CAN BLACK PEOPLE be real Americans?

This is the question at the heart of the matter of race in America. It was asked by a slave called Dred Scott in 1846 and answered, in a purely legal sense and in the negative, by the Supreme Court in 1857. It was answered again, in the same restricted sense but in the postive, by the Congress and the several states, in 1868 and 1870. Since then it has been asked almost continuously in a broader social sense. In that sense, it has never been finally answered.

That such a question should be asked about a segment of the population whose appearance, origin, culture and history is so much at variance with the American norm is not surprising. That a final answer should be so long in coming is in part due to confusion about a peculiar aspect of that history--oppression, and the response of black people to it. For the popular image of the slave is a portrait of passive acceptance, an image that is at odds with the favored cultural vision of the American as proudly rebellious and fiercely self-reliant, but very much in keeping with pictures of blacks subjected to more recent oppressions--enduring incredible physical brutality, in southern streets or on northern avenues, incredible social brutality, both with apparent passivity. This image limits expectation at a time when such limitation is hardly affordable. It is fortunate, therefore, that the current publishing season offers two books that discuss black response to oppression during two crucial periods in American history.

There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, volume one of a projected three-volume work by Vincent Harding, of the Iliff School of Theology at the University of Denver, is, at an obvious level, a work of history, covering the period from the establishment of the African-American slave trade through the passage of the 13th Amendment. In it Harding argues that black resistance to slavery was inevitable, instantaneous, widespread, often organized, and carried on with great intensity on both physical and intellectual fronts. As such the book is an impressive effort.

Harding's research is voluminous and his writing is elegantly literate--at times bitingly sarcastic ("major segments of white America were possessed by just such visions of divine action in their midst, saw America as a Promised Land, as a staging ground for the . . . coming (white) Kingdom of God. Such godly visions, built strangely on the deaths of significant portions of the non-white children of this Father, contributed their own peculiar busyness to the blurring of American vision"); at others ingenuously frank ("I could not possibly remain silent and unmoved in the presence of the mysterious, transformative dance of life that has produced the men and women, the ideas and institutions, the visions, betrayals, and heroic dreams . . ."); at still others almost aphoristic ("The captors and the captives never have the same answers to the basic questions of struggle; most often, not even the same questions"). While admittedly writing a work derived from secondary sources, Harding places old materials in new contexts. From his review of the literature and his careful presentation emerges an intellectual history unequivocally demonstrating that the black thinkers and writers of the abolition movement were as much heirs of the Englightenment as were Franklin and Jefferson.

But There Is a River is not precisely a work of history, for in Harding's mind black resistance is not a thesis to be proved but almost a theology to be expounded. In his interpretation, struggle was--and is--so basic to the black tradition that "black resistance" and "black experience" are virtually synonymous. In keeping with what could better be called a vision than a viewpoint, Harding creates the image of a river as a metaphor for resistance, and presses--at times forces--that image with tremendous eloquence. Such an unremitting thesis embodied in so powerful a metaphor and presented with such rhetorical brilliance can be, and is here, emotionally overpowering. At times in the reading I found myself so swept away by the current that I was unable to grasp any twigs of analysis.

When there is a chance for such analysis, it becomes apparent that Harding does tend to minimize some of the complicating factors of slavery, does ignore the obvious fact that many slaves were dehumanized and defeated beyond all hope of resistance. While Harding's vision is both powerful and persuasive, I finished this book feeling the need for less passionate corroboration.

Fortunately, Harvard Sitkoff of the University of New Hampshire, in The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1980, a descriptive history of the Civil Rights Movement, has written a book which offers the opportunity to examine Harding's grand vision with both remove and reserve.

Unlike Harding, Sitkoff does not press any particular thesis. Nevertheless, he has one: that the essential progress of the Southern Civil Rights Movement was not a function of assistance from Northern liberal elements (particularly not the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations) but of the continual unreasoning overreaction of rabid white supremacist elements, which consistently stiffened black resolve.

Sitkoff is an excellent storyteller; he captures the drama of events, the calculations, the horror, the unbelievable sadness of struggle. (In Harding's struggle there are archetypal heroes. In Stitkoff's there are broken bodies and valiant spirits, both of which belong to typical people.) Sitkoff presents the less-well- known facets of well-known facts--the irony that Brown was suing the Board of Education of Topeka because he didn't want his child bussed, the troublesome equivocation implied by the fact that Rosa Parks was judged a suitable rallying point because of her middle-class respectability--a woman who had defied segregated transport a few weeks earlier was an unwed mother, and so missed her place in history.

Sitkoff's analysis, when offered, is insightful, as when he explains the youthful shift in the movement in terms no grander and no less human than impatience and disappointment. Sitkoff's writing is by no reasonable description sensational. Yet his balanced, simple prose is as moving as Harding's more rhetorical style. The funeral of a civil rights worker, reported for its historical importance rather than for its dramatic appeal, nevertheless evokes a sense of tragedy, and the matter-of- fact description of beatings, batterings and brutalizings, unemotionally conveyed, produces nothing so much as a sense of amazement that human beings of any description should be capable of such unremitting resistance in the face of such unrelieved opposition. It thus places in new perspective the images of "passive" resistance that flickered across our TV screens two or three decades ago.

Sitkoff's account confirms the truth of Harding's vision. Harding's vision provides a basis for understanding the events described in Sitkoff's account. Together, they provide an eloquent rebuttal to any suggestion that black response to oppression is anything less than the total resistance the American ideal demands.