Edited by Herbert Shapiro
MEP Publications, Minneapolis
Copyright © 1998 by Marxist Educational Press, All rights reserved.
African American History and Radical Historiography: Essays in Honor of Herbert Aptheker is a tribute to the man long regarded by many of us as the dean of U.S. Marxist historians. Herbert Aptheker has been a member of the editorial board of Nature, Society, and Thought (NST) since its inception in 1987 and has been closely associated with the work of the Marxist Educational Press (MEP), which issues the journal. He has been a prominent speaker at several Marxist Scholars Conferences sponsored by MEP. He was the principal lecturer at the MEP Marxist Summer Institute in 1984 and 1985. Two sets of his taped lectures, Lectures on U.S. History and Lectures on Fascism, are still available from MEP,, as well as a thirty-fiveminute talk on John Brown especially popular with students. A selection of his previously uncollected essays was published by MEP in 1987 under the title Racism, Imperialism, and Peace, edited by Marvin J. Berlowitz and Carol E. Morgan, as volume 21 of the series Studies in Marxism.
Because of the appropriately scholarly emphasis in this academic volume, the activist aspect of his life is alluded to only indirectly here. No tribute to Herbert Aptheker should leave the impression, however, that his entire life has been spent in the archives. In his early twenties, for example, he engaged in hazardous educational work in the South, at one point traveling under the pseudonym H. Biel for the Committee to Abolish Peonage. He has always found energy, passion, and courage for popular and polemical speaking and writing, for organizing and agitating in the finest sense of that old and honorable left tradition.
The editorial board and staff of Nature, Society, and Thought and the Marxist Educational Press take great pride and personal satisfaction in publishing this Festschrift in honor of Herbert Aptheker. We have all learned much from our association with him and look forward to his continuing contributions to the eradication of racism from our country, the strengthening of Marxist scholarship, and the advent of scientific socialism.Erwin Marquit
This collection of essays honors Herbert Aptheker’s contributions to scholarly discourse in the United States. For more than five decades, in a vast array of publications monographs, documentary histories, the edited works of W. E. B. Du Bois, and numerous review essays Aptheker has illuminated the processes of social change. He has provided abundant evidence that the dead weight of outworn ideas and institutions ultimately cannot stand in the way of human progress. Despite political repression that has often denied students and professors the opportunity to hear him lecture, he was able to reach thousands in the academic community through his writings and in public forums on and off the campus. At observances of Negro History Week, Herbert Aptheker often spoke to student audiences when few other white historians involved themselves in these commemorations. He vigorously debated such academics as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Henry David on such questions as the possibilities for cooperation between liberals and Communists.
Aptheker’s career has been marked by partisanship and commitment, but he has always stood firm in the conviction that those seeking a more humane world are served by truth rather than falsehood. Those engaged in social activism, in the struggles for racial and gender equality, for world peace, and for the rights of all who labor have found sustenance in the historical record he has laid before them. Herbert
Aptheker was born in New York City in 1915. Following his primary and secondary education in the city’s public schools, he received his Bachelor of Science degree at Columbia University. At Columbia he was also awarded the M.A. and then the Ph.D. degree in 1943 upon completion of his seminal doctoral dissertation, “American Negro Slave Revolts.” In this work he presented a powerful refutation of the previously dominant historiography of slavery, exemplified by U. B. Phillips, which contended the plantation system, ruled by superior whites, sought to civilize an inherently inferior Black population. Where Phillips saw submissive slaves, Aptheker found that resistance and rebelliousness were characteristic of African Americans. While Phillips claimed slavery was marked by a paternalistic ethos, in which masters and slaves related to each other on the basis of intimacy and affection, Aptheker revealed a system of class exploitation and brutality.
Following service in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he attained the rank of major in the artillery, Aptheker was the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1946. In 1951 the first volume of his Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States appeared, bringing together source materials that have inspired and informed historiography of slavery, exemplified by U. B. Phillips, which contended the plantation system, ruled by superior whites, sought to civilize an inherently inferior Black population. Where Phillips saw submissive slaves, Aptheker found that resistance and rebelliousness were characteristic of African Americans. While Phillips claimed slavery was marked by a paternalistic ethos, in which masters and slaves related to each other on the basis of intimacy and affection, Aptheker revealed a system of class exploitation and brutality.
Following service in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he attained the rank of major in the artillery, Aptheker was the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1946. In 1951 the first volume of his Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States appeared, bringing together source materials that have inspired and informed several generations of scholars since. W. E. B. Du Bois tells us in his preface what the Documentary History signified: “It is a dream come true to have the history of the Negro in America pursued in scientific documentary form.” Aptheker’s work had been preceded by “the long hammering” of Carter Woodson and a series of studies by both white and Black scholars. But at long last, Du Bois writes, “we have this work which rescues from oblivion and loss, the very words and thoughts of scores of American Negroes who lived slavery, serfdom and quasi-freedom in the United States of America from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.” Aptheker’s work, Du Bois concludes, was “a milestone on the road to Truth.”
During the 1967 Senate hearings on the confirmation of the appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, Mississippi’s James Eastland saw fit to question Marshall concerning his citation of the Documentary History in a Circuit Court of Appeals case (New York v. Galamison). But actually, both before and after 1967, the scholarship of almost every researcher in the field of African American history has been enriched by this book, which is still regarded as a standard reference work.
Aptheker has built his scholarly achievements virtually without institutional support, never having held a permanent university position. In response to student demand, he has been granted many temporary academic appointments, beginning with Bryn Mawr in 1969. He has taught at Hostos Community College (CUNY); University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Santa Clara (until a major donor demanded his dismissal). For ten years (beginning in the late 1970s), he taught at the Law School of the University of California, Berkeley, where he created a course entitled Racism and the Law a new area of study then, but widely recognized since. He has been elected a Nonresident Fellow at Harvard University for 1998– 1999.
Throughout his long career Aptheker has produced a steady stream of scholarly works. The many historians who are now engaged in studying the life and thought of W. E. B. Du Bois stand on the shoulders of Aptheker, who for years served as custodian of the Du Bois papers, arranged for their deposit at the University of Massachusetts, and meticulously edited for publication a multivolume set of the Du Bois writings and a three-volume collection of his correspondence. The essays published here reflect the wide influence that Herbert Aptheker has exerted and continues to exert on U.S. scholars. The themes with which the authors are concerned center upon questions of race, class, and gender, and the linkages joining these categories. Several of the authors focus directly upon Aptheker’s own writings, critical where they believe criticism is appropriate, while recognizing the contributions that have made him one of the twentieth century’s foremost historians.
Aptheker is candidly presented as a symbol of the struggle for academic freedom, the Marxist intellectual who excited such fear among a group of historians at Yale University that they would not even tolerate his engagement as a short-term leader of a student-initiated seminar on Du Bois. Aptheker’s career reminds us of the political conformism of the Right and Far Right that did not stop at dispute but sought to destroy careers and altogether exclude radicals from the marketplace of ideas. The collection also includes essays exhibiting the work of scholars who explore sociological and psychological questions suggested by Aptheker’s work. The critical spirit that animates Aptheker’s researches is evident in essays probing a variety of liberation struggles. Above all, this is a collection that seeks to honor Herbert Aptheker by emulating his willingness to go where the evidence leads and his humanistic concern with the aspirations and dreams of the oppressed.
Department of History
University of Cincinnati