Last week I saw the new film I Am Not Your Negro, an exploration of American racism through the words of James Baldwin. Consisting mostly of notes from a never-published book, but including passages in some of his other works and his television appearances, I Am Not Your Negro couples Baldwin’s arresting capacity for capturing the depravity of white supremacy with images, video footage, and contemporary popular culture that place it in a visual and auditory context. The result is a journey as every bit as hair raising and unnerving as you would expect.
Some of the most disturbing moments in the film come when Baldwin – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson – speaks of the slaughter behind American innocence while footage (usually from films) depicting the most profoundly white fantasies of suburban bliss and consumption are splashed across the screen. At one point, the film shifts from this representation of white America as it wishes to see itself to white America as it actually is – and here, while Baldwin warns of the murderous rage that the emptiness of white culture creates in the heart of white Americans, clips from the film Elephant, a wrenching exploration of the phenomenon of school shootings in America, flickers slowly across the screen.
It is a devastating moment, filling Baldwin’s awful prophecy to the brim and dropping it, like a sack of bricks, on the heads of the audience. This does justice to one of Baldwin’s best gifts; his ability to bring to life the darkness and desperation of the psychology of white people under white supremacy. (In that sense, actually, the film couples very well with Get Out, which focuses mostly on the consequences to black people.) This does not, however, usually come coupled with much political analysis, at least in the traditional sense – Baldwin is not concerned with advising any political party or suggesting any specific strategy to civil rights organizations. Reflecting after the film, it occurred to me that in his focus on the psychology, rather than strategy, of political culture, Baldwin actually shares a lot with the postwar pluralists, known for their discussions of alienation, status anxiety, and the desire to belong.
Two of the greatest history books ever written emerged three years apart: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935) and C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938). Both were about race, class, slavery, and revolution, and both were forged with comparable purposes. Du Bois and James sought that their historical insights about revolutions past would speak to revolutions future.
Du Bois, the most important African American intellectual of the twentieth century, wished for his trailblazing analysis of the Civil War and Reconstruction to endow the wisdom of past struggles upon the coming movement for black rights in the United States. James, a Trinidadian living in London at the time of writing and one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth-century black diaspora, hoped that his remarkable inquiry into the Haitian Revolution would speak to the emerging anticolonial movements for independence in Africa. (more…)
The activism of the Radical Historians’ Caucus at the 1969 American Historical Association meeting is a key episode in the history of the American historical profession, and the events of that meeting certainly did not mark the end of that constituency’s tireless efforts to transform the institutional structures, scholarly scope, and political commitments of both the AHA and the historical profession more generally.
Primary sources detailing the formation, growth and longtime activism of that coalition of radical scholars are of great interest to historians of the late 20th century, historians of higher education, historians of professions and institutions, historians of social thought and social movements. They are certainly invaluable to historiographers and historians of the historical profession.
Perhaps the richest single primary source connected with the radical historians is their newsletter, published continuously from 1969 to 2002, under a series of titles. First published in the summer of 1969 (months before the contentious annual meeting, and partly as a way of organizing in preparation for it) under the title Newsletter of the Radical Caucus of the AHA, from the second number (Spring 1970) the publication bore the title Newsletter of the Radical Historians’ Caucus. It was published under that title until issue No. 25 (December 1977), when the title changed to Radical Historians Newsletter. Beginning with No. 26 (April 1978), the newsletter was published under the auspices of the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians Organization (MARHO). The newsletter officially ceased publication in 2002.
[Note to readers: “Memories of the Student Movement and the New Left in the United States, 1960-1969” is a five-part participant-observer account of the period written in 1996 by Jim O’Brien, New Left activist, historian, and editor at New England Free Press. Part I of this essay can be found here, and Part II of this essay can be found here.]
A MOVEMENT ADRIFT, 1967–1968
The national SDS convention at the University of Michigan in June of 1967 was my first glimpse of the student New Left on a national scale. I honestly can’t re-create my feelings toward it: exasperation stands out in my mind, but there must have been other feelings I can’t retrieve. My clearest memories have to do with the loose and irrelevant (for the most part) plenary sessions. Old-time SDS’ers Steve Max and Mike Zweig, who alternated in chairing them, had a thankless job. The “Kissinger quorum,” named after a witty former national secretary of SDS, Clark Kissinger, was talked about though never resorted to. It defined a quorum as “one half of those present.”
Snapshot: TV lights, by prior arrangement, have bathed the auditorium for an hour while delegates discuss the pros and cons of draft resistance in the most solemn terms, doing justice to both the moral and the strategic implications. The hour elapses, and the kleig lights go off. In a split second, the auditorium erupts in shouting, laughter, paper airplanes, water pistols, and the sheer joy of living irresponsibly.
Snapshot: An evening plenary is about to start, perhaps an hour late, as the chair has finally outwaited the hijinks. All is quiet. From a door behind the rostrum, Paul Buhle (of whom more later) walks in with a large paper bag. He announces dramatically, “Does anyone really need potato chips? I’ve got ten bags.” He walks slowly up one of the aisles throwing them right and left as knots of people stand up all over the auditorium laughing and shouting, “Me!” and “Over here!” and “Please!” (Paul hates to have that story told, but it lives in my mind, both as a vignette of that SDS convention and of his genius for bringing out the absurdity of a scene.)
Snapshot: It is late at night on the first floor of an off-campus living co-op, packed with SDS delegates. I am with a woman friend from college, who has come up to visit for a day during the SDS convention. We are with a cluster of men whom I’ve just met. Each of them seems determined to impress upon her the importance of his work in SDS. The most horrifying is a man from Colorado who says he and his wife have just had a baby and his organizing is so important that he doesn’t know if he can stick around to help out. (It was never clear to me just what he was organizing.)
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.
This is the fourth in a series of posts examining the publishing history of feminist texts from the 1970s. Last week’s post revealed just how much I don’t know and can’t know from examining archival evidence related to the presentation of “Up from the Genitals” at the 1970 meeting of the American Historical Association. However, during the course of my research for that post, I did correspond with a couple of the authors of that 1970 paper to ask if they could provide any details on its presentation or reception at the AHA.
Both historians were generous and gracious correspondents. Linda Gordon kindly put me in touch with Rochelle Ruthchild, who offered some recollections about the formation and fate of the paper ahead of the convention – including, crucially, Gerda Lerner’s disapproval of the co-authors’ plan to give the paper at the meeting. And, after my post of last week went up, she provided some further detail about whether any of the historians mentioned in the paper had been in attendance. Here’s what Ruthchild wrote about the early career of “Up from the Genitals”: (more…)