The leapfrogging zeal among historians to write the Afro-American saga may help raise the social consciousness of this country, says Yale historian John W. Blassingame, one of the discipline's emerging bright young men.
"There is a sizable number of young black historians -- and white historians -- who are interested in Afro-American history," he explains. "And what they're writing will generally revolutionize the study of American history."
Much of this mushrooming impetus comes from the civil rights movement, the historian emphasizes.
"But already there has been impact in the popular media," he continues. "There've been a number of movies, some of which have or have nor had a redeeming value.
"The image of blacks in textbooks of the 1940s no longer exists. The happy, servile, darky image is gone.
"However, I wouldn't want to claim that the battle is over by any means. Whenever publishers send textbooks to me for commentary, I tell them, 'If you talk about the winning of the West, you've got to talk about who lost the West.'"
At age 38, Blassingame is part of the group of young scholars changing the map of historiography. But he disavows any significant role. "There are young historians out there who're ready to run right past me with all the things they're writing," he smiles, crossing the lege of his lanky 6-foot-4 1/2, 195-pound frame.
Nevertheless, Blassingame is not being ignored when the tributes are passed out. Lask night he, novelist Toni Morrison and United Negro College Fund Executive Director Christopher F. Edley received 1979 alumni awards for postgraduate achievement at Howard University's snnual Charter Day dinner (Blassingame received a master's degree at Howard).
Blassingame has written or edited several books, including "The Slave Community" and "Black New Orleans, 1860-1880," both social histories.
Currently the historian is directing a project at Yale to collect and edit the papers of abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass. The first of 14 volumes is due this fall.
He also teaches courses on the South, the Civil War and Reconstruction and Afro-American history.
Sitting in his hotel suite, Blassingame glances over at a sheaf of galley proofs, the revised edition of "The Slave Community."
I've added a chapter on acculturation," he says. "A central question in our society is how did Africans become Afro-Americans. The church was influential. Once a slave became a Christian, he became an Afro-American. He adopted the language. morality and customs of the kmaster class.
"The white church was a major Americanizing institution for slaves as the school was for immigrants."
Despite his personal success, Blassingame bemoans the shrinking opportunities for young historians, black and white. Many historians, black and white. Many history departments have had to reduce their number of students because fewer teaching positions are opening each year.
"It wouldn't be moral for departments to continue admitting students when it's known that they won't have any jobs to go to," he says.
Harvard historian Frank Friedel once suggested that young scholars be hired by cities and businesses to write the history of neighborhoods or commercial firms. Blassingame says, "That's a possibility, but it's hard for historians to modify their talents. We don't train historians to work with cities. We train them to teach."
Despite the bleak employment picture, there are more than enough topics to write about, says Blassingame.
"I could sit in my office and talk for an hour about at least 20 different topics that need exploring. But you only have one lifetime and you can only write about so many things."