William Loren Katz’s
Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage
25th Anniversary Edition
Though Canadian students are not taught American History in any detail, most can likely name Plymouth Rock as the first foreign colony in the United States.
Some might even dredge up Jamestown, or the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
But they will not name the colony on the mainland of South Carolina, established in the wake of Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón.
Even though that was six decades before Roanoke Island, eight decades before Jamestown, and almost 100 years before the Mayflower landed.
In fact, even American readers, even those who have recognized the complicated heritage which surrounds the celebration of holidays and anniversaries like Columbus Day, may not have heard of this colony. (Have you?)
“In the distant South Carolina forests, two and half centuries before the Declaration of Independence, two people of color first lit the fires of freedom and exalted its principles.”
The legends of the white, Christian, European settlers are much more pervasive. They’re the folks that schoolchildren draw and colour in social studies classrooms. Except that, ironically, most of the colours are left in the crayon box.
“Though neither white, Christian, nor European, they became the first settlement of any permanence on these shores to include people from overseas. As such, they qualify as our earliest inheritance.”
Forget the frontier mythology, Katz suggests:
“In the real wilderness two dark people met and often united. They were not driven together by any special affinity based on a similar skin color. Their meetings were unwittingly arranged by their enemies, the Europeans, who exploited both.”
The history that Katz discusses requires all of the crayons in the crayon box. He is not only discussing the races that are traditionally left out of the colonial versions of history, but also the intersections between them.
And he’s not just talking about it. Every couple of pages, there is an image — a photograph or a painting — which along with quotes from original source documents and liberal use of sub-headings makes for a good reading pace.
These images do not show the string of pale faces that one most often sees in the plates of conventional history texts, and they often reveal a spectrum of pigmentation that demonstrates that there is nothing black-and-white about this history lesson.
* First recorded slave rebellion in the New World: Hispaniola, December 25, 1522
(involved African and indigenous slaves on Diego Columbus’ plantation and the outcome is unclear in the historical record)
* Mixed-race Republic of Palmares (in what’s now northeastern Brazil) resisted foreign attacks from 1657 to 1694, when an army of 6,000 conquered the community of 11,000 after a 42-day siege
* Beginning in the 16th century, the region now known as Florida became a Spanish buffer zone, protected by Native American and African warriors, against British incursions and the slave power to the north, and despite repeated attacks, they maintained the Seminole Nation there until 1858
* Between 1619 and 1700, labour in North America had become divided by skin colour and liberty would remain divisible by skin colour through the Civil War and emancipation, but despite European attempts to keep one group of colour from assisting the other, the two races began to blend on a vast scale
* The Bonga family (Black Chippewa) in what is now Minnesota played a crucial role in the American Fur Company, culminating in key treaty negotiations (Bonga township is named for them) in the early/mid-1800’s
* James P. Beckwith (Black Crow) discovered a pass, in 1850, through the Sierra Nevada mountains, which became an important gateway to Gold Rush California, gave the pass his name and built a hotel
* Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Black Indian societies were reported in the lands now known as NJ, NY, DE, MD, VA, NC, SC, CT, TN, and MA, in which some lived as maroons, completely distinct from the white society that they rejected
* Edmonia Lewis (known by her Chippewa name, Wildfire) attended Oberlin, established her first art studio in Boston, and exhibited her sculpture “Death of Cleopatra” at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876
* Lucy Gonzalez Parsons (African, Native, Hispanic) became a leading radical organizer, urging people to unite across the lines of race, religion and sex, insisting that injustice for one was injustice for all, inaugurating the first MayDay parade in Chicago 1886, in which 80,000 working-class people marched
William Loren Katz fell asleep as a boy to the music of Bessie Smith, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong, surrounded by books by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier.
His father believed that Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was “sacred ground”, and, even when young, William Loren Katz, too, fell in love with jazz, blues, and history.
When he grew up to become a public school teacher, he discovered “appalling omissions and distortions” in the curriculum and state textbooks; he has spent his life filling those gaps for students and readers and citizens.
Black Indians was challenged for including too much information about Latin America, for including many original source materials and historical engravings and photographs; in short, it was challenged for telling what the majority would rather remained untold.
The new edition from Simon & Schuster tells even more; that gap he fills in history textbooks should fill a gap on your bookshelf as well.
Did you miss this history lesson in school too? Are you tempted to add this to your reading list now?