Nathan Huggins, Revolutionary Historian

By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, Nov. 30-Dec. 5, 2009

On December 5 an Interdisciplinary Symposium at Harvard University will celebrate the Life and Scholarship of Nathan I. Huggins, former director of Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies and DuBois Center, the position now held by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Huggins died twenty years ago on December 5, 1989. He was only 62.

Although we never met, Huggins has been my favorite historian for thirty years, ever since I read his Black Odyssey: the African American Ordeal in Slavery. I was fascinated by the way he wrote about the Africans who arrived on these shores in chains, not mainly as victims but as human beings with both the need and the power within them to create themselves anew in a new and strange environment.

That book helped me define the responsibility of the revolutionary historian at a time when I was creating my own identity (which I am still doing) as a revolutionary theoretician and activist. It helped me clarify that history is not the facts or events that happened in the past. It is the stories we tell ourselves and others about the past. In telling these stories, a historian who is committed to creating a new future opens our hearts and minds to how human beings have shaped their reality in the past and can therefore shape their reality in the future.

Moreover, the human beings whose stories they tell are not only "the masses" or "social forces" like workers. blacks, women who are the heroes of Marxist-Leninist historians. The revolutionary historian also tells us about the individuals who, emerging from these social forces, become leaders because they model or project a vision of the newly possible.

Thus out of all the thousands of runaway slaves who sought Freedom in the North before and during the Civil War, Frederick Bailey was the one who became a leader. Reinventing himself as Frederick Douglass, he challenged Abraham Lincoln, the politician, to go beyond just "Saving the Union" to abolishing slavery as the only way to redeem his own soul and the soul of the nation. In making this challenge Douglass transformed himself into the kind of leader and citizen that we need today in the age of Obama.

My September 3 column "Learning from Black History " was inspired by Huggins' little book, Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass

In 1986 Huggins again assumed the responsibilities of a revolutionary historian when he chided the black intellectuals at the Symposium convened in Washington, D. C. to explore how to celebrate the recently-established Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. Troubled by the inability of earlier speakers to go beyond class and race analysis and grapple with MLK's universal message of Love, Huggins tore up his prepared speech and spoke off the cuff.

The next year Huggins explained his intervention in a Journal of American History article. "While it is necessary to be cautious lest we surrender to hero worship," he wrote, "we have to focus on the man because he gives us a lens through which to see the larger picture." (The article, entitled "Martin Luther King Jr.: Charisma and Leadership" is reprinted in Revelations, essays posthumously compiled by Huggins' widow Brenda Smith Huggins, Oxford University Press, 1995).

In his remarks at the 1986 Symposium Huggins also referred to Malcolm X as a charismatic leader although he did not describe the "larger picture" for which Malcolm provided a lens.

Since then, as the number of cons and ex-cons has soared because automation has made millions of young people expendable, we can recognize Malcolm, the transformed and transforming ex-con, as the forerunner of a new generation of ex-con leaders who are emerging from those whom Jimmy Boggs called "outsiders."

Among them are Carl Upchurch, author of Convicted in the Womb who convened the historic Kansas city Gang Summit in 1993, and Yusef Shakur, author of Window 2 my Soul, who is active in the Peace Zones for Life/City of Hope movement in Detroit and trying to bring the neighbor back into his Detroit 'hood.