The reparation of remembering a usable black history

Wednesday, August 22, 2001 at 1:00am

John McWhorter, linguistics professor at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, has written a compelling essay in the summer 2001 issue of City Journal titled, "Toward a Usable Black History." In his article McWhorter says that, while it would be folly not to teach the history of the injustices of slavery and gross racial discrimination," a history of only horrors cannot inspire."

McWhorter says, "When 'learn your history' means 'don't get fooled by superficial changes,' and when 'today's New York City Street Crimes Unit can't be distinguished from yesterday's Bull Connor,' and our aggrieved despair over our sense of disinclusion from the national fabric remains as sharp as ever, could any people find inner peace when taught to think of their own society as their enemy?"

Instead, a better, more usable history would be one that gives greater emphasis to black successes in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. That kind of history inspires, instead of breeding victimhood.

From the late 1800s to 1950, some black schools were models of academic achievement. Black students at Washington's Dunbar High School often outscored white students as early as 1899. Schools such as Frederick Douglas (Baltimore), Booker T. Washington (Atlanta), P.S. 91 (Brooklyn), McDonough 35 (New Orleans) and others operated at a similar level of excellence. These excelling students weren't solely members of the black elite; most had parents who were manual laborers, domestic servants, porters and maintenance men.

McWhorter says that instead of "romanticizing failure" in black communities, young people should be taught that successful economic communities can be had. Chicago's "Bronzeville" is a handy example. After 1875, blacks occupied a three-by-15-block enclave on the South Side. During the early 1900s, Bronzeville was home to several black newspapers and 731 business establishments in 61 lines of work. By 1929, Bronzeville blacks had amassed $100 million in real-estate holdings.

Chicago wasn't the only city where blacks established a significant business presence. Other cities would include New York; Philadelphia; Durham, N.C.; Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

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