But he had to master history, for to be ignorant of history is simply to be ignorant. In your study of world history, pay particular attention to the institution of slavery through the ages and the forces behind it. Study white slavery, too, he told himself, for white people pretend to forget that they themselves have been slaves and try to use black slavery as proof of racial inferiority.
-- From "The Second Agreement With Hell," by Chancellor Williams.
Through the words of his protagonist, Steve, a slave who survived the ravages of the Civil War to wrestle with freedom and identity in the South, historian Chancellor Williams reiterates the dominant theme of his 50 years of teaching and writing -- the promotion of black self-esteem.
"We haven't freed ourselves from the acculturation process," says Williams, now 81 years old, almost totally blind and ensconced in a high-rise apartment in Northwest Washington.
"The process of becoming Americans is the same for all . . . It just happens in our case we had to take on ideas that were anti-us, which wasn't true of any other group. We were the only group which in the process of becoming Americans had to turn against itself and see itself through the eyes of the dominant.
"Nothing else explains our attitude against ourselves, even today, right now, this day of our Lord, not way back yonder, this day right here. We feel in any all-black situation, the standard should come down a little . . . it explains the statistics, roughly speaking, when 100 people have been killed, 80 of that 100 are blacks murdered by blacks."
To many in Washington, who follow a pan-African historic and political philosophy, Chancellor Williams stands as the chief patriarch. He is an elder, a transitional historian from the generation of William E. B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson and William Leo Hansberry, whose collective primary task was to pursue the righteous perspective of blacks.
Williams' best-known work, "The Destruction of Black Civilization" discusses ancient black civilizations, dating from 4500 B.C., and their misinterpretations. In the early 1970s, the book became a Magna Charta for neo-black nationalists, but an object of derision for some black and white historians who thought his research was more artistic than factual.
Howsomever, as the black expression goes, controversy is not a worry for the lenan and energetic Williams, whose white cap of hair and dark glasses give his sharply defined features the suspension and starkness of a mask. There's the accompanying stoniness and mystery but also a hearty liveliness as he recalls his research.
A son of the Reconstruction South, Williams has lived in Washington for more than 60 years, studying at Armstrong High School. Howard University and American University and teaching at various local schools and Howard for 26 years. He has a coterie of former students and friends who come to his sculpture and booklined apartment and read to him.
John Kinard, the director of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, where Williams recently spoke to an overflow crowd, speaks of his mystique. "A few years ago, a museum director from Ghana came by and said, Let's go see Chancellor Williams.' I had never heard of him, but I went along. When Williams was finished talking about ancient history, our cultural struggles, the sociological racism that is part of all of us, I said to myself, 'I don't believe I have lived this long without knowing this man," says Kinard.
On a recent afternoon, exhausted from a round of Black History Month engagements that have coincided with the publication of "Second Agreement," Williams explained his own struggle for acceptance.
In 1943, when the first of his five books. "The Raven," a historical novel about Edgar Allen Poe, was published.Williams requested that his picture be omitted from the book jacket. "It was sort of an experiment. I just wanted to be known as a writer," says Williams, with the curious air of factual generosity and egotistical impatience that people of reputation and years have.
That 1940s practicality continues to tug at his lifelong feeling of equality, a view universally misunderstood in turn-of-the-century Bennettsville, S.C.
"In the South we used to say, until the white boys put on long pants, we didn't know anyone was superior," laughs Williams. "Well, I never did have that concept. I was out of line."
He, of course, always has a ready anecdote about tht early view of his self-esteem. But he is painfully reticent on discussions of other scholars who have influenced his life and the personal aspects of his life. His relationship with his 14 children, his two wives and a past life in a colonial house in Northeast Washington are slowly recalled.
Yet the justification of his new book comes easy, rushing like a waterfall. Curiously, for a man who has made a reputation at repairing images, Williams has set his book in the old plantation motif of the Civil War, complete with the unavoidable cliche characters of faithful house servant, malicious overseer, handsome buck and mulatto siren.
