Fear of a Black Planet (Part 2)

Fear of a Black Planet (Part 2)

See more here: Civil War History: A Call to Action.

Thirty years ago, Public Enemy released what was arguably its best album, Fear of a Black Planet, which included the iconic track “Fight the Power.” I suspect many of you reading this have at least heard of the song (if you haven’t, watch the video.) And I’d venture that even though many of you may not identify with the Black and urban experience that PE was speaking out of and into, the title resonates with you. If it does—if you have been and want to keep fighting the power—you have yet another opportunity to do so September 26th.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote, “Long before average citizens read the historians who set the standards of the day for colleague and students, they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books.”[1] We—myself, Hilary Green, Kate Masur, and Greg Downs–are calling on you, therefore, to join in a national, simultaneous, activist  demonstration of history on September 26th that can reach the “average citizen” who encounters history before they read anything we write. We are calling on you to connect with people in your communities, go to Confederate monuments at National Park battlefields, state park battlefields, state parks, or any public space in your communities where these monuments continue to hide the history of slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction and the long reign of White supremacy, and to tell a more complete story. Sign up here.  To register for a September 9 webinar with Scott, Greg, and Kate about the day of action, please click here.

In most respects, this call is nothing new. Black artists, among many other African Americans, have been doing this for a long time. Public Enemy is just one of many examples of Black artists who engage histories specific to their communities and connect those stories to a larger national story of race and injustice. Black artists across the spectrum have understood on personal, community and national levels what Danez Smith says: “history is what it is. It knows what it did.”[2] Public Enemy reminded us of something similar in “Contract on the World Love Jam,” telling us that “The race that controls the past, controls the living present / And therefore, the future.”[3]

For over a century, far too many White Americans wrote slavery, race, blackness and Black people out of the history of the American Civil War. This segment of White Americans has controlled far too much of the past, with devasting effects on African Americans and the country as a whole. This erasure of our national past helped justify lethally violent racial terrorism for a century and the disenfranchisement of the race that the Civil War had freed and made citizens. Today we are seeing disenfranchisement aimed largely at Black and Brown voters once again underway, frequently supported by people who trot out the same tired, factually incorrect, revisionist erasures of history in their alleged ‘protection’ of Confederate monuments and symbols.

African Americans knew right away what the cost of erasing history would be. And they knew what Confederates would be up to. Black newspapers consistently called attention to the fact that Confederates would make every effort to resurrect themselves in some form, and reminded readers what the war was really all about. The New Orleans Tribune, just a few days before Lee surrendered at Appomattox, warned of a “New Rebel Scheme” by leaders who “were divided amongst themselves—not as to the aim to be attained, which was an independent slave-holding Confederacy.” The division was about how to best continue Black subjugation: by “open revolt” or by working for it from within the Union. Since the former was failing, they judged that “a keen policy may yet repair their disasters” and “would suffice to protect the ‘peculiar institution’…against the intrusion of the monster called Freedom.”[4]

Portrait of Francis CardozoTwo months later, The Tribune wrote, “The slave holding interest has received a fatal blow and will never forget and forgive it. History shows that a return to wiser and more sensible sentiments cannot be expected.” Later that summer the Tribune, taking Andrew Johnson to task for his endorsement of Confederates who threatened Black civil rights and opposed suffrage, declared that “the cause of the war was slavery and in that war the North conquered.” In 1868, Francis Cardozo – a Black legislator in South Carolina’s majority Black state convention who argued in favor of legislation to redistribute some of the wealthier slaveowners’ land to Black families – said “this system of large plantations, of no service to the owner or anybody else, should be abolished.” Otherwise “the stronghold of slavery” would be maintained. And that stronghold’s “common cause” was to “maintain a war waged for the purpose of perpetually enslaving a people.”[5] In 1875, The Weekly Louisianan’s column, “The Same Old Spirit,” gave a concise history of the country’s long complicity with slavery from its founding and stated that “the victors in this last contest” were once again sacrificing Black people, and “on their prostrate forms the Confederacy is building its hopes of a final triumph over the Union.”[6]

In sum, African Americans in positions to speak publicly in the years after the war understood what Public Enemy stated in 1990 about controlling the historical narrative. African Americans knew that Confederate efforts to reshape the war’s meaning had tangible, immediate consequences for Black freedom and opportunity. Black Southerners understood that, as Barbara Gannon has written, “civil war memory was crucial to Southerners’ battle to ensure Northern acquiescence to their answer to the race question—black oppression.” [7] And Black Southerners combined their warnings with a more accurate, fuller history of why the war was fought: to keep them as slaves. They knew that resisting new forms of Black subjugation to White Supremacy required a pointed and vigorous response, which included getting the history right.

