FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Charles F. Harris: He Popularized Black History

Photo by joey zanotti | CC BY 2.0

When I first met Malcolm X, I was like the punk who challenges the veteran gunslinger Jimmy Ringo played by Gregory Peck in “The Gunfighter.” I had a swell head. I had been told by professors at the University of Buffalo that I was “very bright.” They even offered me a full scholarship. After dropping out, I went to work with a 27-year-old writer named Joe Walker. We published a newspaper out of a run-down trash filled, dingy office on Broadway in Buffalo, New York. The newspaper, The Empire Star, was founded by A. J. Smitherman, who, as a fiery young newspaper publisher and proponent of armed self-defense, was one of the targets of mob violence during the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre of 1921. Joe and I also moderated a weekly radio program called the Buffalo Community Roundtable.

One Sunday, Malcolm X was our guest. He strode into the studio, tall, handsome, bearing his famous ironic grin. The show’s producer, the late Jimmy Lyons, suggested that the topic be Black History. This was my opening. “Of course,” I said, “Mr. X would say that Black History is distorted.” “No,” he fired back. “I’d say that it was cotton patch history.”

That remark sat me down. In those days, the textbooks, if they covered Black History at all, showed Blacks alternately picking cotton and partying. According to these books, blacks, incapable of governing, inspired the Klan to save the South from Black incompetence. For the history of Reconstruction, we were informed not by W.E.B DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, but by “Gone With the Wind.” We were educated to fit into “the Anglo mainstream” and told that we were without a history. Nothing had changed since the Puritans dismissed the Indians they found in Massachusetts as lacking a history and religion, when their religion was more complex than that of the monotheistic invaders. But unlike the ethno nationalists of today, who feel that a superficial knowledge of the traditions of a few European countries makes you smart, at least Cotton Mather studied the Iroquois language.

Unlike the students from Black historical colleges who worked in Buffalo during the summer, we knew little about Black History. One of those students was William Peace, III who was writing about the sit-ins that were beginning to occur. Corinth books published his book The Angry Black South in 1962. Another member of our Buffalo circle was National Book Award winner, poet Lucille Clifton, who studied at Howard University another Black institution, whose press was directed by pioneer black publisher Charles F. Harris  from 1971-1986.

The late Charles Harris was also a product of a Black Historical College. He graduated from Virginia State University in 1955 with a B.A. degree. Virginia State is a land grant university founded in 1882. After college, he enlisted in the Army and rose to the rank of first lieutenant. Denied service at a segregated restaurant in the company of his men, Harris told the proprietor that “If I don’t eat, nobody eats.”

While Carter Godwin Woodson  launched the celebration of “Negro History Week”, in 1926, the precursor of Black History Month, it was Charles Harris and John A. Williams who educated New York publishers to its existence. Before I left Buffalo for New York, I’d read about Charles Harris teaching editors at Doubleday about the presence of Black soldiers in the Revolutionary War. He was responsible for a number of Black authors receiving book contracts, including the uncompromising Amiri Baraka. Some of the others published by Harris were Arthur Ashe, Susan Taylor, John Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright and Alice Walker. While at Random House, he also acquired “The Greatest” by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham. Harris left HU Press in 1986 and returned to commercial trade publishing, founding Amistad Press. Amistad, created in a partnership with Time/Warner, was the first independent, large-scale African American-owned general trade book publisher. In 1999, Harris sold Amistad to HarperCollins, where it became (and continues to be) an imprint focused on the African American book market.

Harris and Williams were co-editors of a Black literary journal called Amistad, which published my off the rails surrealist satire of Richard Nixon, D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful. The name was changed to Noxon because the publisher feared reprisals from the Nixon administration.

John A. Williams, his friend John O Killens and Charles Harris educated a whole generation so that they were no longer, in the words of Malcolm X, “lost in the wilderness of North America,” intellectually. John A. Williams continued educating until his final novel Clifford’s Blues about a Black musician who was put into a concentration camp by the Nazis. His publishers hadn’t heard of Blacks and Africans imprisoned by the Nazis. Harris’s crowning achievement was his collaboration with tennis champion Arthur Ashe in his 3 volume A Hard Road to Glory about the history of the Black athlete. It had been turned down by 27 publishers.

