Spurred on by L.D. Burnett’s fantastic post yesterday on primary sources and 1970s feminist books (seriously, check it out now if you haven’t already done so), I looked back towards some of the books from that era I’ve used in my own research. Among those is a beat up copy of Lerone Bennett’s The Challenge of Blackness, a collection of essays published in 1970. Many of the essays in that collection were originally published in Ebony magazine while Bennett was editor. Still others were from speeches and talks he gave to various black-oriented organizations in the late 1960s. Reading through the marked-up essays, I began to think about one that would actually come out in 1970 and has stuck with me since I first read it years ago: Bennett’s idea of “liberation” and what it would look like for African Americans.
The fight over Reconstruction historiography traditionally begins with the Dunning School of the early twentieth century. That school of thought, out of Columbia University, argued that Reconstruction was a national tragedy and proved that African Americans were not fit to be American citizens. Often, the first stand against the Dunning School is seen in W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction (1935). When it was released, the book was recognized for offering a stinging challenge to the then-prevailing thought on Reconstruction. However, we should also look to earlier works by African American scholars that also challenged ideas of Reconstruction. This is where the former politician John Roy Lynch comes in.
First off—Happy Black History Month! Traditionally my favorite time of the academic calendar as a young boy, Black History Month offers plenty of new things for everyone to learn. As intellectual historians, we should think about African American History Month in context of the ongoing struggle to make black history central to American history. Our colleagues and friends over at Black Perspectives have already offered provocative pieces on the history of black history. Today I wish to offer a bit to chew on regards to how we think of post-World War II African American history.
Yesterday Black Perspectives published a fascinating essay on the importance of black bookstores to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Joshua Clark Davis’ piece, a summation of a chapter from his larger book coming out this August titled From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, is a reminder of the importance of intellectual spaces to intellectual history. I was intrigued by the essay—not just because of its fresh perspective on the intellectual history of Black Power, but also because African American bookstores played an important role in my own intellectual development. And as we begin to think about African American intellectual history in the 1980s and beyond, I suspect we will find that black bookstores continued to play an important role in the development of many African American intellectuals.
I find myself struggling to come up with something to say for S-USIH this weekend. That is for a variety of reasons. First, the events of the last few days weigh heavily on my mind. I fear, however, allowing the current presidency to take up all the intellectual energy of humanities scholars. Much has been written about the rise of Donald Trump, and much more waits to be done after careful research on his campaign and presidency. Simply put, I have nothing new to add to what has been said.
Instead, I do want to bring attention to some fascinating reads in intellectual history that I came across this week. They include questions about historical narrative, famous figures from the past, and how we can continue to conceptualize the arc(s) of American history. Here is a short list—and please, add more in the comments section.
Normally, around this time of year, we at S-USIH would post something about Martin Luther King, Jr. and American intellectual history. Considering that today is King’s actual birthday—we as a nation observe it tomorrow—I highly recommend reading works on King and intellectual history. Whether it is Richard King’s book on civil rights history and intellectual history, Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom, or the still-underrated From Civil Rights to Human Rights by Thomas F. Jackson, and numerous works in between, King’s legacy within intellectual history is one that has been explored time and again by historians. Not to mention the fact that King’s legacy as shaped by American memory is also slowly being explored by historians, and King offers plenty for intellectual historians to explore.
Today, though, I would like to take a moment to talk about Coretta Scott King. Her own leadership in the Civil Rights Movement—both before and after MLK’s death—is worth its own monograph length work. After all, Coretta Scott was already an activist and thinker long before she met Martin Luther King, Jr.
The following is a rundown of some interesting intellectual history books coming out in 2017. This is an open thread, so please add more books as you hear of them. We plan to step up our book review coverage this year, so plenty of these books will be reviewed on the blog. By no means is this a complete or thorough list.
In 2007, Andrew Sullivan wrote a cover essay for The Atlantic in which he argued that the rise of Barack Obama to the national stage meant an end to the divisive cultural politics that defined American politics since 1968. Sullivan argued at the time, “he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.” Reflecting on the events of the last eight years, it now seems this assumption about Obama’s rise was naïve and misplaced. Now, as we transition from an “Age of Obama” to an “Age of Trump” everyone has spilled much ink—both real and digital—trying to explain how we got here.
Guest Post by Richard King
Though Southern writing and music, of whatever sort, remain among the significant achievements of US cultural history, the region has much less often been associated with the visual arts, especially painting and sculpture. That is why the death of William A. “Bill” Christenberry (b. 1936) on November 28, 2016 deserves to be remembered. A long-time resident of Washington, DC and faculty member at Corcoran School of Art, Christenberry’s art was rooted in Hale County, Alabama, where he grew up. But Hale was also the country which writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans visited on assignment from Fortune magazine in the mid-1930s. The result of that stay in the Alabama Black Belt was an unclassifiable book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which contained around thirty photographs by Evans, followed by an intricate, eloquent and at times unreadable text by Agee. It was a public confession, a documentary in word and image, even a treatise on visual aesthetics and the ethics of investigative journalism.[i]
The passing of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has been an occasion for academics and intellectuals to talk publicly of the role of Castro in both the Cold War and Third World struggles. Not that these can be separated (nor should they be), but Castro’s outsized influence on both has come back to mind via reading the obituaries about his long life. After hearing of his death late Friday night, I wondered how much attention would be paid to Cuban exploits on the continent of Africa—namely their participation in the Angolan Civil War and stance against South African Apartheid—versus Cuba’s mutually antagonistic relationship with the United States. I also thought about how obituaries of Fidel Castro would be different depending on, a) the ideological background of the person writing them, and b) the location of the publication in which they appeared. Would an obit of Castro written in, say South Africa differ from one written for a mainstream newspaper in the United States? I assumed this to be the case. Therefore, I’ve assembled here just a sampling of obituaries from the United States and across the world.