“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” So said Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the great Roman historian, politician, and apparently fortuneteller. Missing the deeper melanin hues, Tacitus, along with playwright William Shakespeare, French historian Voltaire, and Brit Prime Minister Winston Churchill, is just part of an ongoing Caucasian greatness problem that publisher Random House is determined to resolve. At least that’s what celebrated British author Richard Cohen found out when the publisher canceled his latest book, The History Makers.
Slightly shocking after forking over a decent advance of $350,000, Random House asked that Cohen round up black notables – including Americans – and add their contributions to the already burgeoning manuscript. Cohen agreed, and the publisher giddily advertised on its website that the work was “an epic exploration of who writes about the past and how the biases of certain storytellers continue to influence our ideas about history (and about who we are) today.” Now the page simply has an “oops” message.
The keyword in the debacle is “biases.” But whose? As Cohen remarked, “It was to do with the publisher’s sensitivities. I was then asked to write more and have done about another 18,000 words.”
Upon hearing news of the canceled project, other historians agreed it was a Eurocentric book that overlooked black people’s part in history. “Black history has not been welcome in history,” says British historian David Olusoga. “Black people have been invisible in history.”
Hakim Adi, professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester, chimed in as well, saying, it’s “as if Africa and the African American had been forgotten. It’s denigrating to the history of the world, and to black people in particular.”
Well, that is about to change in the United States.
The More Colorful Chapters
Cohen complied, keeping the advance, and penned an additional 18,000 words on abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass; educator Booker T. Washington; Leo Africanus, a Muslim who converted to Christianity in the 16th century and chronicled the histories of the Maghreb and Nile Valley; W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist and leader of the Niagara movement promoting equal rights; Toni Morrison, who wrote Beloved, a historical fictional account of the Civil War; Henry Louis Gates, the American TV historian and author who rediscovered the works of Harriet Wilson.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Are some businesses with bully pulpits using the current political climate to not tell the truth but attempt a historical rewrite? This past March, Penguin Random House eliminated a number of books from publication by the iconic Dr. Suess, labeling the works “hurtful and wrong” for using stereotypes in illustrations. Many schoolchildren aren’t able to check out The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Little House on the Prairie books anymore. And To Kill a Mockingbird is unavailable in some places because of harsh language. But isn’t this is how students learn of history’s injustices – and then improve their world? The practice of erasing the past may be more tragic than the use of a few racial slurs that need to be remembered lest they are repeated.
According to the publisher, The History Makers, a 784-page accounting of famous folks over the past 2,500 years, left out too many black academic folks and included too many white Europeans. For the lack of a complete telling, there will be none.
The History Makers is still due to be published in the United Kingdom by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on June 25.
Read more from Sarah Cowgill.