Editor’s Note: This is another past article that I am sharing for my readers on here. M.P.
In the famous essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past” Arturo Alfonso Schomburg puts forth his view on the study of African history. The 1925 article appeared in the Survey Graphic, a notable magazine of the 1920’s. The bibliophile who was driven to disprove the statement of his fifth grade teacher that “Black people have no history” uses this piece to illustrate the importance of recording the collective accomplishments of Africans.
Near the beginning of the essay Schomburg notes: “Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro.” He says that Black people have to dig deep into their own history in order to affirm themselves in the face of ongoing oppression. It’s about setting the record straight and reclaiming the history that was omitted.
Schomburg also cautions us not to separate the high achieving Black figures from the masses of Black people. He says that it has often served the function to ensure that the rest of the group remain disparaged. While some laud the exceptional amongst the group as transcending in some way, Schomburg sees them as part of, and not the “exception to the rule.”
Schomburg does two critical things in his essay. He chronicles the Black scholars before him, mentioning Alexander Crummell and he notes key Black figures in the abolitionist movement. Amongst various others, he mentions Denmark Vesey, Martin Delaney and Henry Highland Garnet as key people. It was necessary for him to outline the Black abolitionist heritage, since they were often regarded as appendages of the more well-known white abolitionists of their day. The contributions of African Americans to their own liberation was downplayed tremendously, and he cites these figures to illustrate that it was erroneously done so.
Though this essay is over 85 years old, it contains much that still resonates. In today’s environment where the legitimacy of Afro-centric studies is being questioned, it is critical to remember that the purpose of studying African history still remains just as vital today. No matter who questions the relevance of Africanist studies, and even the right of it to exist, the continued depreciation of Africa and its culture makes continued historical affirmation necessary.
To read the essay in its entirety, visit : www.africawithin.com/schomburg/negro_digs.htm
-Marc W. Polite