Americans Rediscover Pantheon of Black Heroes

African-American studies and a revival of black nationalism have brought historical figures to light

'IT'S a celebration!" exclaims Vibert White, professor of African-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati. "It's a recognition of the totality of African-American history and its impact on American society."

He's talking about the resurgence in the public mind of black figures, people like the late singer-actor Paul Robeson or the 19th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Many of them once were largely forgotten or even vilified by white society as renegades.

Today their faces - like that of the bull-dogging cowboy Bill Pickett - can be found on postage stamps. They are the heroes of fact-based stage and screen dramas, and of books that admiringly detail their lives. TV programs chronicle their achievements and excesses, like those of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight champion of the early 1900s who was long the focus of raging race antagonism.

Historians and social observers say such latter-day revisiting of black assertiveness is the product of years of black studies in colleges now bearing fruit, filling a gap in the way history had been taught. The resurgence is also a broader effort to rectify decades of neglect or disdain. Black people want to correct the record, say these observers. They are seeking heroes, and white society wants to acknowledge these heroes and understand them.

"All of a sudden, Booker T. Washington is being revisited by the public," notes Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Josephs University in Philadelphia. And a more striking example would be hard to find, he adds, of how a name from black history can take on a new look. Washington, the great black educator and author of the 19th and early 20th century, has gone from idolization to rejection and neglect - by both blacks and whites - and now back to respect.

"It's a metaphor for how blacks are perceived by whites and how some blacks perceive themselves," says Miller, an authority on African-American life and the history of slavery. "People may know his name but don't know about what's happened to his image and reputation."

Washington, the first black American to be on a postage stamp (in 1940) was the very embodiment of black promise to both races at one time. His message was that black farmers and workers can acquire the skills to help themselves. Blacks were not there, he said, to upset a system, but to earn what is their due.

Most whites liked that idea. "But fairly soon among some blacks, like W. E. DuBois, he became viewed as an accommodator," Miller says, "and eventually he became the personification of the Uncle Tom. He was identified as antiprogress because his 'accommodationism' seemed to be going nowhere. He was seen as acquiescing in Jim Crowism and the horrors of segregation."

That's the prevailing image of Washington through the 1950s and 1960s. But now Washington is taking on a whole new image in the public mind - white and black - Miller says. "People realize he was saying, among other things, that we must be practical as well as political. We must return to our own resources as a means of liberation." Ironically, the black Muslims of today are also saying this, Miller points out.

Many other African-American figures have gone through similar changes of fortune. Black visual artists, kept firmly out of the white mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s, are exhibited at well-known museums. Malcolm X looms again in TV documentaries and a feature film. And a man like Robeson - pilloried in the 1950s as a "Soviet sympathizer" - has become the heroic subject of a one-man show and a play.

"Nothing became Robeson like death in the minds of many people," says Miller, who has written extensively about African-American life. "He had become an obscure figure, which is rather remarkable when you realize how large he loomed on the screen and stage at one time. His Marxism made him controversial."

A revival of black nationalism is another reason for the attention to such historical names, says Marcus Pohlmann, professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. "The popularity of a [Louis] Farrakhan and the decline in popularity of the NAACP" are among the other results of this, he says.

Professor Pohlmann sees decades of black studies as having fertilized the soil for this revival. "Some of the research is coming to the fore," he says, "and it's having an impact on the white consciousness." Hence the sharpening of public focus by whites on African-American figures representing a gamut of types and achievements - including many once considered virtually enemies of society.

Part of the resurgence is a search for black heroes by African-American society, says Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, professor of journalism at Texas A&M University.

"One thing that has made these heroes surface," she claims, "is the riots after the Rodney King verdict in 1992 and what has happened with O.J. [Simpson]. These events woke people up, black and white, and made them do some soul-searching. When bad things impact your life, you're always looking for ways to solve the mystery of what is happening, so you reach into the subject. This has paved the way for letting these heroic black figures be acknowledged. It started out five years ago at a low level, and by now there is a strong renewed interest."

That interest is reflected in events around the country typified by this month's featuring of African-American artists at the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. There, biographies are being screened of Oscar Micheaux, the gifted and prolific black filmmaker of the 1920s and 1930s who was all but invisible to whites during his time. Also featured are the once hotly controversial black author Richard Wright and other artists.

The change started first in academia, Miller says. Works by Louis Harlan and others discovered two Booker T. Washingtons: the public Washington of accommodation - because nothing else would have been possible - and the private Washington of challenge.

The lesson, according to Miller: You have to understand the whole man. Washington has come back into fashion partly "because people have come to appreciate the complexity of black thought," he says. "Instead of seeing each black leader as either an Uncle Tom or a Nat Turner [the radical leader of a 19th-century slave revolt], they are now seeing a tremendous variety."

But watch out, warns Professor White. "Any time a people, a minority, or a mass group begins to study themselves, they must look at the bad as well as the good - the scoundrels as well as the heroes."

And Professor White can't think of a better unsung candidate for scoundrel than Cherokee Bill, a cowboy and gunslinger hanged in the 1890s before he had turned 20. "We talk about Billy the Kid," White complains, "but very few black academics are willing to acknowledge Cherokee Bill of the same period, who killed well over 25 people."

The oversight is a example of the lost ground being covered, at least in part, by the new attention to various black figures. "What you have is a study of African-American events up to the Emancipation Proclamation," he says, "and a handful of things on Reconstruction. Then all of a sudden you have a 50-year gap."

It is fitting, says White and many of his colleagues, that today you can see so many once-overlooked black figures filling that gap.

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