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Author Myrlie Evers-Williams is a trailblazer as an activist for civil rights

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How sweet the sound: A conversation
with Nancy-Elizabeth Fitch

February 16, 2001
Web posted at: 5:34 PM EST (2234 GMT)

Nancy-Elizabeth Fitch is a historian currently teaching at the College of New Rochelle. She has also worked for the Equal Opportunity Commission. In 2000, Harcourt published Fitch's anthology, "How Sweet the Sound: The Spirit of African-American History." In the introduction, Fitch states that the book "extends the parameters of the meaning of 'text' in revealing the history of African-Americans in the United States, specifically discussing 'texts' beyond those alphabetically written or printed as in a book." CNNfyi.com senior education editor Lynn McBrien talked with Fitch about her text and thoughts about African-American studies.

CNNfyi: What was your own experience of African-American studies as a student?

Fitch: What I learned came through the traditional avenues of American history textbooks and monographs with a European perspective. Beyond the Civil War, there was almost no mention of African-Americans, for example, during the colonial and revolutionary eras. What little I did read did not match up with my own knowledge of African-Americans in the United States.

As an undergraduate, part of my core requirements was that I take a "non Western" studies course. I chose India. My professor was an Indian Muslim. He is the only person of color that I have ever had as a teacher throughout my entire student career. I saw him as my mentor: If he could become a college professor, then so could I. That also encouraged me to study the history of people of color.

CNNfyi: "How Sweet the Sound" attempts to discuss the important non-written history of African-Americans. That must have been very difficult to do through the medium of yet another book.

Fitch: Yes, I thought it would be difficult to even make this concept understandable for readers, as the book is about oral traditions in African-American cultures but uses a written text to do it. Fortunately, readers seem to understand my dilemma.

I do write a disclaimer stating that I am aware I'm creating another written text. It was the only way I could do what I needed to do. I tried to find articles, speeches, sermons and photos doing or visualizing for the reader the things I was talking about -- exhibiting the dynamics of language, showing movement whether migrations or more specifically the sacred ringshout dance, showing visual arts not only as art but with their utilitarian function and discussing the uses of space and place that are self-defined by black people, e.g., the hammocks African Americans created on the Sea Islands, the decorating of burials. In an article about the language of dance, readers can get a sense of how dance is performed and how dancers become a community because of it. The ringshout creates a kind of nation under the feet of Tivs, Hausa, Kongo, Mandingo, Igbo, Yoruba, Ashanti and the other diverse people who were the western Africans who were captured and brought to the Americas and what becomes the United States. In another case, I use a transmission of a taped sermon. The "sounds" from the transmission are shown with words and letters moving up and down the page, being bold and large or small so that the reader can feel, see and "hear" the up and down cadences of the preacher as he "performed" it. There is also a photo of the Tuskegee Marching Band in their uniforms. It shows their pride and also group movement. The limbo dance, as perceived by cultural scholar Wilson Harris, was inverted from its origins as a painful experience of African captives, cramped in the slave quarters of slave ships as human cargo, into a celebratory dance that was created and transformed into the "limbo" dance performed during contemporary Caribbean vacations. This is an example of inversion - simply turning lemons into lemonade and coming out on top. There are many nuances and symbols in the words and movements, being contorted, being "in limbo," no longer Tiv and Hausa, not yet Americans, and living on a "floating" Europe to start a process of learning how to survive in hostile environments with an "amazing grace."

CNNfyi: What compelled you to write "'How Sweet the Sound'"?

Fitch: I'd been thinking of traditional history as too exclusive. Additionally, there is the idea abroad that those whose cultures and traditions are primarily of the oral tradition involving dance, movement, music, "nommo" or the spoken word and the languages, though not always verbal, of others of the oral tradition are inferior -- that oral societies have no culture and no history. My experience told me this was not true. I knew there were people who made great contributions that were not included in the telling of American history, and they included free and enslaved African-descended persons who found themselves in North America. When I was a young girl, my mother would tell me and read to me about important people and events in the African-America community. Sadly, students now say that their American textbooks still do not reflect that information. African-American contributions to this country are still segregated in the text. So we still see primarily slavery, and not the contributions nor the transcendence over enslavement that leads to survival and achievement. It is as though slavery is the beginning and the end of African-American history when it is actually a small part of a larger story.