Blessedly, he has given them his point of view. "The same set of facts has confronted the race since emancipation," says Williams, discussing its currency. "We are so satisfied with progress -- what progess? The ones we are told to shout Glory Hallelujah about, the ones others take for granted? That's drivel; as long as we adopt that knd of mentality, we wouldn't get anywhere."
None of these naggings is new. The youngst of five children of a father who had been a slave and a mother who was a cook, nurse and evangelist, Williams started asking questions "about the condition of the race," as he puts it, in elementary school.
Some answers came from his reading, particularly The Norfolk Journal and Guide, the leading southern black paper of the day, and The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. "On the back of The Crisis was a list of books relating to black life," recalls Williams.
"And I read everything by Booker T. Washington, DuBois and George Williams' "The African Abroad.' And I wasn't reading just for fun, I was looking for answers. And in my own mind I was a participant in debates between Booker T. and DuBois.And I sided with Booker T."
In Bennettsville, where the Confederate stars and stripes flew over the courthouse and Confederate heroes adorned the textbooks, education for blacks stopped at the eighth grade. That lacks of opportunity brought him to Washington.
Initially enrolled at Dunbar High School, the city's black academic showcase, Williams switched to Armstrong. "I didn't think anything was incompatible with mechanical drawing and literature," he says heatedly.
Years later, the skill saved him about $4,000 when he did the drafts for a cabin on the Potomac River. In 1930, Williams finished his undergraduate work at Howard, then spent a year on a Rosenwald Fellowship studying the cooperative movement, and returned to Howard for his master's.
His interest in African history was noticed by his graduate professor, Charles Wesly. "He just didn't believe what many white historians wrote about Africa," says Wesley.
Yet for 15 years he put his interest in Africa on the back burner, directing a reform school in Maryland, teaching in local schools, taking occasional government jobs, writing his best seller on Poe and earning a doctorate by turning his research on the storefront church movement into a novel, "Have You Been to the River?"
By 1950, having taught American, European and Arabic history, Williams considered himself prepared for intense rsearch on African beginnings. "It was a good progression, a happy circumstance. Then I had a clear understanding of world history, and the great European and American Africanists, and their points of view," says Williams. After a year at Oxford University, Williams did his most ambitious field work in Ghana, then the pre-independence Gold Coast. For the next 16 years, Africa was his mistress.
Looking back on this time, Williams feels the research, and extra jobs to supplement his professor's salary, cheated his family. "I probably didn't do such a good job with them. I didn't have the time at home you are supposed to have. So I guess my time had to be measured in quality."
Yet two of his children describe a father who had Sunday evening conferences, made homemade ice cream and biscuits, painstakingly designed an 18-room house at 50th and Sheriff Road and lovingly tended his grape arbor. "Most of all he instilled in us a sense of pride, not the clinched-fist type, but a pride of purpose and hard work," says a son, Dorthan Williams.
Though Williams published a substantial work on Africa "The Rebirth of African Civilization," in the early 1960s, it wasn't until 1971 that he became a cult figure. "The Destruction of Black Civilization" was embraced by students looking for new evidence of black greatness. "The students read it avidly," recalls one Howard professor of the time, "and the faculty clamped their mouths."
Though the work is still considered controversial, Williams is regarded as a catalyst. Says Eliot Skinner, the respect anthropologist, "Williams' work must be seen as transitional. The ideas of 'Destruction' are valid, and the rhetoric is stimulating. It pushed younger students into a study of African history."
Kennell Jackson of Stanford University says, "It's the book the students often come in with. The evidence is there, but Williams put it together too loosely. I discuss it as historical propaganda, not in a bad sense, but as a force to entertain and popularize a weighty area."
Sitting in his apartment, with the urban melodies of 16th Street vying with his soft voice, Williams says criticism has never been a deterrent because he expected his professional life to be a lonely one.
"I've always been very independent. My thinking seems to be best when it's not too influenced," says Williams. "For many of us scholarship is absorption of great minds, rather than being provocative. You shouldn't be standing humbly at the feet of the masters, you should move on up, be able to stand on their shoulders and see a little further. I've tried to do that."