Freedom, and lessons in fortitude

''History'' is one of those convenience words without any real meaning. It can arrange to be all things to all people. Its convenience is measured by its availability in emergencies or emotional crises. It may have academic usefulness , but that seems to be subordinate to its willingness to surprise.

As a child I loved it. It explained cathedrals and controversies to me, paintings and points of view. It was the only subject in which I got unbroken 100s. I was very selective about the dates I remembered because I had satisfied myself, early on, that dates and facts had very little to do with what really happened.

History's only purpose, it seemed to me, was to give perspective and comfort. Look at what mankind has survived! I could say. Look at our innate good sense and perspicacity! Look at how evil rose AND fell. The principal lesson, I believe, was to get the eyes open so that one might be skeptical of assumptions, view stereotypes with astonishment, and take heart.

It's time that I say this essay is not about history. But it is about one very important personal experience which changed my life. Its impetus came from a nagging conviction that history might have different information about some of the fantasies and ambiguities that were grouped under ''conventional wisdom'' and written down by historians.

I was young enough to think that any relation between ''conventional'' and ''wisdom'' must be a solecism. What made me question it most were the black people.

I was white. I never saw any blacks except the very nice colored woman who came to clean once a week, or the porter who carried my mother's bags as we went back and forth to the country. There were none in my school, none in the congregaton of our church, none on the outskirts of my parents' friends, none in our apartment house -- except the janitor's assistant -- none in the movies I saw except the chronic lazy-good-for-nothing. I wondered why and got ambiguous answers. Our cleaning woman was treated with the utmost kindness and given the things we didn't need. There was no ill will, just a great deal of abysmal darkness on all sides.

When I took my questions outside my family, I did not like any of the suggestions offered, such as: Blacks were blacks, an inferior people. It wasn't their fault, but we'd only make it harder if we pretended otherwise. They had been brought here from the Dark Continent (which had no history) and held in slavery (which automatically made a nonperson). As for slavery, it received two paragraphs in my history book and was brought to an end by Abraham Lincoln.

Slavery was very unfortuante, my teacher agreed; it shouldn't have happened, but if anyone had to be enslaved -- and even Thomas Jefferson held slaves -- it was better that it be a people with no background, no memory, no culture, and brought to a country where at least they learned English.

It's funny how these things affect one. It sounded as though a race had been collectively aborted. If history had so little common sense, I needed to reexamine our friendship with her.

Yet the uses and abuses of history were no surprise; since I had read around and through it from the age of ten and knew with my intuition that people made of it what they wanted and concealed what was awkward. This had seemed a grown-up ploy, but now I was eighteen -- grown up -- and chose to see this as a moral issue. I began to separate history from historians. I began to make remarkable discoveries. I began to find what I was searching for.

During the summer of that year I spent each day in library files. It was a pleasure being obliged to do what you liked doing. It was a pleasure to see a people and a culture begin to take shape. It was all there, documented but ignored -- the great empires of Africa when the Europeans were forest dwellers, the great centers of learning from Timbuktu to Zanzibar before the universities of Italy, France and England were more than a dream. The first black men brought forcibly to America came as indentured servants, not slaves; one was already so admirably educated that he won his independence and a place on the faculty of Cambridge University in England.

Slavery, marked for extermination by the Founding Fathers, had a burst of new life when cotton acquired a technology, the cotton gin, which separated cotton fiber from seeds faster than any human hands. Cotton became the economic system of the South and determined the mores of the 19th century. Ten times more slaves were needed - twenty times more - to maintain the incredible prosperity, and the terrible slave-bearing ships beat through the waves of the Atlantic and slave breeding farms were set up in Virginia. Fortunes were made. It was said that the investment in slavery came to represent the combined worth of the four largest industries in the United States. Certainly it dominated the political, social, religious and economic life of the country.

The most interesting detail I found was that slaves did not all sing at their work, as the historians implied. Nor that the South was modeled after Gone With the Wind. There was such a thing as the ''underground railroad,'' and it had taken shape in the minds of the slaves who rode its invisible rails into freedom. Two took the ''railroad'' nailed into crates, some took it by clinging to the sides of coast steamers. Most spoke with their feet, following the North Star and trusting desperately to the ingenuity of the ''station keepers,'' whites and free blacks who hated slavery. It was always a perilous business. There was no easy way to make the long journey from Mississippi across the Mason-Dixon line, or the short journey from Maryland, since no part of the law was on your side. After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the journey was not complete until you reached Canada, and the penalties for those who helped could be total bankruptcy and even, in some cases, their lives. One day in that year, 50,000 people lined the streets of Boston to cry ''shame!'' when a runaway Virginia slave named Burns was returned by government steamer to his master, an act that was only accomplished by a battalion of Light Dragoons, 22 companies of artillery and infantry, a company of marines and the cost of $40,000. ''A few more such victories and the South is undone,'' the Richmond, Virginia, Enquirer, observed.

I had heard a little about the underground railroad because train after train had run through Ohio to Lake Erie, and Ohio was the land of my forebears. What I had not heard about - what was by no means common knowledge - were the slave uprisings, over 200 in the hundred years before the Civil War, three massive ones, two in Virginia, led by Nat Turner and by Gabriel, one in South Carolina, led by Denmark Vesey. They were famous in their time, shaking the slavocracy, and leading to even more stringent laws.

And I knew nothing about the ex-slaves who became newspaper publishers, lecturers, diplomats, doctors, ministers and, after the Civil War, US senators (two) and US representatives (five).

One evening the librarian (of this library in Harlem where I spent my evenings) sat down at my desk. She had been calling up and delivering to me the array of information that was affecting my life. She whispered, ''Will you tell me why you are asking for these books?'' I told her I was writing a book from the point of view of what really happened. She whispered, ''I hope you know how important it is,'' and then, still whispering, she said, ''Our children think they have no background. Their history books teach them they came from nowhere. Let them know something else.''

Black children don't think that anymore. Many white people don't think that anymore. It's not that human backgrounds count for so much - they're badly flawed in any case - but the truth counts. To be told you're nothing and have only obscure evidence to disprove this takes an intestinal fortitude that no one has the right to demand.

Demanding this of yourself is another matter. That's why I especially love my black friends. They knew what they had to do. They knew they had to make the evidence out of their own lives. They taught me what fortitude means. It's a debt that takes a long time to repay.

February has been celebrated in churches and libraries as Black History month for many years. It attempts to redress the balance and set some favorite misconceptions aside for the moment.m

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