I would like to add a few qualifiers to Charles Johnson's timely essay, "The End of the Black American Narrative," in the Summer 2008 issue.
Mainstream history professors, students of the civil fights movement, and historians of enslavement shifted decades ago from the "victimization narrative" described by Johnson. In fact, so far is the distance historians have traveled along this line that it calls into question Johnson's basic premise that it is time for a new black narrative. We've had a "new" black narrative for at least 20 years, and this narrative does not have victimization as its climax, at least not the melodramatic victimization that Johnson decries.
One need only pick up Eugene Genovese's classic work on enslaved African Americans, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, to find a historian whose goal is to capture the humanity of the slaves, not to catalog the assaults against them. Roll Jordan Roll, published in 1974, won acclaim from historians across the political spectrum, black and white. Or consider Taylor Branch's poignant trilogy, America in the King Years, on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Branch displays a great interest in the conditions in which African Americans found themselves in the middle of the 20th century. And certainly victimization is part of that story: But it takes a reader little effort to see that Branch's great interest is King and the movement's response to victimization. Branch wants to chronicle the courageous and heartbreaking quest, in many communities, through widely varying means and methods, to challenge this long-standing victimization.
Finally, I think Johnson is simply wrong when he says the new and updated narratives of African Americans have to focus on individuals. Does Johnson believe that the study of Jewish Americans should exclude reference to Jewish history, Jewish culture, assimilation, the backdrop of the shifting politics of gentiles? Does he think narratives about the Civil War can focus only on individuals? This line of reasoning is plainly wrong. It is wrong for collective narratives of peoples and nations. But it is also wrong as it applies to individuals and their stories. Sometimes we can only really "see" the individual when we place him against the backdrop of the forces pressing in on him and defining his moment in history.
Johnson is correct that we need to update the African-American narrative. We can best start with the civil rights...