Herbert Aptheker (July 31, 1915 – March 17, 2003) was an American Marxist historian and political activist. He authored over 50 volumes, mostly in the fields of African American history and general U.S. history, most notably, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), a classic in the field, and the 7-volume Documentary History of the Negro People. He was a prominent figure in U.S. scholarly discourse since the 1930s.
Aptheker was born in Brooklyn, New York, the last child of a wealthy Jewish family. In 1932, when he was 16, he accompanied his father on a business trip to Alabama. There he learned first-hand about the oppression of African Americans under Jim Crow Laws in the South, and was appalled by what he saw. On his return to Brooklyn, he wrote a column for his school newspaper on the "Dark Side of The South."
Six years later, after obtaining a B.A. degree from Columbia University, Aptheker went back to the South and became an educational worker for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union. Shortly afterwards, he served as secretary of the Abolish Peonage Committee. "Peons", the vast majority of whom were African American, were tied to plantations by the debt they owed to the plantation owners. This practice effectively maintained slavery beyond the Civil War in all but name.
In 1939, Aptheker joined the Communist Party USA, which, he believed, was the U.S. political party that took the strongest position on full economic, social, and political equality for African Americans. During World War II, he joined the Army, taking part in Operation Overlord; by 1945 had reached the rank of Major in the artillery, which commission he lost in December 1950 after failing to respond to the U.S. Army’s letter of inquiry about his Communist political activity.
Aptheker's master's thesis, a study of the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt in Virginia, laid the groundwork for his future work on the history of American slave revolts. Aptheker uncovered Turner's heroism, demonstrating how his rebellion was rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. His doctoral dissertation, American Negro Slave Revolts, was published in 1943. Traversing Southern libraries and archives, he uncovered 250 similar episodes through exhaustive research. It remains a landmark and a classic work in the study of Southern history and slavery.
Aptheker challenged racist writings, most notably those of Georgia-born historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who cast African Americans as child-like, inferior, and uncivilized; argued that slavery was a benign institution; and defended the preservation of the Southern plantation system. Such works were the consensus in the field until Aptheker's scholarship tore them apart.
In the 1950s, Aptheker was blacklisted because of his membership in the Communist Party, and was unable to obtain appointment as a university lecturer throughout the decade. Aptheker served on the National Committee of the CPUSA from 1957 to 1991; for several years in the 1960s and 1970s, he was executive director of the American Institute For Marxist Studies.
A fervent opponent of the Vietnam War, Aptheker lectured on the subject on college campuses nationwide. He saw U.S. conduct in Vietnam as a war of aggression against an exploited peasantry determined to win their independence and control of their land. He saw many parallels between African American slaves and sharecroppers in the South, and the Vietnamese working class and peasantry, from which the guerrilla fighters of the National Liberation Front (known in the U.S. as the "Viet Cong") drew most of their ranks.
Aptheker died in 2003 at the age of 87.
Aptheker's wife, Fay, was also a union organizer. Their daughter, Bettina, was raised as a "red diaper baby". Bettina Aptheker is now a professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In her 2006 memoir, Intimate Politics, she claims that she was sexually molested by her father from the age of 4 to the age of 13. However, her charges are based on recovered memory and dissociation and so have been called into doubt. For example, Mark Rosenzweig writes "the truth about Herbert and Bettina is inaccessible to us." She also tells about their highly emotional reconciliation several years before his death. In addition, she claims that her father's celebrations of black resistance were attempts "to compensate for his deep shame about the way, he believed, the Jews had acted during the Holocaust" (which has been criticized as "possibly antisemitic"), and says that he "lived much of the time in a fantasy world of his own making".