To get a better sense of where Black History Month is going, Gene Jarrett, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of English, looks to black history’s past — the era after the Civil War, “when the terms of African-American participation in society changed,” he says. “We have these special moments in history where we have a kind of increased debate over these issues.”
Jarrett, the author of last year’s Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature and a coeditor, with Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938, will participate in a roundtable discussion about Black History Month at Barnes and Noble at Boston University tonight at 7. Participants include Allison Blakely, Linda Heywood, and John Thornton, all CAS professors of African-American studies.
Jarrett spoke with BU Today about the 19th-century concept of the “new Negro” and how the transitions in that era shaped American history and literature.
BU Today: Who was the “new Negro”?
Jarrett: The “new Negro” was a concept of the second half of the 19th century, after the Civil War, when African-Americans were hoping to represent themselves in new, progressive ways, either in the halls of politics or in culture. There was a movement from the old Negro — that is, the plantation slave — to the new Negro, African-Americans who were considered more refined, educated, sophisticated, and involved in the political process.
Among the social factors influencing that period were still mob violence, suppression of the black vote, and various ways blacks were discriminated against and segregated from whites. But the black political community was constant — it didn’t begin only after slavery but was ongoing throughout the 19th century. You have William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Phillis Wheatley back in the late 18th century, and a host of African-American intellectuals who were involved politically and felt about themselves in political ways. With the decline of slavery, it had a change in focus, a change in arguments. It made me realize how complex and diverse the black intellectual community was. We can’t view African-Americans solely in terms of race. We have to look at them with other indices, such as gender, sexuality, and class. The African-American community was very complex and viewed itself in a whole host of ways.
Did those differences create conflict?
It’s the crisis of the intellectual: how does a person represent the constituency of a person who may not agree with their views? I think they were aware of the complexity, the potential divide between that community of intellectuals and the more grassroots community. What’s interesting is that black intellectuals produced literature that was disseminated among a variety of people, not only among white readers but among black readers, even among people who could not read. There’s a book by Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers, that talks about reading communities: there was one person who was literate, and he or she could read a text to a group of people. So the information in texts was still able to disseminate among the people, and these texts could disseminate views about politics, about culture, about social conduct, and so forth.
How do the social issues and internal divisions of this period of transition compare to a later period of transition, such as the contemporary civil rights movement?
That’s an interesting question, because a lot of the issues regarding what direction the black community should move in have been ongoing questions, and the structures have been the same: we’ve had a lot of black leaders, we’ve had black communities, we’ve had the issue of how do black leaders communicate with black communities. So the civil rights movement, and also the Black Power movement, overlap slightly. You had a period where there was just increased consciousness of the place and the plight of the African-Americans in this country.
Looking at how we talk about African-American history today, are there areas you don’t think are sufficiently explored?
I think we have to talk about the limitations of Black History Month, because there can be criticism that it’s a hollow ritual, that it’s something that is done only one month out of the year, and why not celebrate black history every month of the year? Secondly, we could also talk about it in terms of whether the idea of Black History Month implies a separation from American history. Many scholars have shown that African-American history is central to our understanding of American history, to the extent that we have a host of African-Americans and people in the black diaspora involved in the development of this country. I think one of the things we can do is have a fuller sense of what’s at stake.
What would that mean?
Black History Month was something that began as a week in the mid-1920s, founded by Carter Woodson. On the 50th anniversary of its beginning, it was extended to a month. So how do we look at Black History Month in the new millennium? What will Black History Month look like 50 years from now, and what are the kinds of issues that people are willing to address? What are the implications of having a Black History Month when we have a whole host of leaders around this country who are transcending issues of race, and leading not only the black community, but the American community, which comprises a whole host of ethnicities?
Do you see Black History Month as necessary in 5, 10, or 50 years?
I think that anytime you do have an opportunity to talk about black history, that opportunity should be taken advantage of. I do think that Black History Month will always be important, and should be, but I think we should also think about ways of talking about black history in the month of July, the month of October, ways of talking about Black History Month in popular culture, beyond the conventional ways we talk about it. I would love to talk about this in the month of November. I think that would be a great thing, and it would change the way people think about the influence of black history, beyond the month of February. It’s just something that we live with every day, that’s in all parts of our society.
Tonight’s roundtable discussion will be held at Barnes and Noble at BU, 660 Beacon St., at 7 p.m.
Jessica Ullian can be reached at email@example.com.