‘Black American History from Plantations to Rap Culture’ — flawed but valuable

Courtesy of Nofi Group

Pascal Archimede’s Black American History from Plantations to Rap Culture (Nofi Group) merits an “E” for earnest effort, though the execution is hit-and-miss. 

For ages, a lasting complaint in mainstream academia has been that by the time students reach university or college, their education entails scant reference to African American history beyond the advent and abolition of slavery. That, in and of itself, validates this book as a text for high school and junior high curricula. 

Archimede, quite sensibly, didn’t try to shoehorn all of a people’s history into 130 pages. He provides informed thumbnail sketches and flashpoints on a timeline. Roughly the first-half leads the reader to his ultimate, specific focus: rap. It’s an excellent way to interest today’s generation in the past and have them take stock in the African American legacy. 

 “Part 1: Defining the African-American” dispels the misconception that African blood setting foot on American soil began with bondage, citing the 30 sailors who served with Spanish adventurer Vasco Núñez de Balboa when he found the Pacifica Ocean in 1513.

It also spells how, over the next 100 years, a process of elimination landed on Africans for slave labor – indentured Whites and captured Native Americans were, for plantations’ grueling purposes, physically unfit for use as livestock. 

With which, as the book outlines, men, women and children were dehumanized to an animalistic state no different than cattle, horses, pigs and such to provide the bedrock of a thriving economy. 

Eventual emancipation undermined by the oppressive backlash of reconstruction, Archimede chronicles the determination of political and social leaders to fight for actual freedom.

Remarkably, he includes nationalists on the order of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X —  those that to this day remain controversial for choosing autonomy over assimilation —  along with figures that meet general, politically correct approval like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Archimede acknowledges a community cornerstone, the church, as “one of the most important institutions for the…community because it played and still plays a prominent role in their ’emancipation.’”

Another long-prized establishment, the press, receives its due for serving as an instrument of information as well as a force for advocacy. “Church, press and school,” he summarizes, “are the three pillars of the [Black] community in the United States of America.”

Courtesy of Nofi Group Author Pascal Archimede

The celebrated likes of Jesse Jackson and former President Barack Obama noted with high profile conservatives such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and HUD Secretary Ben Carson are featured to highlight the social progress of a Black bourgeoisie even as that chapter cites inner-city poverty and disproportionate prison populations. 

“Part II: Rap As A Musical Form” observes, at considerable length, the rap genre spawned as grassroots artistry borne of social commentary, pointedly marking its origin and the seminal influence of percussion accompanied verse by pioneering quartet The Last Poets. 

artistry borne of social commentary, pointedly marking its origin and the seminal influence of percussion accompanied verse by pioneering quartet The Last Poets. 

How, despite being boycotted by radio stations, their 1970 debut marketed 300,000 units on the small, independent Douglas Records label, creating what amounted to a guerilla movement in music. “Today,” Archimede opines, “they are regarded as the patrons of…rap.” 

He adds, “In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released a single, [‘The Message’], which marked rap history. It was a realistic social chronicle about harsh life in the ghetto. It had become a verbal weapon which aimed at denouncing the abuse African Americans under Regan presidency.” 

He goes on to recognize a roster of successors — Public Enemy, N.W.A., Tupac Shakur, Notorious BIG and more — posting that contemporary acts are intrinsically connected to transplanted African culture and sensibilities.

 Black American History is serviceably researched, but the author wasn’t invested enough to thoroughly do his homework. As a consequence, there are significant omissions and glaring errors. He overlooks that slaves fled to freedom via the Underground Railroad; Black slave owners in, for instance, South Carolina and Tennessee; such iconic individuals as Shirley Chisolm and Maxine Waters; the evolution of cinematic images and stories — but a few pieces missing from the overall picture. He also says nothing of how rap’s popularly degenerated into obscenity-laced self-aggrandizement and sexist vulgarity. 

Importantly, a testament to facts of historic life suffers immeasurably when it’s inaccurate. Contrary to his claim that the Black Panthers’ mission was to take up arms against the police, violent self-defense was but one component. It’s well-documented that they were principally dedicated to social service, providing, among other things, food and clothing.

“One of [the Black press’] paradoxes is that a great majority of its advertisements…alienate the community [by advertising] skin clearing or hair straightening.” Though whitening cream was pushed in Ghana, as of 1917, an ad for it was removed from the media due to protest and, in May of this year, the product caught flak for being hawked in Pakistan. And not since the days of Madam C.J. Walker marketing Tan Off in the early 1900s has such a product been seen in the African American press. 

Regarding hair straightening, the sustained success of Dark & Lovely, for instance, indicates the community-at-large is far from alienated. There are, as well, grammatical flaws that competent editing would’ve eliminated.

Ultimately, however, the book’s value cannot be denied as acknowledgment that White History is not the only American history.