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By Robin D. G. Kelley. New York: Free Press, 1995. xiii + 351 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $24.95.
Several recent works confirm the continuing trend toward portraying African Americans as actors, rather than victims, in the development of the Americas. They also appear at a time of heated controversy over the relative importance of "multicultural history" and its place in school curricula. Without a common agenda, these works demonstrate the widening scope of historical writing, which, like other fields of human knowledge, expands to meet the challenge of new research methods, advancing technology, and evolving modes of analysis.
Advocates of what constituted the "new history" thirty years ago set out to shift the focus of United States social, political, and cultural history to the excluded minorities who often barely entered footnotes in the most widely distributed contemporary studies. The new American histories discovered slaves who were survivors with both strategies for affecting their circumstances and negotiating skills that often challenged the slaveholders' hegemony. The emancipation of slaves in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States now resembled self-emancipation, given the mounting evidence of slave rebellions, boycotts, escapes, and walk-outs en masse from plantations. When examined under a new light, white opinion leaders, both pro- and anti-slavery, were also guardians of white racial privilege and financial opportunity.
There was an older tradition of historical works emphasizing African Americans as actors and achievers. Written by a few well-schooled historians and many enthusiastic amateurs, they seldom attracted notice in the wider community of hard-nosed university-trained professionals. The black "race historians" who produced these studies saw most works of American history as exercises in white self-congratulation, given their fixation on the white, the male, and the politically powerful.
The recent works we are considering in this essay draw from both precedents: the older tradition of "race" histories and the multicultural revisionists of the 1960s and after. William McFeely's Sapelo's People and the collection of essays edited by Mary Turner, From Chattel Slaves to Wage Slaves, continue the journey away from the romanticized view of …