The Importance of Leaving Footprints: The Lesson of the Slave Narrative and “Footnote Four”
By Mark Naison (November 11, 2019)
During the last few years, it has been a matter of extreme frustration to me that I have been able to do little to prevent our country from “going off the rails.” I saw what was coming four years ago, warned people about it, and had virtually no influence on anybody that didn’t already share my views
In the last few weeks, I have started to make peace with my ineffectiveness as a political actor when it comes to current events. My influence, such as it is, will be manifested over a long period of time, for the most part through the activity of the students I have taught, but also through my writings, my postings on social media, and the data base on Bronx and New York History I have created with my colleagues through the Bronx African American History Project
To explain why I think this way, I want to share two things that took place in the Great Depression that would have their greatest influence over thirty years after they were done
The first was an initiative of the Federal Writers Project, created by the Works Progress Administration, to conduct oral history interviews with more than 2,000 formerly enslaved people who were still alive during the great Depression. These interviews, conducted by scores of young scholars, were placed in the Library of Congress and were neglected for more than twenty years because historians of slavery, overwhelmingly white, only trusted written documents and were only willing to use as source for their accounts of slavery journals and letters of slave owners, newspaper articles, and a small number of published memoirs of former slaves. However, in the late 60’s and early 70’s with the rise of the Black Studies movement, these interviews were not only “discovered” they were transformed into the major source for an explosion of published work on what slavery looked and felt like to its victims. In the process students and the general public were given the first honest portrait of how Black people not only endured demoralizing and dehumanizing treatment, but resisted it in ways small and large.
The second legacy I want to refer to is a Footnote that a Supreme Court Justice, Harlan Stone, placed in a 1938 decision involving federal regulation of milk products. Frightened by the rise of Nazism and of Nazi like and white supremacist movements in the US, Stone suggested, in his now famous Footnote 4 that it was the responsibility of the Federal Jurists, appointed for life, to assume the role of “defender of minorities” as elected officials might well be prone to oppress minorities and deprive them of their rights. For many years, as the nation was preoccupied, first with economic problems and then with war, Stone’s comments attracted little attention. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when Civil Rights issues became the focal point of national politics, and in the 1970’s, when Affirmative Action became a hot button issues, federal judges, including judges on the Supreme Court, used Footnote 4 as a rationale for taking an aggressive stance in defending minority rights, especially in the interpretation of the 14th Amendment, that had never before been done in the Court’s history! Harlan Stone’s once neglected Footnote had helped change the course of US History
These two stories, which guide my teaching and my research,give me confidence in speaking out and recording oft neglected voices even if they might not change the world around me. Some day., who knows, historians and activists may see in this legacy a guide to action that with help them change the world they live in.