THE SOCIAL CONCERNS that motivated political activism in the 1960s have, in recent years, inspired intellectual activism. Those who desire an end to racism have turned their attention to the more subtle and nefarious effects of the practice on our conception of American history; to the writing of histories that are, inevitably, revisionist. Two recent participants in this trend are Dr. Mary Frances Berry, professor of history and law at Howard University, whom President Carter appointed assistant secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and Dr. John W. Blassingame, professor of Afro-American and Southern history at Yale.
Their book, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America, is one of the most ambitious of the recent revisionist attempts, the authors' stated intent being to tell "The story of a people wrenched from their African homeland and scattered along the inhospitable shores of the Americas." In order to complete successfully a work of such scope, an author must make imaginative choices about such problems as source materials, depth of focus, and organization. Berry and Blassingame have made these choices, but unfortunately, they have made some of them badly.
Rather than go into the field, interviewing subjects and so forth, Berry and Blassingame chose to do their research in libraries. This was a fortunate choice, since it gives the work an overall consistency, and makes it as much a history of thought and expression as a history of events. The 30-page bibliography testifies to the authors' range--sources include standard works like Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution, articles and cartoons from the popular press, such as Jet and Ebony, novels, plays, and some unlikely sources like The White Sentinel. The data from these sources is used to good effect--Long Memory is rich in anecdotes, hard facts, graphic details, and extensive quotations from important documents and speeches. Research is clearly the strong point of the book.
But the value of a work of this type depends not only on the gathering facts but on presenting them in a context that allows the reader to relate them and understand their significance. It is here that Long Memory begins to suffer mild amnesia.
Berry and Blassingame chose to write a general survey, covering elements of the black experience broadly and superficially rather than focusing on representative types. While there are potential advantages to such an approach, Long Memory ends up reading, at best, like an introductory text, at worst, like a remedial one. The attempt to be comprehensive has forced Berry and Blassingame into some disastrous generalizations, such as: "The lower-class family was strong in many respects. Since it was an extended family, it had a closeness of kin missing among whites. Consider illegitimacy, for example. An illegitimate birth among blacks brought the family closer together to care for the infant; among whites, it tended to pull the family apart." Or: "In their love poems black men described the Afro-American woman as graceful, rhythmic, proud, alluring, and enchanting . . ."
The unfortunate impressions given by such generalizations are exacerbated by the authors' choice to order their discussion topically, rather than chronologically, making it extremely difficult to relate events--to see black experience in terms of movement and simultaneous development.
There is an attempt to inject a temporal framework with a five-page chronology, but it is far too little and comes far too late. There can be value in a topical approach, if the authors focus on subjects that are well chosen. These were not. The table of contents of Long Memory reveals basic errors in categorization, the juxtaposing and implicit comparison of institutions (church, family), attitudes (sex and racism), historical structures (free Negroes), and philosophies (black nationalism, protest). And many of the topics themselves are of questionable value. Why discuss "Sex and Racism" unless the discussion advances some central thesis? That is not possible here, for the simple reason that Long Memory has no central thesis.
The book begins with a strong and thought-provoking explanation of why African captives may have accepted bondage. The authors suggest that the captives mistook malignant American slavery for the more benign West African strain ("conditioning the African's response to enslavement was his memory of African servitude . . . he had a behavioral guide in the numerous proverbs regarding the master-slave relationship as it had existed in West Africa. These proverbs counseled hope, perseverance, courage, patience and an acceptance of the inevitable . . ."). This introduces a fascinating exploration of the ways in which African captives may have exerted their personalities in shaping American slavery, rather than simply being oppressed by it. The discussion is not extended throughout the book, however; in fact, it more or less gets contradicted on the next page, when the authors assert that: "African's played a more important role in revolts until the 1830s than did native-born slaves" and that "Inspired by their African forefathers, Americn-born slaves engaged almost continuously during the 19th century in conspiracies, rebellions, and attempts to escape from bondage."
Rather than having a central thesis, the book is alive with theses, some of which seem rather questionable: "Because of the glaring contradiction between their belief in freedom and equality and their practice of enslaving and discriminating against blacks, antebellum American whites suffered from a massive guilt complex." And some of them appear curiously partisan: "Throughout most of American history the effort to gain some of the traditional rewards from American political participation failed, with some major exceptions-- Reconstruction after the Civil War, machine politics in Chicago in the 20th century, the post 1965-period in the South, and the election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency in 1976."
To make matters worse, the work is plagued by inconsistencies in logic (as when the authors identify a desire for profit as motivating good treatment of slaves, but ascribe bad treatment to psychological aberration and bad management) and loose historical interpretation (as when they imply that the ideals of the Constitution were unquestionably contradicted by the fact of slavery, a point that was moot even to the Abolition movement).
These and other logical failings are pervasive and fundamental, at times reaching down to the bedrock of grammar and syntax. This is a pity. For it means that the strong research in Long Memory is almost inevitably doomed to be forgotten, ignored, questioned or dismissed, and that the book itself is a step away from the accuracy of understanding demanded by the times.