A new version of Roots premieres on American television today. A natural question to ask right now is, quite simply, why a remake of a classic of American television? Remakes are, after all, always tricky products of a culture that is often accused of merely recreating what has come before, and shirking the responsibility of creating something new. But it is worth thinking about 2016’s Roots as an outgrowth of the “Age of Obama,” as well as in comparison to the cultural, political, and intellectual moment of 1977.
Two important history conferences were held this weekend: the Future of the African American Past Conference, hosted by the American Historical Association; and the Memphis Massacre Conference, commemorating the events of 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. Both conferences were important for two broad reasons. One, they both indicate a continued interest by some historians—especially those focused on the African American experience—to speak to the public about history. Second, they both speak to Emily Rutherford’s concerns about opening up intellectual history to groups traditionally marginalized within the field. An intellectual history from below, as it were, would provide the fodder for more questions to be asked within American intellectual history. As this week’s conferences prove, a general concern about history from below—and its connections to current events from below—engulf the historical profession in new, and intriguing ways.
Building off of LD Burnett’s fascinating piece from yesterday about writing and thinking through historical topics, I am using today’s blog post to think about the importance of reading to that process. In my case, I cannot help but think about certain texts that propelled me to pursue a career as a historian. Such texts have not only fueled my intellectual journey, but have also provided examples of the kind of work I wish to do. No doubt historians all have certain texts that mean something special to them. These are just a few of those for me.
This summer promises to be an exciting one for anyone who reads intellectual history. As book review editor I try to stay abreast of the field as it develops, and the summer of 2016 offers plenty of fascinating books to look forward to. They cover a variety of topics and subfields within American history. The following is just a short list—please add more in the comments section. While by no means meant to be a comprehensive list, I hope the following works match the diversity of interests held by members of S-USIH.
Last week the city of Columbia hosted a symposium on the Reconstruction era. Headlined by a talk by Eric Foner at a local church Thursday night, the symposium attempted to both present current trends in Reconstruction historiography and also show how these trends affect the public history of the Reconstruction period. The symposium was a melding of academic and public histories of Reconstruction. The history of the Reconstruction era in South Carolina has undergone a dramatic public re-interpretation in recent years, following up on decades of changing academic scholarship on the Reconstruction period. Today’s post is a reflection on where Reconstruction historiography is going, with special care paid to what intellectual historians, in particular, can contribute to this still-vibrant field.
As a follow up to the great Jackie Robinson documentary shown on PBS last week, today I am going to create a brief list of works to read about Jackie Robinson, his legacy, and the America in which he lived. These works provide context for Robinson’s public stature. Jackie Robinson, as a documentary, provides a fascinating look at American life in the twentieth century. These readings will provide further commentary. As always, feel free to add more in the comments section.
Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), x + 246 pages.
Review by Paul V. Murphy
One of the reasons for the popularity of Robert G. Ingersoll, the once-famous nineteenth-century lawyer and orator, despite his vocal (and scandalous) agnosticism, surely must have been his wry humor. Ingersoll’s father was a strict Calvinist, and he later recalled the pious oppression of his childhood routine on Sunday, a day “altogether too holy to be happy in.” He recalled the formidable sermons from the Calvinist divines, commencing with the “firstly” point and continuing on to the “twenty-thirdly.” The minister asked whether the congregation knew they were destined for hell, to which they answered, “Yes.” Were they willing to go to hell willingly in deference to God’s will, “and every little liar shouted ‘Yes,’” Ingersoll recalled. An occasional reward for surviving the tortures of a long day of moral admonition was, of all things, a trip to the graveyard. “It did cheer me,” Ingersoll recalled. “When I looked at the sunken tombs and the leaning stones, and read the half-effaced inscriptions through the moss of silence and forgetfulness, it was a great comfort. The reflection came to my mind that the observance of the Sabbath could not last forever.” In a debate with Henry Cardinal Manning in the North American Review in 1888, Ingersoll expressed the disgust he felt at the blanket appeal to the authority of church fathers. “They believed everything—they examined nothing,” he explained. “They received as the waste-basket receives.” Surely unfair to the ancient teachers, the tartly-stated and prosaic image suggests something of how, unlike the Calvinist ministers of his youth, Ingersoll made theological debates vivid, interesting, and understandable.
Monday and Tuesday of this week, PBS premieres a new Ken Burns miniseries, Jackie Robinson. I am excited by the prospect of a new work on Robinson’s life, primarily due to the tantalizing hope that Burns will spend time on Robinson’s post-baseball public life—and, according to this review in the New York Times, it looks like it will. Jackie Robinson led a publicly engaged life after his baseball career ended in 1956. In short, Mr. Robinson transitioned from baseball to, through a nationally syndicated column, the life of a public intellectual.
Tomorrow marks the forty-eighth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The brutal culmination to a week that began with President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election, the March 31-April 4, 1968 moment was a watershed in the history of American liberalism. The assassination of King has become a dividing line in American history, often a marker for the moment the Civil Rights Movement officially “ended.” As an intellectual historian, it is important to consider King’s death in the context of not just African American history, but also American history and transnational narratives of race and democracy.
Sometime last week, I was reading the forward to The Essential Harold Cruse reader, written by Stanley Crouch. An acerbic critic of many African American radical intellectuals, Crouch’s forward—an ode to Cruse’s brilliance as a writer and thinker—made for exciting reading. I was stopped by the following passage, where Crouch mentioned Cruse (and his magnum opus, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) in concert with two other important 1960s intellectuals, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray:
“With that book, Cruse did, in his own way, what Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray have become either well known for or barely known for arguing. He recognized that the call and response between the Negro and America at large is central to what Negroes became and what this nation became (iii)” (emphasis mine)
In essence, Crouch argued that Murray deserved far more credit among African American intellectuals for his work in the 1960s, 70s, and beyond. Crouch went on to point out that Murray “produced far more material than Ellison did while living” (iii). Of course, quantity does not always equal quality. But Murray’s work is important to gaining an understanding of African American life during and after the Civil Rights Movement. Books such as The Omni-Americans (1970) argued that American culture was a mélange of various cultures, such as African American and white cultures. Further, it pushed for an understanding of African American culture that Murray felt was beyond the grasp of social science (an argument written about extensively in Daniel Matlin’s On The Corner). Murray’s work, like that of Ellison, rejected many tenants of Black Power ideology within African American intellectual circles.