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.
Recently, the shuffle on my computer’s playlist scrounged up a track from one of my favorite bands, Oingo Boingo. Endearingly titled “Wild Sex in the Working Class,” the song proceeds from the point of view of an industrial worker who endures their work day by focusing on the sweet sweet love they are going to make to their partner once their shift is finally over.
And I may be greasing the wheels of a noisy factory
And I may be hunched over metal machines
Watching the gears as they move
Just reminds me of bodies in motion
The sweat and the sound
As I listened, I wondered what such a song, from the viewpoint of the average “working class” employee, might read like today. Certainly any lyrics about the grit and grime of a factory would sound nostalgic at best. To have any ring of authenticity, it would have to read something more like this:
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.
‘Tis the season for wise men and wise women bearing marvelous gifts.
Recently, I received such a gift from such a person: a couple of reams of archival materials spanning about seven years of curricular change at Stanford, from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s.
The first installment of this serendipitous archive came to me in 2015, when I was still working on my dissertation. The most recent installment came earlier this month, when my generous friend discovered another stash of materials in the back of a filing cabinet.
These were the teaching files and curricular committee meeting files of an instructor in the Western Culture program. Through a friend of a friend, s/he had heard that I was working on the “canon wars” at Stanford, and s/he generously offered to send me whatever s/he had still kept from those years. Continue reading
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?
I find myself unsure of what to write about on this day, only a few days after the surprising victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. At this point, I have read far too many essays debating what went wrong for Clinton, why Trump won, and what the Republican nominee’s victory means for the future. On these, and other 2016 campaign questions, I have some thoughts—but no easy answers. Frankly, anyone who exudes confidence about his or her own prescription about what to do next, or how the Democrats could have (and, perhaps, should have) beaten Trump, should at the very least acknowledge that history has disrupted many similar “sure ideas” time and time again.
Guest Post by Mike O’Connor
By most metrics, the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) dwarfed that which its predecessor Star Trek had received on NBC during its initial 1966-69 run. While the first show had to be rescued from cancellation after its second season by a viewer letter-writing campaign, its successor ran for seven years with solid ratings. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) substantially enlarged the core audience for Star Trek and eventually its characters and time-frame replaced those from the original series as the focus of the feature films. (Since then, the movies have come to feature younger actors playing the characters from the original series.) Yet TNG had a mission beyond delivering ratings and making money for its studio. Star Trek was more than a television show: it embodied a particular philosophy that was one of central aspects of its appeal. Gene Roddenberry, the auteur behind Star Trek who is widely credited for supplying the “vision” that characterized the Star Trek universe, described the show as his “statement to the world” his “political philosophy,” and his “overview on life and the human condition.”[i] (Roddenberry created TNG and worked on its first few seasons. His declining health and increasingly erratic personal behavior led to him being eased out of positions of authority before his death in 1991. The extent to which Roddenberry was personally influential on the vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a subject for debate; but the larger significance of his philosophical and ideological blueprint is beyond question.) Media scholar Henry Jenkins explained that the new series “had to carefully negotiate between the need to maintain continuity with the original series (in order to preserve the core Star Trek audience) and the need to rethink and update those conventions (in order to maintain the programme’s relevance with contemporary viewers and to expand its following).”[ii] Philosophically, this meant that the later show had to distinguish between those ideas that were central to the ethos of Star Trek and those that needed to be modified or even abandoned to keep up with the spirit of the times.
III. The Politician, Part A – The 1980s
Jackson ran for president on the Democratic ticket in both 1984 and 1988. Walter Mondale won the nomination in 1984, eventually losing in a landslide which saw the reelection of Ronald Reagan. Jackson was competitive in 1988, when he won five Southern primaries on Super Tuesday. Michael Dukakis won that Democratic nomination, only to lose in the general to George Herbert Walker Bush.
On the theme of caricaturing Jackson, the historical record is littered with Jackson’s faux pas, one-liners, and inspirational quotes from the 1980s, but rarely do historians probe his thinking, motivations, and deliberations with political allies. Continue reading