors were enslaved themselves. But in the new book, Jubilee, author Howard Dodson says it is time to re-examine the period of slavery beginning with the term itself.
"They were human beings caught in a bad situation trying how to figure out how to make it better," he explains. "That's the simplest way of thinking about this. That's been one of the problems with so much of the previous work and the previous scholarship is that people would begin the conversation by defining them as slaves, rather than defining them as human beings in a state of enslavement."
"And if they are human beings in a state of enslavement, then they are certainly perfectly capable of assessing their situation," he adds, " of developing images and notions about their ideals for themselves, for their families, for the world, and acting on those ideals to bring them into reality."
Howard Dodson is also director of the Schomburg Center in New York City, one of the most prominent institutions of black scholarship in the world. He says the book Jubilee is a celebration not of slavery itself, but of the rich culture that emerged from a people who, under the worst of circumstances, managed to create a new way of living by combining their African heritage with European traditions.
"They invented new languages so they could communicate with one another and their European captors," he explains. "They create new family life. They create new music. It's not simply picking up African music and dropping it here, but bringing in these diverse musical forms. But probably most important is they create themselves as new people."
Jubilee is an African-American word meaning "day of freedom." The colorful coffee-table book includes other essays by leading African-American scholars who write about such issues as family, religion and Africans in the military. Essayist Gail Buckley is the author of American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm. The daughter of legendary singer, Lena Horne, Ms. Buckley began research on her book after completing a work about her family, The Hornes. At a reception for the publication of Jubilee, she said much about African-American history "that seems to be new really isn't, but is gradually being re-discovered."
"Specifically in the 18th and 19th centuries, in my own particular field, the story of blacks in the Revolution and the Civil War were well known. This history was erased because of southern revisionism at the beginning of the 20th century," she said. "And southern revisionist historians wrote new textbooks which are basically taught in American public schools from 1900 to 1970 in which black military valor was erased to propagate the myth of the happy slave."
Among Ms. Buckley's other findings was that twentieth-century-America was what she believes to have been a "much more racist period than even the 18th and 19th centuries."
"For example, in World War I, Woodrow Wilson [28th president, 1913-1921] was arguably the most racist war time president," she noted. "He was the first southern Democrat to be president since the Civil War. He was an overt racist. He re-segregated Washington, D.C. and the federal government which had been de-segregated during the Civil War. He would not allow black soldiers to fight under the American flag in World War I. They fought under the French flag in French uniforms. Black historians wrote about that. So this was known and then it was erased, it was silenced, it was paved over. So each discovery was so much fun and exciting."
Gail Buckley says she applauds Jubilee and other publications now coming out that document what she describes as "completed American history."
Another contributor is Annette Gordon Reed, whose essay, "Sacred Legacies" comments on the black family. She says for many people, black and white, there is still some aversion to addressing the issue of slavery. Ms. Reed says she approached her subject not in general terms but from an individual's point of view.
"One of the things I try to do in my work is to try to think about what it was like for the enslaved person, taking the abuse and taking a sense of hopelessness but still managing to hope in the midst of all of thi," she explained. "And you can see from the book and the creation of music, of poetry, of spirituals and things like that, that had to come out of a culture that was always struggling that they had not given up."
Author and editor of Jubilee, Howard Dodson says he produced Jubilee in hopes of reaching as wide an audience as possible. He says he also hopes it will act as an invitation to other ethnic groups to dig a little deeper into their own histories where, "they too may find an opportunity to set the record straight."