• Email
  • Print

Writing Black History

In response to:

An Exchange on Black History from the May 21, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Theodore Draper’s reply to the critics of his article on Martin Delany (NYR, May 21) only proves the point I tried to make, i.e., that one cannot write about black history without turning to primary sources. After spending several hundred words to answer the question, “Was Delany a graduate of the Medical School of Harvard College?” Draper concludes that “Harvard’s official records…may never be straightened out.”

Mr. Draper is wrong. If he had consulted the archives of the Harvard Medical School at the Countway Library of Medicine in Boston, he could have come up with a correct answer in short order. Martin Delany attended Harvard Medical School for one sixteen-week term in 1851-2. He was not permitted to complete the course of studies because his white fellow-students objected to his presence. After a protest meeting, they presented a series of petitions to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Dean of the Medical School. Meeting at Holmes’s residence, the faculty voted to dismiss Delany and two other black students at the end of the winter course of lectures. The student petitions are carefully preserved in the archives; so are the minutes of the faculty meetings, Dr. Holmes’s correspondence, and a letter to the Boston Journal complaining about the presence of blacks at Harvard Medical School.

Surely this rejection by white New Englanders in a city that was considered a stronghold of abolitionism was a significant episode in the life of the “father of black nationalism.” And the fact that the incident is not mentioned in the two histories of Harvard that Mr. Draper consulted—or in three biographies of Dr. Holmes—is also illuminating. Black history can be “straightened out,” despite Mr. Draper’s pessimism, but it takes some digging.

Mr. Draper objects because I failed to mention the thirteen historical errors I found in his piece. Each needs explanation and I was reluctant to tell the readers of The New York Review of Books more than they wanted to know. Let me give two more examples now.

  1. As Floyd Miller pointed out—although Mr. Draper misread his letter—Delany’s father was a slave. He didn’t succeed in buying his freedom until Delany was ten years old. While Delany was a youngster, his father was jailed for striking his master—again, a not insignificant incident.

  2. Mr. Draper wrote, “In 1847-8 [Delany] served for a few months as Douglass’s coeditor on the latter’s first organ, The North Star.” Had he turned to the files of The North Star, instead of depending on the 1868 biography of Delany, he would have learned that Delany was its coeditor from December 1847 through June 1849—a year and a half rather than “a few months.” He would also have had the opportunity to read several dozen letters from Delany to the Star which provide insights into the lives of free blacks of the period, as well as important clues to Delany’s own experiences and character.

Rather than continue listing the errors in Mr. Draper’s article, I would like instead to take him to task for the chip on his shoulder. The question is not, as he puts it, that “the history of black nationalism cannot be left solely to black nationalists.” The point is that it can no longer be left solely to white historians as it has been for a century. Considering the systematic suppression, distortion, and neglect of the black role in America, it takes a total lack of discernment and a high degree of arrogance to raise the cry that “The real aim is to make Black Studies…a black …monopoly.”

I cannot speak for all of his critics, but Floyd Miller is not black, nor am I. We are willing, however, to have our efforts judged on their merits by white, black, or black nationalist readers, and to learn whatever it may be possible to learn from their criticism. I’m sure that neither of us considers it his function to “force black nationalists to cope with realities that they might otherwise prefer to turn away from or cover up.”…

Dorothy Sterling

Rye, New York

Theodore Draper replies:

I am again reluctant to enter into this kind of dispute, for reasons that I hope will soon become plain. But in order to make any sense of it, it is necessary to go back and see what the whole argument is about.

I set out to write a sketch of Martin R. Delany for the light it might cast on black nationalism, which was my subject. I was not writing a dissertation on Delany’s life. Inasmuch as Delany was not exactly a household name, I devoted three relatively short paragraphs to his background before I took up the theme that directly concerned me. For these three paragraphs, I depended on the best of existing sources. I realized that much more research needed to be done on his life, and I noted that “neither the man nor his work has ever been given the study it deserves.” All three points now raised by Dorothy Sterling derive from those three introductory paragraphs. When I dealt with Delany’s ideas or activities bearing directly on black nationalism, I went to his own writings and drew my own conclusions.

Floyd J. Miller, whom Dorothy Sterling mentions, is writing a doctoral dissertation on Delany. It would be strange if he did not come up with new information. But he has not yet published his work. Before his findings can be accepted, they should be publicly available for critical examination. They were not available to me. Those who are burrowing away to correct or fill out what we know about Delany deserve our gratitude, but they should preserve a sense of proportion. Not everything about Delany is equally important or significant, and relatively minor points should not be blown up as if the entire interpretation of Delany’s viewpoint hinged on them.