Though these men did much to foster an interest in Black history, they could hardly be called tribalists. Like Malcolm X, Williams, Harris, Killens were acquainted with western literature as well. During my conversations with Malcolm, he could cite western authors like Dante and Virgil. While at Howard University, acting on my suggestion, Harris even published an anthology entitled The Big Aieeeee by Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, Jeff Chang and Shawn Wong. The title of what is regarded as a manifesto is derived from the idea that some minority writers must yell in order to get attention. Some scholars consider this volume to have sparked the beginning of the Asian American Renaissance in Literature.

Malcolm X hired the late Joe Walker to edit Muhammad Speaks. He could spot talent. He was one of two geniuses whom I have met in my life. Though his life was cut short, his legacy is sustained by his admirers including Haki Madhubuti publisher of Third World Press, who, like Malcolm, believes that showy eloquence is not enough. One must establish institutions. While the late poet and scholar Sarah Fabio might be called the mother of Black Studies, having taught Black Panther Bobby Seale and Huey Newton at Merritt College, Malcolm X was the father.  Bobby Seale told me that after the death of his hero, Malcolm X, he spent 35 dollars on a library card issued by the University of California at Berkeley. Using the card, he made a list of books that could be the basis for a Black Studies course. He took the list to the president of the college, who dismissed the idea. It wasn’t until the white students threatened to shut down the college that the president agreed. One of the great leaders of the Black struggle Frederick Douglass said, “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress” Indeed.

More articles by:

Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
August 21, 2019
Craig Collins
Endangered Species Act: A Failure Worth Fighting For?
Colin Todhunter
Offering Choice But Delivering Tyranny: the Corporate Capture of Agriculture
Michael Welton
That Couldn’t Be True: Restorying and Reconciliation
John Feffer
‘Slowbalization’: Is the Slowing Global Economy a Boon or Bane?
Johnny Hazard
In Protest Against Police Raping Spree, Women Burn Their Station in Mexico City.
Tom Engelhardt
2084: Orwell Revisited in the Age of Trump
Binoy Kampmark
Condescension and Climate Change: Australia and the Failure of the Pacific Islands Forum
Kenn Orphan – Phil Rockstroh
The Dead Letter Office of Capitalist Imperium: a Poverty of Mundus Imaginalis 
George Wuerthner
The Forest Service Puts Ranchers Ahead of Grizzlies (and the Public Interest)
Stephen Martin
Geopolitics of Arse and Elbow, with Apologies to Schopenhauer.
Gary Lindorff
The Smiling Turtle
August 20, 2019
James Bovard
America’s Forgotten Bullshit Bombing of Serbia
Peter Bolton
Biden’s Complicity in Obama’s Toxic Legacy
James Phillips
Calm and Conflict: a Dispatch From Nicaragua
Karl Grossman
Einstein’s Atomic Regrets
Colter Louwerse
Kushner’s Threat to Palestine: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
Nyla Ali Khan
Jammu and Kashmir: the Legitimacy of Article 370
Dean Baker
The Mythology of the Stock Market
Daniel Warner
Is Hong Kong Important? For Whom?
Frederick B. Mills
Monroeism is the Other Side of Jim Crow, the Side Facing South
Binoy Kampmark
God, Guns and Video Games
John Kendall Hawkins
Toni Morrison: Beloved or Belovéd?
Martin Billheimer
A Clerk’s Guide to the Unspectacular, 1914
Elliot Sperber
On the 10-Year Treasury Bonds 
August 19, 2019
John Davis
The Isle of White: a Tale of the Have-Lots Versus the Have-Nots
John O'Kane
Supreme Nihilism: the El Paso Shooter’s Manifesto
Robert Fisk
If Chinese Tanks Take Hong Kong, Who’ll be Surprised?
Ipek S. Burnett
White Terror: Toni Morrison on the Construct of Racism
Arshad Khan
India’s Mangled Economy
Howard Lisnoff
The Proud Boys Take Over the Streets of Portland, Oregon
Steven Krichbaum
Put an End to the Endless War Inflicted Upon Our National Forests
Cal Winslow
A Brief History of Harlan County, USA
Jim Goodman
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is Just Part of a Loathsome Administration
Brian Horejsi
Bears’ Lives Undervalued
Thomas Knapp
Lung Disease Outbreak: First Casualties of the War on Vaping?
Susie Day
Dear Guys Who Got Arrested for Throwing Water on NYPD Cops
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail