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Reply #214: The Myth of the Negro Past, a monograph by Melville J. Herskovitz (1941) [View All]

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EFerrari Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-10-10 03:29 AM
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214. The Myth of the Negro Past, a monograph by Melville J. Herskovitz (1941)
Edited on Wed Feb-10-10 03:32 AM by EFerrari
may be the first clear articulation by the white academy, in this case by an anthropologist, that disappearing black history and culture and replacing them with "a myth" of that erased past was the principal mechanism underpinning discrimination. The five points laid out on pp. 1-2 are the thesis of the work.

This is the relevant text:


Chapter I

The myth of the Negro past is one of the principal supports of race
prejudice in this country. Unrecognized in its efficacy, it rationalizes
discrimination in everyday contact between Negroes and whites, in-
fluences the shaping of policy where Negroes are concerned, and
affects the trends of research by scholars whose theoretical approach,
methods, and systems of thought presented to students are in har-
mony with it. Where all its elements are not accepted, no conflict
ensues even when, as in popular belief, certain tenets run contrary
to some of its component parts, since its acceptance is so little sub-
ject to question that contradictions are not likely to be scrutinized
too closely. The system is thus to be regarded as mythological in
the technical sense of the term, for, as will be made apparent, it
provides the sanction for deep-seated belief which gives coherence to

This myth of the Negro past, which validates the concept of
Negro inferiority, may be outlined as follows:

j. Negroes are naturally of a childlike character, and adjust easily
to the most unsatisfactory social situations, which they accept readily
and even happily, in contrast to the American Indians, who pre-
ferred extinction to slavery;

2. Only the poorer stock of Africa ivas enslaved, the more intelli-
gent members of the African communities raided having been clever
enough to elude the slavers' nets;

j. Since the Negroes were brought from all parts of the African
continent, spoke diverse languages, represented greatly differing
bodies of custom, and, as a matter of policy, were distributed in the
New World so as to lose tribal identity, no least common denom-
inator of understanding or behavior could have possibly been worked
out by them;


4. Even granting enough Negroes of a given tribe had the oppor-
tunity to live together, and tltat they had the will and ability to con-
tinue their customary modes of behavior, the cultures of Africa were
so savage and relatively so low in the scale of human civilization
that the apparent superiority of European customs as observed in
the behavior of their masters, would hazrc caused and actually did
cause them to give up such aboriginal traditions as they may other-
wise have desired to preserve;

5. The Negro is thus a man without a past.

Naturally, there have been reactions against this point of view,
and in such works as Carter Woodson's The African Background
Outlined and W. E. B. Du Bois' Black Folk, Then and Now
serious attempts have been made to comprehend the entire picture
of the Negro, African and New World, in its historical and func-
tional setting. In still another category of those who disagree with
this system are writers whose reactions, presented customarily with
little valid documentation, center attention on Africa principally to
prove that "Negro culture" can take its place among the "higher"
civilizations of mankind. Scientific thought has for some time ab-
jured attempts at the comparative evaluation of cultures, so that
these works are significant more as manifestations of the psychology
of interracial conflict than as contributions to serious thought. They
are in essence a part of the literature of polemics, and as such need
be given little attention here.

It must also be recognized that not every writer who has made
statements of the type oulined above has accepted or, if he has ac-
cepted, has stressed all the elements in the system ; and that popular
opinion often underscores the African character of certain aspects
of the behavior of Negroes, emphasizing the savage and exotic
nature of the presumed carry-overs. Yet on the intellectual level, a
long line of trained specialists have reiterated, in whole or in part,
the assumptions concerning the Negro past that have been sketched.
As a consequence, diverse as are the contributions of these writers
in approach, method, and materials, they have, with but few excep-
tions, contributed to the perpetuation of the legend concerning* the
quality of Negro aboriginal endowment and its lack of stamina
under contact. We may best begin our documentation of this system
with a series of citations concerning the final, culminating element,
leaving to later pages excerpts which demonstrate the tenaciousness
of the other propositions that lead up to this last point.

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