HERBERT APTHEKER, PRESENTE! (1915-2003)
There are different kinds of historians.
by Mumia Abu-Jamal
Some can be called court historians, those people who sing the praises of their powerful subjects, kind of like the ancient griots in West Africa, who memorized the lineage of kings and princes, and sang songs of royal glory and myth.
There are also social historians, who look at the struggles of average, everyday people, and records their achievements.
Herbert Aptheker may be seen as one of the latter school of historians.
Yet, he was more; he undertook prodigious study to uncover the hidden histories of African resistance to the U.S. slavery system. His works quite literally changed the course of history, by publishing his groundbreaking American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), which undermined and challenged the prevailing myth (promoted largely by Southern historians) of the 'happy darkie', or the claim that Black people cheerfully submitted to the brutal regime of bondage. Aptheker documented over 250 slave revolts (involving more than 10 people) throughout the South and slave territories, and also documents other acts of resistance and subversion to the slave system (such as escape).
Although he was a *bona fide* historian, he never received a faculty appointment, due in large part to his open membership and leadership in the Communist Party. Despite this lack of formal institutional affiliation, his work, and his unflinching radicalism drew scores of students, and many who were inspired by the power and purity of his historical work.
As a young man he studied under the famed scholar-activist, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, and later became his literary executor. His admiration for DuBois fueled him through decades of work on DuBois' writings. This is clear from the following response to a question posed by scholar Manning Marable, who asked him to describe the multi-talented DuBois, an essayist, sociologist, educator, radical, organizer, etc., in one word. "DuBois? He was an artist!", replied Aptheker.
What would one reply if asked a similar question about the learned Aptheker? Radical, scholar, historian, mentor, ... counselor? An honest answer might be, "Aptheker? He was a *radical* historian!"
His work did not record the minutia of the princes or the privileged; rather, he looked to those consigned to the lowest levels of American society: Black captives, and marveled at the deeply hidden evidence of their resistance to a terrorist system of white supremacy. He looked to people pushed into the muck and mire of captivity, and told their stories of their never-ending fight for freedom.
His contributions to Black history, to American history, to human history, is indeed immense.
To scholars, his multi-volume Documentary History of the Negro People , which he was putting his finishing touches on in his last days, will be seen as his master work, for the sheer scope of 300 years. For the non-specialist; the non-historian; and perhaps the average reader, American Negro Slave Revolts may rank high in their personal and communal libraries.
Aptheker wrote widely of maroonage, or escaped slave communities, and white settler repression of them. What kind of repression?:
"In October of this year (1823) runaway Negroes near
Pineville, South Carolina, were attacked. Several were
captured and at least two, a woman and a child, were
killed. One of the Maroons was decapitated and his
head stuck on a pole and publicly exposed as 'a warning
to vicious slaves.'" (ANSR, p. 277)
Aptheker was a master historian whose work surged like a river through the profession, changing all that came after it. His streams of students continue to irrigate minds all across the country, in a variety of fields.
Like a bell that cannot be unrung, Aptheker's work continues to toll across decades. He may have passed, after 88 long years of study, struggle and resistance, but his work remains among us, for generations to come.
Copyright 2003 Mumia Abu-Jamal
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Mumia Abu-Jamal is the author of three books:
'Live from Death Row',
'Death Blossoms', and
'All Things Censored'.