APTHEKER, PRESENTE! (1915-2003)
Writ. 5/12/03) Copyright 2003 Mumia Abu-Jamal
are different kinds of historians.
can be called court historians, those people who sing the praises of their
powerful subjects, kind of like the ancient griots in West Africa, who
memorized the lineage of kings and princes, and sang songs of royal glory and
are also social historians, who look at the struggles of average, everyday
people, and records their achievements.
Aptheker may be seen as one of the latter school of historians.
he was more; he undertook prodigious study to uncover the hidden histories of
African resistance to the U.S. slavery system. His works quite literally
changed the course of history, by publishing his groundbreaking American
Negro Slave Revolts (1943), which undermined and challenged the prevailing
myth (promoted largely by Southern historians) of the 'happy darkie', or the
claim that Black people cheerfully submitted to the brutal regime of
bondage. Aptheker documented over 250 slave revolts (involving more than
10 people) throughout the South and slave territories, and also documents other
acts of resistance and subversion to the slave system (such as escape).
he was a *bona fide* historian, he never received a faculty appointment, due in
large part to his open membership and leadership in the Communist Party. Despite
this lack of formal institutional affiliation, his work, and his unflinching
radicalism drew scores of students, and many who were inspired by the power and
purity of his historical work.
a young man he studied under the famed scholar-activist, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, and
later became his literary executor. His admiration for DuBois fueled him
through decades of work on DuBois' writings. This is clear from the
following response to a question posed by scholar Manning Marable, who asked him
to describe the multi-talented DuBois, an essayist, sociologist, educator,
radical, organizer, etc., in one word. "DuBois? He was an
artist!", replied Aptheker.
would one reply if asked a similar question about the learned Aptheker?
Radical, scholar, historian, mentor, ... counselor? An honest answer
might be, "Aptheker? He was a *radical* historian!"
work did not record the minutia of the princes or the privileged; rather, he
looked to those consigned to the lowest levels of American society: Black
captives, and marveled at the deeply hidden evidence of their resistance to a
terrorist system of white supremacy. He looked to people pushed into the
muck and mire of captivity, and told their stories of their never-ending fight
contributions to Black history, to American history, to human history, is
scholars, his multi-volume Documentary History of the Negro People ,
which he was putting his finishing touches on in his last days, will be seen as
his master work, for the sheer scope of 300 years. For the
non-specialist; the non-historian; and perhaps the average reader, American
Negro Slave Revolts may rank high in their personal and communal libraries.
wrote widely of maroonage, or escaped slave communities, and white settler
repression of them. What kind of repression?:
October of this year (1823) runaway Negroes near
South Carolina, were attacked. Several were
and at least two, a woman and a child, were
One of the Maroons was decapitated and his
stuck on a pole and publicly exposed as 'a warning
vicious slaves.'" (ANSR, p. 277)
was a master historian whose work surged like a river through the profession,
changing all that came after it. His streams of students continue to
irrigate minds all across the country, in a variety of fields.
a bell that cannot be unrung, Aptheker's work continues to toll across
decades. He may have passed, after 88 long years of study, struggle and
resistance, but his work remains among us, for generations to come.
2003 Mumia Abu-Jamal
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