I contend that African-American history starts on the continent of the Tivs, Mandingos, Fulani Hausa, etc., where they were captured. Our way of teaching doesn't address the fact that African peoples were originally free, had known freedom and then lost it. We are first introduced to them as enslaved persons living with the legacy of that experience and not moving toward that original autonomous or free state of their ancestors.

CNNfyi: How does this affect our perceptions of African-Americans?

Fitch: Historically, people have sold their own people. Africans sold Africans, Arabs in North Africa sold Africans (their African neighbors on the other side of the Sahara). Human history is replete with peoples selling one another. When Africans got involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade with the Europeans, particularly with the British in the American colonies, the obvious color not cultural difference, made the difference. This made it easy to reduce the number of indentured servants, both black and white, who would eventually be set free with land, tools, livestock, and clothing for their seven years of servitude. There was concern about the colonies and later the fledgling country becoming a welfare state. So the obvious people who could be identified as a permanent underclass, or unpaid labor force, would be the African captive and then the American slave -- because of their color which identified them as members of the underclass. Then to justify exploiting these persons, the "inferiority" defense was used and then the idea that African peoples were permanent children and needed to be "schooled" in civilization. African peoples then became the last rung on the "Great Chain of Being."

Even in post-Civil War times, this perception of blacks as inferior and less than human created huge injustices, fear and mistrust. It allowed poor whites who saw blacks working hard to educate their children and to have nice things for their homes -- things like lace curtains at the windows or a piano in the parlor -- to resent and hate them. Even if the white family had been idle, they believed they were superior to the blacks, so they felt justified to burn black homes, run families out of town, even lynch family members. This color difference, perpetuated by wealthier whites who didn't want the lower classes realizing they were not one another's problem, but the people who controlled them were, kept poor whites and blacks from forming alliances. Even the poorest white, because he was white, could run educated and middle class black people's lives. They weren't anxious to lose this small sense of authority, which was really all they had. In the 1870s and 80s during the period of industrialization, people of influence saw the use of keeping low level workers in a state of mistrust. African-Americans who were formally skilled artisan slaves couldn't find jobs because industrialists preferred to give them to white immigrants, whom they pitted against freedman. Then these owners would pit the immigrants, who didn't want to work with former slaves, against freedmen by using the latter as scabs if the immigrants ever went on strike.

We tend to look at enslavement as something African-Americans should be ashamed of because we show a half-empty glass instead of one half full. There is an African-American context beyond just the ante-bellum South: African-Americans have stayed in this country, they have survived, and they transformed the country by insisting that the principles from the Declaration of Independence survive and that its principles be realized. Where would the women's movement be, concern for the disabled and elderly, civil rights but more importantly human rights for all who are oppressed if it didn't begin with seeing the wrongful treatment and injustice of the unfree in a democratic republic? In seeing that this democracy was really a slave society? Black people are co-creators of American democracy. Daily contact with the unfree gave a more poignant meaning to the Founders and to the concept of freedom and independence. This is a major contribution of African Americans and one to be proud of. Enslavement was terrible, but the legacy shows that it resulted in a half-full glass for the development of our republic, and the writing should reflect that and identify those many persons of African descent who made it possible.

CNNfyi: What should be included in American history courses? Is Black History Month sufficient to saluting the contributions of African-Americans?

