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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.

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Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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