Scholarly books: An authoritative look at African and African American history

Anthony W. Neal | 2/7/2012, 7:50 p.m.
 Anthony W. Neal is the author of “Unburdened By Conscience: A Black People’s Collective Account of America’s Antebellum South and the Aftermath.”

Fearing that black people would become a “negligible factor” in human thought and stand “in danger of being exterminated,” Carter G. Woodson in 1915 founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History).

In the following year, he established the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History), the intent of which was to present a formal structure that would attempt to document the achievement of African Americans. In turn, future generations could grow up with “an appreciation of their own possibilities through knowledge of the contributions other blacks have made to history.”

By 1926, Woodson’s efforts led to the creation of Negro History Week. Over the years, Negro History Week was expanded to Black History Month, generally accepted as the month of February.

Today, the celebration of Black History Month consists chiefly of inviting guest lecturers to college and university campuses, stressing the need to study, know and appreciate African American history, and creating suggested reading lists such as this one. With the wealth of black scholarship on black history, preparing a list of recommended reading for Black History Month is not an easy task. Inevitably, valuable books will be excluded; nonetheless, the following titles strike me as crucial to a competent understanding and appreciation of black history.

For the beginner, I suggest Maulana Karenga’s “Introduction to Black Studies, 4th ed.” (2010), which is an excellent introductory text on black studies. The book is a comprehensive survey of seven major areas of black culture, i.e. history, religion, social organization, politics, economics, creative production (art, music, literature) and ethos (psychology). Karenga “clearly recognizes history as the key social science which illuminates and is indispensable to the introduction and development of all other subject areas in black studies.” By focusing on “black struggle and achievement as the substance of black history rather than victimization,” he helps students develop an appreciation of the black past. The value of the text is heightened by the suggested bibliographies.

Since the earliest recorded civilization may be found in Africa, the original homeland of black people, it is only fitting that any selection of suggested reading for Black History Month should include reference to that civilization. Cheikh Anta Diop’s “African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality” (1974), edited and translated by Mercer Cook, provides the best available documentation to date. Realizing that the West has never been honest or objective enough to present African history without crude falsifications, Diop rescues Egypt from Europe, establishing both its African origin and its significance to world history.

He writes, “Instead of presenting itself to history as an insolvent debtor, the black world is the very initiator of ‘Western’ civilization flaunted before our eyes today.” Mathematics, modern science, Greek philosophy, and major Western religions all find their origin in Egyptian culture, science and philosophy. Diop meticulously refutes many theories and ideas previously presented by European scholars, using historical, archeological and anthropological evidence to support his thesis.