Fitch: We are a country that does not know its history. I think there is a problem separating out black history from American history. They need to be integrated into the larger story. I think if I had grown up in the South, I might know more about American history. I was recently at an advisory meeting in Albany, New York, where the Department of Education was establishing standards and benchmarks for the social studies certification examination for secondary education majors. The Civil War wasn't even mentioned. When I said that we need to talk about the Atlantic slave trade to understand American history -- why Africans and Europeans were here in the first place, other participants would respond, "Yes, we understand," and then move on to something else. Obviously nothing is going to change there. There is a continuation of compartmentalization and denial. American culture is also African-American culture; there can not be one without the other. They are inextricably connected.

Another problem with designating one month for this recognition is that people think that they can forget about it the rest of the time. Once when I taught an American history course in North Carolina, some students complained that they thought they were taking a course in African-American history when I was teaching American history. They were wrong. I just integrated the contributions and influence of blacks and whites throughout the curriculum and didn't separate them from one another.

CNNfyi: Do you think that students should have to take an African-American history course?

Fitch: Yes, but when I teach African-American history, I also talk about whites. Otherwise, it wouldn't make sense. You can't teach history in a vacuum. But I think African-American history must be incorporated into American history courses first, which everyone graduating from high school and college should take. Than, if upperclassman/women want to take more advanced African-American history or African-American Studies courses, they can do so but would also have a foundation to do so.

There is so much that goes untaught about the African-American experience. Few people even know who started the Black History Month movement. When you think of abolitionists, you think of whites and women, not blacks. Yet escaped slaves as well as free blacks were very involved in that movement. There were black soldiers and leaders from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War begging to fight. There were also literary and scholarly societies in which people gathered in their parlors after church and considered the issues of the day and held musical recitals. There were all kinds of people doing scholarly and literary things that we don't hear about.

There is also a strange tendency to look at the Africans who came to the Americas as though they are all of one culture. They were not. These Tivas, Hausa, Yorubas, Ashani and other West African peoples did not share the same language, religious practices, or traditions or other traditions except the ringshout, which united them whenever they performed it. Some early African in the United States were Muslims who read the Koran and wrote in Arabic, and we are only recently discussing them. The lack truth in historical writing and teaching allows certain stereotyping to continue.

CNNfyi: I have spoken with young African-Americans who are offended when they see Black History Month including the themes of jazz, blues and entertainers. But you see music and dance as important texts of the African-American experience. How would you address these concerns?

Fitch: I understand that, and I'd add the category of black athletes to it. However, what's interesting is that many of these famous athletes and entertainers really broke down some barriers and were active players in the human rights movement. It was the only means for them to speak their minds and that of their community, in part because they were seen as American heroes. Baseball, for example, as the national pastime, helped African-Americans turn an important corner in gaining more of their human rights. And of course, the music told the story.

There is so much history involved in these non-written texts. Blues come from spiritual and gospel; they are the "profane" side of the sacred music. When drums were taken from slaves they moved to song. The spiritual "Let My People Go" isn't just about biblical times. Enslaved people were singing that they wanted freedom now. The blues are a chronicle of the travail of black people here. They are a true history text showing not only the sadness of the people, but also the survival coping skills such as seeing the absurd in American life -- starting with a democratic republic that was also a slavocracy.

CNNfyi: The United States Civil War ended in 1865. While great progress has occurred, still there is strife, unrest, mistrust and prejudice. What do you think is needed for true reconciliation?

Fitch: People need to know the history of this country and understand why people are still very upset about the injustices that occurred not only during the period of slavery but also afterwards, including contemporary times. It doesn't make sense for people to feel guilty personally if they weren't there. Nor does it make sense for African-Americans to be embarrassed or feel as though they are of lesser coinage There is a need to remember and recognize the injustice and truly work together in our communities to integrate the history and experience of all people who created the United States not only with "blood, sweat and tears," but also with ideas about the contradictions in America's founding and how to correct them. Through this work, which can bring true reconciliation because the truth will finally be told, the awful past can never be repeated -- at least not in the same way.



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Nancy Elizabeth Fitch |HOW SWEET THE SOUND

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