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The Changing Definition of African-American History

Since the origins of the field in the late 19th century, scholars have devised more than one definition of what constitutes African-American history. Some intellectuals have viewed the field as an extension or corollary to American history. Some have stressed the influence of Africa on African-American history, and others have viewed African-American history as vital to black liberation and power.

An Ohio lawyer and minister, George Washington Williams, published the first serious work of African-American history in 1882. His work, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, began with the arrival of the first slaves in the North American colonies and concentrated on the major events in American history that involved or affected African-Americans. Washington, in his "Note" to volume two of his opus, said that he intended "to lift the Negro race to its pedestal in American history" as well as "to instruct the present, inform the future."

During this period of history, most African Americans, like Frederick Douglass, stressed their identities as Americans and did not look to Africa as a source of history and culture, according to historian Nell Irvin Painter. This was true of historians like Washington as well, but during the early decades of the 20th century and especially during the Harlem Renaissance, African-Americans, including historians, began to celebrate Africa"s history as their own.

W.E.B. Du Bois was the foremost African-American historian during this period. In works like The Souls of Black Folk, he stressed African-American history as the confluence of three different cultures: African, American and African-American. Du Bois" historical works, such as The Negro (1915), framed the history of black Americans as starting in Africa.

One of Du Bois"s contemporaries, historian Carter G. Woodson, created the forerunner of today"s Black History Month--Negro History Week--in 1926. While Woodson felt that Negro History Week should emphasize the influence black Americans had on U.S. history, he too

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