By Mitch Kachun, PhD
Mitch Kachun, PhD is Professor Emeritus of History at Western Michigan University, specializing in African American history, collective memory, and historical writing. He is author of First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (Oxford 2017); Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (Massachusetts, 2003); and co-editor of The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel by Julia C. Collins (Oxford, 2006), as well as numerous scholarly articles and book chapters.
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Like most 18th century Americans, little is known about Crispus Attucks’s life. He probably was born around 1723, likely of African and Native American descent. Attucks was a large man, over six feet, and was likely enslaved until he liberated himself in 1750, after which he worked as a sailor and around the docks along the Atlantic seaboard. On March 5, 1770, Attucks was at the forefront of an unruly Boston mob assaulting a small detachment of British soldiers with rocks, chunks of ice, and clubs. The soldiers fired and Attucks and four white colonists were killed in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre. That’s about all we know.
Attucks has since become a symbol of African American patriotism, sacrifice, and citizenship. African American spokespersons have typically presented Attucks as strong, manly, and assertive in defending his rights, his people, and his nation. This image of patriotic Black manhood willing to die for American freedom and independence became a powerful statement in African Americans’ struggle for citizenship, equality, and belonging—a Black patriot was the first to give his life in the cause of Independence
But the image of a large Black man as a violent threat to the social order was always the dangerous flip side of the coin. Whites’ obsessive fears about Black male violence have always been deeply embedded in the American fabric, leading many to vilify Attucks, impugn his character, question his motives, trivialize his significance, or criminalize his actions
Attucks’s connection with violence in the streets continues draw attention in the 21stcentury. In 2000 historian Pauline Maier associated him with an all-too-common image in American public culture: “Attucks,” she asserted, “is said to have gone out into the street waving a cordwood stick about the thickness of a man’s wrist, leading a crowd of about 20 or 30 soldiers. Sounds like a thug to me.” In 2015, political journalist Amy Goodman had a different take, connecting Attucks with the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: “From Crispus Attucks to Michael Brown 245 years later,” Goodman wrote, “two things remain clear: We never know what sparks a revolution. And Black lives matter
These conflicting assessments of Crispus Attucks’s significance illustrate one of the fundamental problems Americans face in coming to terms with the nation’s racial divisions. African Americans’ experiences of two and a half centuries of enslavement, followed by more than a century of systematic oppression and exclusion—all enforced with violence—have traditionally been ignored in the master narrative of American history. Slavery, lynching, and other forms of racial oppression have largely been excluded from the dominant society’s understanding of the nation’s past, since including it belies the comfortable and simplistic saga of a nation founded on the principles of freedom, equality, and opportunity for all. Much of mainstream society remains committed to preserving that national mythology.
Only recently has the nation taken the first small steps toward grappling with its history of white supremacist violence and oppression. Many white Americans still refuse to accept that central paradox of American history—that this nation which prides itself as a land of liberty, where all men are created equal, and all have equal access to the American Dream, was in fact largely built and sustained through the violent exploitation and oppression of enslaved Africans and then the systematic exclusion of African Americans from anything resembling equality.
African Americans have long used a heroic characterization of Crispus Attucks and other Black figures to revise and reshape the master narrative of American history so that African Americans are recognized as playing central roles in the nation’s story. But the mere token insertion of people like Crispus Attucks has always been insufficient to redressing the problems of historical understanding that have helped create our present crisis. The New York Times’s “1619 Project” is an important recent expression of the desire to reorient Americans’ collective understanding of the nation’s history. And it takes a decisive and necessary step by insisting that we not simply insert tokens like Attucks; it requires that we completely re-center our thinking to accept that this nation of liberty was founded on a racialized system of human bondage. That is the core of the nation’s story and until we come to terms with that reality we will not be able to take the steps toward restorative justice that can repair the damage done and allow us to move forward more honestly and equitably.
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Previously published on Historianspeaks.org.
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