A Howard University Professor's Strategies for Researching Black History

Nikki M. Taylor discusses research challenges around early Black American history and suggests resources.

Other authors on  researching
Black history:

Nina Crews

Amina Luqman-Dawson

Joel Christian Gill

While writing books focused on 19th-century African American subjects, historian Nikki M. Taylor says, “The main challenge I encounter is the scarcity of historical resources about my subjects.”

The Howard University professor, whose research focuses on enslaved women’s resistance, draws motivation from the observation that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” a quote from the late astronomer Carl Sagan.

Taylor’s research challenges are often shared by children’s book creators focusing on aspects of Black history.

To help tell accurate stories, authors often turn to scholarly journals, along with books, digital archives, films, documentaries, and university collections. Much can be found in the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Educational institutions like Howard, Fisk, Emory, and Pittsburgh Universities, among others, have archives on African American history. Additionally, slave narratives written in the early to mid-1800s can shed light on African American historical experiences.

Taylor says that she “never gives up on the quest to find sources.” While writing books including Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner, Taylor explains that not giving up “means sometimes looking in some unsavory historical sources for glimpses of these women.”

Such sources might include enslaver journals, which might contain deeply racist writings. Other documents like wills and property or other plantation records may contain errors and intentionally false information about African Americans’ ages, education, life events, and more. Still, some documentation, such as teacher reports, applications for land, labor contracts, and marriage records, for example, might be found in Freedman Bureau records or those from the American Colonization Society.

During slavery, enslavers did not keep proper records of enslaved people whom they treated as property rather than human beings. Throughout history, continued systemic marginalization meant the lives and experiences of African Americans have been left out of official documentation related to everything from education and property ownership to marriage and other legal rights. Additionally, many records about African American communities were either lost or intentionally destroyed, resulting in a scarcity of written historical documentation on their lives and experiences.

For those writing American historical fiction or nonfiction, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture offers useful research suggestions on its website.

Meanwhile, people often tell Taylor that African American history, particularly the history of slavery, is depressing due to the magnitude of oppression across many centuries. However, Taylor believes writers should not be afraid to tell difficult stories. “We must have the courage to face the hardest part of our history and to tell it in ways that affirm our humanity,” she says, adding, “If told that way, the history is more empowering and powerful.”

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