J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 01, 2018

The Survival of Crispus Attucks in American Memory

Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society, recently shared Stephen G. Hall’s interview with Mitch Kachun, author of First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory.

Here are some extracts from Kachun’s remarks:
Every nation needs a story that tells themselves, and others, who they are as a people. The broader society didn’t recognize that Blacks had any history or coherent collective identity, so Black speakers at these celebrations very consciously challenged dismissive mainstream historical narratives. They created an empowering story to bind African Americans together as a people with a rich history, a heritage, and a set of heroes in which they could take pride. They recounted the glories of ancient African empires; the prosperity and stability of early modern West African kingdoms; and the accomplishments of Blacks in America—in science, religion, education, activism, and military service.

In these speeches, I started encountering references to Crispus Attucks, first during the 1840s and even more during the 1850s and 1860s. Black speakers telling the story of their people used Attucks to demonstrate that Blacks had been part of the American nation from the beginning. They revised existing mainstream stories of the American Revolution to include one of their own, presenting Attucks as the first to make the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of the American nation. Yet, as you note, we know almost nothing about Attucks’s life. . . .

Since his death, Crispus Attucks has remained a malleable figure in American memory. With so little documentary evidence about his life, he is a virtual blank slate upon which different people at different times have inscribed a variety of meanings—patriotic martyr; unsavory thug threatening the social order; Uncle Tom who sold out his race for the white society enslaving them; or irrelevant nobody with no historical significance whatsoever. . . .

One thing that fascinated me was that Black activists didn’t incorporate Attucks into their narratives until around 1850—some 80 years after his death. Boston abolitionist William C. Nell was foremost in recovering Attucks and promoting him as the First Martyr of Liberty; Attucks immediately became a frequently used symbol for bolstering Black activists’ arguments for abolition and full citizenship. By the time of emancipation Attucks was widely known, but during Jim Crow he was erased from mainstream histories and popular culture; it was left to African Americans to preserve his memory and his status as an American hero. . . .

I could not find a single American history textbook published between the 1880s and 1950s that mentioned Attucks in its coverage of the Boston Massacre. This began to change in the 1960s, and by the 1990s it was hard to find a textbook that did not mention Attucks.
Kachun goes on to discuss how “the mythic histories that inhabit the realm of collective memory cannot be contingent or ambiguous—they are constructed to provide empowering stories with clear resolutions.” But those mythic histories are at odds with evidence-based histories, which are full of holes, wrinkles, and ambiguities, and don’t carry the same appeal for a people as a whole.

(I wrote about the misty memory of Attucks in Boston before William C. Nell did his work as a historian and activist back here.)

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