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.
As I mentioned in my last post, the first, brief New York Times review of Sisterhood Is Powerful singled out for special praise “Naomi Weisstein’s classic ‘Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,’ a devastating critique of sex-bias in experimental psychology.”
I was intrigued by the reviewer’s use of the term “classic.” How had Weisstein’s essay, originally read (per the copyright notice) at the American Studies Association at UC Davis on October 26, 1968 (Sisterhood 228), become a “classic” by 1970? A classic of what? A classic for whom? And Weisstein was a neuropsychologist — what was she doing at the American Studies conference anyhow? (I’m not complaining — just wondering!)
So I decided to try to find out what I could about the career of Weisstein’s essay apart from its anthologization in Sisterhood. As it turns out, that 1970 publication represented not only the first of multiple anthologizations of the essay but also one of the earliest of subsequent versions of the text itself. Many of those early iterations of Weisstein’s frequently revised and expanded paper – including what I understand to be the first version, the paper as presented at the American Studies conference and as anthologized in Sisterhood – were published and distributed by the New England Free Press.
In WorldCat and in online booksellers’ inventories, I found a variety of publication dates for Weisstein’s essay as a NEFP pamphlet, ranging from 1968 to 1971. However, some of the publication dates were bracketed and/or flagged with a question mark, indicating that no date itself was visible on the document.
What to make of this variety of dates associated with “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law”? I wasn’t sure. So I dropped a line to my pal Jesse Lemisch, Naomi Weisstein’s life partner (now, sadly, her widower) asking if he could offer any more clarity on the publishing history of Naomi’s essay as a pamphlet, and how that publication related to the timing of the essay’s appearance in the 1970 anthology. He offered what information he could recall, and put me in touch with Jim O’Brien, a New Left historian and activist and longtime editor/publisher at the New England Free Press.
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.
In this post, and in a few follow-up posts, I’m going to look at the publishing history of some primary sources from the feminist movement(s) of the 1970s. It may well be that “book history” is not quite the same thing as “intellectual history” or the “history of ideas.” But when I am trying to hammer out my own ideas about the ideas I encounter on the page, it sometimes helps me and always cheers me to pay some attention to the page itself, which is as much a manifestation of human thought as the words upon it.
Do the words upon the page mean something different when I have a better sense of the history of the page itself? Sometimes they do. But even when my expeditions into the material world of texts don’t yield findings that are significant to my project (significance is never absolute; significance is only assessed in relation to something else), the excursions themselves are always pleasant. So come along with me and let’s see where the path takes us.
The first source I want to look at is the groundbreaking anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (1970), edited by Robin Morgan.
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.
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.
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.
In the 1970s, in central California, some high school students read Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon in their sophomore English classes. I know this because my grandmother, who went to college in her forties and earned a bachelor’s degree and became a high school English teacher in one of the little farm towns of Stanislaus County, assigned this book in her classes as part of that district’s standard curriculum. In fact, I think this is one of her copies – the 30th printing, hot off the presses of Bantam Books some time in 1974 or 1975.
First published in 1959, Alas, Babylon is a post-apocalyptic novel set in “Fort Repose,” a fictional rural community in central Florida. The premise of the novel is simple enough. Soviet nuclear missiles have struck the United States, including nearby MacDill Air Base. Infrastructure, food supply, law and order – all have been obliterated. The country folk and townspeople who survived the blast must now figure out how to survive the aftermath. They have to figure out not just how to find an uncontaminated water supply, how to find food, what to do in medical emergencies, but how to rebuild the social order: how to protect themselves from lawless outsiders, how to tell friend from foe, how to foster and defend a just and democratic society.
And all the while they don’t know what is happening in the larger world. Have the Russians destroyed the United States? Is there a war on? Is anyone fighting back? Is America still standing?
The following guest post is by Daniel Oppenheimer, author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.
In June of 1970, after two years of existential crisis, Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz broke a long authorial silence with a piece, in the magazine, on the newly invented holiday of Earth Day.
“Reflections on Earth Day” was the debut of a new front-of-the-book column in which Podhoretz would opine on the great issues of the day. It was the debut, as well, of a new, crustier Podhoretz. This Podhoretz, who would go on to become one of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism, was, roughly, his third incarnation. Continue reading