Pure ignorance. The US would have a very different history were it not for African Americans. And I don't mean that only in the obvious sense that there wouldn't have been a history or slavery and so there wouldn't have been the three-fifths compromise (which almost derailed the Constitution) or the Missouri Compromise, or the Civil War, or the Great Migration, or . . . . There also would not have been a specifically American culture. It's easy enough to ignore the fact that what makes the US the US and not Europe is the presence of non-Europeans amongst us. If you read the literature of America from the founding till the beginning of the Revolutionary War, it's a little like reading English literature of fifty years before the time. Even Phillis Wheatley is not an exception, ex-slave though she was, because she's imitating English forms and English diction. There are some surprises now and then in her work, but she's writing in an essentially European mode.

And then you get authentic American stuff--Cooper paying attention to the Native Americans, Irving paying attention to the peculiarities of the American countryside, Hawthorne seeing the peculiarity of European manners in light of the American landscape. The real flowering of American culture, what defines it as being not European, is the mixing up of things--listen to Huck Finn's speech patterns, and if you don't hear the influence of the slaves that Samuel Clemens grew up with, let me get you a hearing aid. And besides literature--what is typically American, not European? Gospel music? Blues? Jazz? Rock and roll? Where do those forms come from? I think that the intersection of Africa and Europe is less clear in the visual arts in America, but the point remains valid, that what makes the US American is the cross-fertilization of Europe and the non-European, especially the African.

As far as I'm concerned, not to know about African American history is not to know America.
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