Becoming African American

Amateurish historians often tell us that we must study the past to avoid repeating its mistakes. Such efforts rarely work out well. Con­sider the determination of the U.S. in the 1930s to avoid replicating the events of World War I or subsequent efforts to oppose communism in places like Viet­nam to avoid repeating the appeasement of the 1930s.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp, by contrast, offers an unusual, complex and thoughtful approach to history. With remarkable erudition and careful analysis, she presents the lives and ideas of 19th-century African-American writers, preachers and missionaries who thought long and hard about their past.

For these thinkers, history was vitally important to the present and future of their race. Faced with white scholars, ministers and politicians who speculated that God had created a separate, inferior race of dark-skinned people and told even by sympathetic whites that they had no collective history worth remembering, black Protestant leaders countered with stories of ancient African civilizations, heroes like Richard Allen and Nat Turner, and promises of a bright future as Ethiopia stretched out its hands to God.