Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dr. Omar H. Ali op-ed The Free Lance-Star

Movements to the Mountaintop
History as Collective Failure: Lessons from the Black populists
Omar H. Ali
February 19, 2012
GREENSBORO, N.C.--Famously, George Washington lost almost every major battle during the American Revolution, yet he won the war. His final victory at Yorktown is embraced as an example of individual perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds.

In our winner-take-all culture, we tend to glorify the winners, emphasizing the individual--from historical figures, such as Washington, to contemporary figures, such as Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama. We learn about them as individuals who "make it"--on their own, through extraordinary acts, with vision, and a little bit of luck. The formula: They struggled, they failed, but pressed on until they won (glory, money, the war, the vote, the presidency).

But what if in history there is no such thing as "the individual" or "winning"?What if there is only the seamless process of collective creation--no victory (no defeat), only what people do together? Back stories--the ones you don't usually hear--can teach us about collective creativity, about the fleeting nature of winning and about the production of history of many people doing mostly ordinary, but sometimes, extraordinary things together.

What most of us learn about "black history" entails the people and/or movements that succeeded in making political changes--notably, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. But what about those who didn't make it to the mountaintop? What about the dreams that remain unfulfilled and the movements that failed?

Black populism, the movement of black farmers, sharecroppers, and agrarian workers from 1886 to 1900, was such a movement. It sought, but was not able to make, the economic and political reforms that were so desperately needed by a generation of Southern African-Americans coming out of slavery. Black populism was also the largest independent black political movement in the region before the modern civil rights movement. Read more ...

Omar H. Ali is associate professor of African-American history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and author of "In the Lion's Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900" (University Press of Mississippi, 2010).

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