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Making black history part of the historical mainstream?

By Luix OverbeaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 1983


Is black history a particular folklore or an essential component of mainstream American history? Should it include the records of both heroes and rogues? Should it address conflicts within the black community as well as minority-majority confrontations and reconciliations in American society?

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These questions have surfaced again in the February observance of Black History Month.

''Cast your buckets where you are,'' Booker T. Washington told the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Sept. 19, 1895.

These words have catalyzed a persistent, controversial debate - should blacks work with their hands or look to the ''talented 10th'' (an educated black elite) to pave their way to success in a land where they were once slaves.

Colleges and schools weigh the merits of black studies: Do they isolate or integrate the black experience? Blacks and whites ''in the street'' discuss lifting themselves by the bootstraps vs. pushing for affirmative action.

Washington's words have inspired one 20th-century black leader, Maynard H. Jackson, to form Bucket Brigade Inc. as his own activist political tool after serving two terms (1975-83) as mayor of Atlanta.

A black history program sponsored by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts brought Maynard Jackson to Boston. And he praised Booker T. Washington in the city where W. Monroe Trotter, editor of the stormy Guardian newspaper, heckled Washington so that he could not finish a scheduled speech.

''Booker T. was not revered here,'' Mr. Jackson said in an interview. ''I don't agree with all he said, but I believe that today we blacks must cast our buckets where we are. Translated, this means we must stop sitting on our hands waiting for a black knight on a white charger to save us from our plight. We can use what we have to get what we need. We aren't doing that!''

Jackson's goal for the next eight years is to get blacks to cast their voting buckets where they are. By 1991 he wants the nation's five ''blackest states,'' South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, to elect two black governors, three black US senators, and 10 black congressmen.

But other blacks in the years since 1895 have resisted Washington's approach, called Booker T.'s ''Atlanta Compromise'' by W. E. B. Du Bois, a Harvard-educated editor, educator, and civil rights activist. The ''talented 10 th'' take on key leadership roles.

Washington is depicted as an ''accommodator,'' willing to ''buy peace'' rather than ''disturb the peace by protesting, demanding, and resisting,'' by journalist-historian Lerone Bennett in his newly revised ''Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America.''

When Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and the National Business League, spoke at Atlanta, Southern states were enforcing ''Jim Crow'' (segregation) laws to deprive former slaves of their post-Civil War voting and civil rights, to ''put them in their places.''

Du Bois, who taught at Atlanta University while Washington was developing Tuskegee Institute, wrote, ''The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.'' In ''The Soul of Black Folks,'' in 1903, he also described the ''dilemma'' of his people:

''One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.''

This twoness of the Negro has been a recognized part of black history ever since. Washington's ''cast your buckets where you are'' introduced open conflict over the means by which blacks could best achieve their full rights; whether to accommodate or to confront the white majority.

Since the days of Washington and Du Bois, black history has zigzagged between these approaches.