How the Definition of African American History Has Evolved

Protesters at the Open Housing March, Chicago
Protesters at the Open Housing March, Chicago. Getty Images/Chicago History Museum

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. Many historians acknowledge that African American history does not sufficiently capture the stories of all Black Americans, as many are descended from countries other than Africa such as Haiti and Barbados, and that those descended from Africa may or may not consider their African roots to be a part of their identities.

Late 19th Century Definition

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 enslaved people 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.

The Harlem Renaissance, or The New Negro Movement

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 in his historical works looked back to Africa. William Leo Hansberry, a professor at Howard University from 1922 to 1959, developed this trend even further by describing African American history as the experience of the African diaspora.

During the Harlem Renaissance, artists, poets, novelists, and musicians also looked toward Africa as a source of history and culture. Artist Aaron Douglas, for instance, regularly used African themes in his paintings and murals.

Black Liberation and African American History

In the 1960s and 1970s, activists and intellectuals, like Malcolm X, saw African American history as an essential component of Black liberation and power. In a 1962 speech, Malcolm explained:

The thing that has made the so-called Negro in America fail, more than any other thing, is your, my, lack of knowledge concerning history. We know less about history than anything else.

As Pero Dagbovie argues in African American History Reconsidered, many Black intellectuals and scholars, such as Harold Cruse, Sterling Stuckey, and Vincent Harding, agreed with Malcolm that African Americans needed to understand their past in order to seize the future.

Contemporary Era

White academia finally accepted African American history as a legitimate field in the 1960s. During that decade, many universities and colleges began to offer classes and programs in African American studies and history. The field exploded, and American history textbooks began to incorporate African American history (as well as women's and Indigenous history) into their standard narratives.

As a sign of the increasing visibility and importance of the field of African American history, President Gerald Ford declared February to be "Black History Month" in 1974. Since then, both Black and White historians have built on the work of earlier African American historians, exploring the influence of Africa on the lives of African Americans, creating the field of Black women's history, and revealing the myriad ways in which the story of the United States is the story of race relations.

History has expanded to include the working class, women, Indigenous, and Hispanic Americans in addition to the experiences of African Americans. Black history, as practiced today, is interconnected with all of these other sub-fields in U.S. history as well as with the study of Black Americans descended from other countries. Many of today's historians would probably agree with Du Bois' inclusive definition of African American history as the interaction of African, American, and African American peoples and cultures.


  • Dagbovie, Pero. African American History Reconsidered. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
  • Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African-American History and its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Williams, George Washington. History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1883. 
  • X, Malcolm. "Black Man's History." 1962 speech. 
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Vox, Lisa. "How the Definition of African American History Has Evolved." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Vox, Lisa. (2023, April 5). How the Definition of African American History Has Evolved. Retrieved from Vox, Lisa. "How the Definition of African American History Has Evolved." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).