The study of African-American history has the power to open many new doors of perception.
This is linked to the fact that its subject matter is unique in human history. The transatlantic slave trade is the only example of a sudden, large-scale movement of human beings between two civilizations of such dramatically different technological and cultural heritages. As all unique events, it has the power to shatter old ideologies.
The transatlantic slave trade was both essential and threatening to the establishment of a European-dominated society in the United States. African labor was needed in order for the young Euro-American society to economically compete with the countries of its ancestral continent. At the same time, the numbers of the slaves were too large for them to be assimilated into the society as it stood. In the process of cultural integration, which is still ongoing, America’s adherence to a European outlook is steadily being redefined.
The field of history has itself been affected by this process. The acceleration in the 1960s and 1970s of the study of social history, a form of history that focuses on the lives of ordinary people, cannot be divorced from the intellectual ferment created by the civil rights movement. Despite this change, there remain many historical theories that ignore the role of Africans and their descendants. In order for the promise of this new perspective to be fulfilled, we must commit ourselves to uncover the stories. Simply put, more research remains to be done.
The Africana studies program at GW has been greatly enhanced by the support of the English and anthropology departments and by the work of two specialists in African-American history. However, until GW hires a full-time specialist in African history, the vitality of the entire program will be diminished. In addition to its obvious importance for African studies, an understanding of African history is essential to understanding the African-American experience.
The invigoration of the study of the African experience has other implications. The development of a more comprehensive program of African historical studies would signify a major development in GW’s commitment to appreciate the value of the African people of the world. The new discoveries that are bound to occur as a result of intensified study in a long-neglected field will undoubtedly set new precedents for innovative and creative scholarship in the GW community.
And yes, GW’s reputation may even be heightened, too.
– The writer is a senior majoring in history and minoring in Africana studies.
This article appeared in the September 27, 1999 issue of the Hatchet.