For example, let us take the question of whether Delany’s father was a slave. On this point, I used the article in the Dictionary of American Biography by Professor Benjamin Brawley, a highly respected Negro scholar. In the very first sentence, Professor Brawley stated that Delany was born “the son of free negroes, Samuel and Pati Delany” (Vol. V, p. 219). Now we are told that further unpublished research has established that Delany’s father was a slave for the first ten years of his son’s life. I am willing to take it on faith, without the evidence or sources, but is it really such a momentous revelation?

Or let us take the matter of how long Delany served as coeditor of The North Star. As it happens, I did not depend on the 1868 biography of Delany; I depended on the 1964 biography of Frederick Douglass by Professor Philip S. Foner, who wrote: “After June 29, 1848, when the joint editorship with Martin R. Delany was dissolved, the journal was under Douglass’ exclusive control” (p. 92). Inasmuch as The North Star was founded on December 3, 1847, that made about seven months. Perhaps 1848 was a misprint, and Professor Foner meant 1849. I am not in a place where I can consult a file of The North Star to find out whether it was seven months or a year and a half. I settled for “a few months.” What kind of cause célèbre is this?

Or, finally, the monumental case of Delany’s stay at the Harvard Medical School. We seem to be agreed that he attended the school for a term in 1851-52. As I showed previously, that was considered enough to meet the usual requirements in Delany’s day. Now we are informed—what Professor Caldwell Titcomb had previously told us in a different spirit—that Delany was not permitted back the following year owing to objections by white students. I wish that Dorothy sterling had addressed herself to the real question—why one term was not enough, as the two histories of Harvard, which I cited, had asserted.

On this score, she has added very little new to the previous exchange, and I do not see that the subject has been advanced. In any case, it should be emphasized that this problem did not start with me; it goes back to Delany himself who permitted biographies in his own lifetime to credit him with an M.D. degree. Ironically, in order to hit out at me, the degree must be taken away from Delany, and he must be made a medical imposter. There is just a possibility that Delany was not permitted back the following year, but was still considered to have fulfilled the necessary requirements or at least Harvard preferred to permit him to act on this assumption, though he was left out of the Quinquennial Catalogues of Harvard graduates.

Should a question of this sort be blown up in order to discredit everything else I wrote about Delany? Presumably these three items were the most serious defects that Dorothy Sterling and her associates could find in my article after picking it over line by line, phrase by phrase, even footnote by footnote. If this was the best—or worst—they could do, I am rather heartened. We habitually use dictionaries, encyclopedias, and various secondary sources for subsidiary details, and, unfortunately, they are not always infallible. But there is hardly a book that could be written if every sentence or every reference were based on “primary sources.” Here, again, a sense of proportion is necessary. When I wanted to deal with the book by Delany that has influenced black nationalism the most, I turned to that book, and I did not depend on any other sources. When I wanted some personal data about Delany before he came to his black nationalist period, I turned to the best existing sources, such as the Dictionary of American Biography. Why in the world was this such an unforgivable sin?

This type of criticism is not scholarship; it is pettiness. But it is pettiness with a purpose. If I had followed a black nationalist line, I strongly doubt whether so much trouble would be taken in this Review to establish whether Delany was coeditor of The North Star for a few months or for a year and a half—and such devastating deductions drawn from the difference between them. But the black nationalist movement has now built up its vested interests, party lines, and fellow travelers. It has sought to gain control of Black Studies programs, and has in some cases succeeded. This controversy has been conducted in this spirit. If it were not a political operation, the same points could have been made in a totally different spirit, and I would have welcomed them.

Was the chip on my shoulder? Three of the four letters previously published were outrageously vituperative. I did not set the tone of this exchange. Injured innocence ill becomes those who started it. And is it really necessary today to admonish us that the history of black nationalism “can no longer be left solely to white historians”? The presses are hot with books by all kinds of black writers; anyone who tried to read them all would have no time for anything else. Is one article by me depriving them of their right to be heard?

It is regrettable that we could not get on to more important matters. The reader may wonder why I have treated these wildly overblown issues so seriously. The reason is that I think there is something far more serious behind them.

  • Email
  • Print