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.
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
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.
My thesis is this: A full reconsideration of the politics, ideology, and political philosophy of the 1970-2000 period must involve a new, long, and serious study of Jesse Jackson.
The necessity of this became apparent, to me, after a close reading Jason Stahl’s wonderful new book, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945 (Carolina, 2016). To be clear, Stahl doesn’t place any special emphasis on Jackson’s life or work. Rather, as Stahl’s narrative moves through the late 1980s and early 1990s, covering the rise of the New Democrats, Jackson’s role therein, as a caricature and punching bag, is indirect but nonetheless crucial. This leads me believe that Jackson’s symbolism, person, actions, and thought are due for a thorough reconsideration. Today’s post and my three after will, I hope, provide some seeds for that reconsideration. Continue reading
This year, two television programs have brought renewed attention to the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. Airing from February through April, FX’s miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was a surprisingly subtle and effective true-crime docudrama. And earlier this month, ABC and ESPN presented Ezra Edelman’s truly extraordinary documentary miniseries O.J.: Made in America, which looked not only at the trial itself, but also at Simpson’s earlier career and fame, as well as his life since the verdict. One of the things that both shows successfully attempted to do was to explain why, while most white Americans greeted O.J.’s acquittal with shock and dismay, most African Americans celebrated the verdict as a victory. Events this week have brought to mind the still only partly learned lessons of that trial and those responses. Continue reading