One hundred and fifty years later, we know that those warnings were not heeded, and that White Northerners for the most part did indeed acquiesce to White Southerners’ control of history.

Historians: we have an obligation to respond. We want more history, not less. Whatever your political leanings, we are calling on you to respond to help correct a narrative, accepted and promulgated by far too many historians at every level of education for over a century, that has glorified the Confederacy through monuments that at a minimum ignore the Confederacy’s desire to maintain slavery, and that often insist the Confederacy was primarily about the honor and valor of soldiers who sacrificed for the ultimate good of national unity. We don’t know everything, but we do know that there’s much, much more to the story.

So let’s be proactive in telling the stories that have too often been erased from the narrative, and do what African Americans have done since before the war even ended: remind people what the war was about. Let’s emancipate battlefields and other public spaces from the control of Confederate monuments that silence, obscure, and twist the past. Let’s free those spaces not with violence, not with threats, not only with calls for removal, but with more history.

We are calling on you to respond to Public Enemy’s call: “History shouldn’t be a mystery / Our stories real history.”[8]

In the weeks ahead, Muster will publish written and video resources about to help you think about developing your historical evidence, designing your presentation of history, working within guidelines at the park or public site you select, ensuring your safety and the safety of others, and connecting with other historians interested in this call to action. The place you pick is up to you. But the time to act is now, by committing to the date and selecting the place where you will make your stand for better, more complete history in the nation’s public spaces.

To express interest and get more information, use this Google form. To register for a September 9 webinar with Scott, Greg, and Kate about the day of action, please click here.


[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, 2015), 20.

[2] Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), “summer, somewhere.”

[3] Public Enemy, “Contract on the World Love Jam” by Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler and Carl Eidenhour, track 1 on Fear of a Black Planet, April 10, 1990.

[4] New Orleans Tribune April 6 1865.

[5] New Orleans Tribune, June 14 1865, July 26 1865; Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina (New York, 1968), 113-17.

[6] New Orleans Tribune, June 14 1865, July 26 1865; Weekly Louisianian, May 29, 1875.

[7] Barbara A. Gannon, “Sites of Memory, Sites of Glory: African American Grand Army of the Republic Posts in Pennsylvania” in Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War (State College, PA, 2001), 166.

[8] Public Enemy, “Brothers gonna work it out” by Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler and Carl Eidenhour, track 2 on Fear of a Black Planet, April 10, 1990.

Scott Hancock

Scott Hancock, associate professor of History and Africana Studies, came to Gettysburg College in 2001. He received his B.A. from Bryan College in 1984, spent fourteen years working in group homes with teenagers at risk, and received his history PhD from the University of New Hampshire in 1999. His scholarly interests have focused on Black northerners’ engagement with the law, from small disputes to escaping via the Underground Railroad, during the Early Republic and Civil War eras. He has more recently begun exploring how whiteness has been manifested on post-Civil War memorializations of battlefields. His work has appeared in anthologies and Civil War History, and he has published essays on CityLab, Medium, and The Huffington Post. He can be contacted at shancock@gettysburg.edu or on Twitter @scotthancockOT.

2 Replies to “Fear of a Black Planet (Part 2)”

  1. Why are you capitalizing the words “black” and “white”? Weren’t those terms invented by capital via a colonial “legislature” of English men whose voting rights in that “legislature” were based on “owning” stolen land they decided to call “Maryland” after their queen in order to ban interracial marriage in response to Bacon’s Rebellion? FYI – the corporate entity which chartered the company that stole that land still exists; the City of London Corporation. Many people reading this have their money stashed in its archipelago of tax havens. Historian, heal thyself.

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