As the United States approaches a Memorial Day holiday a deeply—and it seems, hopelessly—divided nation, I find myself contemplating the life and tragic death of an American soldier. He did not die in Afghanistan or in Syria. His life was not taken at the hands of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or some other foreign adversary. Instead, he died right here in America. This brave soul died at the hands of a fellow American. His story is one most American historians are familiar with but most Americans choose to forget. Richard Collins III, who had just been commissioned as a U.S. Army lieutenant, died at the hands of a white supremacist. His tragic fate is a reminder of the honorable, and yet also tortured, legacy of the African American soldier in American history.
In the last six months, it has become a trend among intellectuals and academics to mine the past for thinkers to whom we can look to for guidance in how to address the “Age of Trump.” Hannah Arendt and Richard Hofstadter have, not surprisingly, become the leaders in this renaissance of thinking about oppressive regimes abroad and at home. Thankfully, other scholars have critiqued this, reminding us that African American intellectuals, among many others, embody a tradition of fighting government tyranny at home. For many Americans, fear of the government, concerns about the trampling of their constitutional rights, and desperation to find hope during hopeless times, is nothing new during the Trump Administration. It is merely day to day life in America.
The bringing down of a nineteenth century moment dedicated to white supremacy and terrorism in New Orleans last week has reminded all of us of the ways in which Civil War and Reconstruction still loom large in American memory. Arguing over old neo-Confederate monuments, or state support for flying the Confederate flag, has a new lease on life in both an “Age of Trump” and an “Age of Black Lives Matter.” That the nation is at a crossroads of race and memory right now—just as the United States wrestles with both the legacy of Barack Obama and the presidency of Donald Trump—is not a surprise. But events since the Charleston massacre of 2015 prove that the debate over memory in American society is never-ending.
A continuation of guest poster Chris Arnold’s series on King Kong and American intellectual history.
And the Prophet said:
” And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.
And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day,
It was as one dead”
With these faux ancient words Merian C. Cooper gave life to the powerful 20th century American version of Beauty and the Beast archetype that is the myth of King Kong, As Richard Slotkin posits
“Myth expresses ideology in a narrative… myths are formulated as ways of explaining problems that arise in the course of historical experience. The most important and longest lived of these formulations persist over long periods of time.”[i]
The King Kong myth has had at least 6 major iterations in just over eighty years. What accounts for this vitality? Did the Kong myth offer successful solutions to cultural problems impacting Twentieth Century America? Which problems were these? A fruitful approach to answering these questions begins with an examination of the myth’s initial creator.
Guest Post by Daniel S. Goldberg
Several weeks ago, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R- Utah) found himself the target of some acid criticism in multiple news outlets for attempting to justify some of the provisions in the AHCA by stating that ‘people may have to choose between iPhones and health care.’
Predictably, a storm of controversy erupted. Opponents of Rep. Chaffetz’s perspective pointed out the basic functional significance of a smartphone for more marginalized groups, including taking the time to note how smartphones were important for disease management, family and community care, public health, etc. This matters a great deal because the vast majority of health care services (by volume) actually happens outside of inpatient settings, and frequently outside of clinical settings at all. There is little doubt that smartphone access is material to the informal caregiving that places such tremendous demands on the resources of caregivers and intimates. There is no reason why more disadvantaged groups would be excepted from this assessment.
Like last week and Andrew Hartman’s wonderful post, today I am posting the paper I gave at the African American Intellectual History Society. Some of this will seem familiar to readers of this site, but it is my first crack at what I hope to be the beginning of the second, post-dissertation project I shall begin working on over the summer. Meanwhile, AAIHS has begun publishing a re-cap of the conference–my reflections on it will be posted on their website later this week. Enjoy!
The plight of the black South as an intellectual center was on the mind of Vincent Harding when he wrote a nuanced and otherwise appreciative review of Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in 1968. Cruse’s book, released the previous year, set off an avalanche of both praise and criticism amongst leftists of all racial hues and ideological dispositions. Harding, a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a Southerner, noticed an unfortunate omission from Cruse’s magnum opus. “His single-minded focus on Harlem,” wrote Harding, “eliminates treatment of that crucial group of black intellectuals who have operated in the South for the last decade, and who have much to do with the latest resurrection of blackness.” For Harding, forgetting about the African American South was a mistake which threatened to erase not only an entire region of the nation—not to mention the experiences of millions of African Americans—but also damage the growing intellectual ferment of a resurgent African American radical tradition.
Guest post by Chris Arnold.
Over 30 years ago, Chuck Reilly, a recently retired steel executive had a problem. In the scope of his personal life history of serving and losing a brother in the Pacific, rising from labor to management and raising 7 children (including one with special needs) it was not one of the more important ones. However, in the moment, how to entertain or rather distract his 3 grandsons of 6, 5 and 4 on a quiet Sunday afternoon was a crucial issue. After some negotiating (a skill sharpened by his years as the Foreman of bar finish at Crucible specialty metals) he had Chris, Mike and Jason all situated around his easy chair. He began, “a long time ago some explorers were looking for oil, they heard about a possible oil well on a pacific island so they got a boat and sailed there…” and within a few minutes his problem was solved as the boys were regaled the American myth of King Kong.
Feminist scholarship is in an introspective mood attempting to save the feminist past for a liberating future. Within a narrative of onward and upward that is useful for inspiring social change a new wave of historiography is less concerned with triumph and more willing to admit its failures and embrace fragmentation and small scale. Historians have begun recovering forgotten women who lived out feminist ideas in their everyday lives as in the hope of offering relevancy to a younger generation. But other theoretical and cultural forces may make this task all but impossible.
For this brief post, I wish to talk about a few documentaries I have found via YouTube on the African American experience. As a surprisingly memorable Black History Month comes to a close, it is important to think about what we as historians and instructors in the classroom can use for both research and teaching tools. There is plenty in these documentaries that should interest us as both historians of the United States and of intellectual discourse in the nation’s history. Remember: they are only a sampling of what is available via YouTube, not to mention other streaming services that your college or university (if you happen to be a student or professor at one) has access to through its library.
On February 23, 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born. One of the true titans of American intellectual history, Dr. Du Bois’ life stretched from the high tide of Reconstruction to the middle of the Civil Rights Movement—his death on August 27, 1963 came one day before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. It is impossible to imagine American history without Du Bois’ outsized influence. Here at the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians, we celebrate his life by doing some of what we do best: recommending a few books and essays to read by Du Bois and about Du Bois.