As a blogger here at the USIH website, I often deal with questions of intellectual history, memory, and American culture. I’d be remiss, however, if I avoided talking about the fact that I’ve had the privilege over the last year working as part of a larger project commemorating the desegregation of the University of South Carolina in 1963. Up front, I want to say that it’s been an honor being part of a special group of young scholars, all working to present a narrative about USC’s desegregation. In the process, however, I’ve found myself asking questions about how the academy reaches the public and reshapes public memory concerning race, education, and power.
Thinking about the 46th anniversary of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination of April 4, 1968, I found myself considering which MLK we remember when we talk about his murder. For years, I’ve considered how MLK “changed” by the end of his life, how he came to be seen nationally and internationally by 1968, and what he was doing on the eve of his death. Yet I’ve also begun to consider how the anniversary of King’s death offers a moment to reflect on a different King from the one normally celebrated in January of every year (based, of course, off his January 15 birth date).
For the last few weeks, I’ve devoted my blog space to reflecting on ways in which African Americans in the late 1960s used memory of the Reconstruction era to ask questions about the “Second Reconstruction” of the late 1960s. I zeroed in on Lerone Bennett, historian and editor of Ebony magazine, due to the prominence of his essays in what is best thought of as a Black Public Sphere. While I’m quite fond of studying African American print culture, I also recognize that when it comes to the 20th century, there are plenty of other rich media forms that need to be included in any conception of the public sphere. Today I’d like to mention a few books on these media forms, and on the Black Public Sphere idea, that I think would be of interest to the readers of the S-USIH blog.
As I’ve written before, the late 1960s were an era of considerable intellectual ferment among African Americans. During this time period, many African Americans invoked the Reconstruction era of the 1860s as a template for both the potential and peril for the late 1960s. It was an obvious era for comparison, considering that both periods were marked by the rise (or in the case of the 1960s, the return of) Black political power across the South. In this brief essay, I’ll take a look at just a few examples of African Americans calling forward the memory of the Reconstruction era for the present-day battles of the 1960s. In order to do this, I’ll be looking at several print publications prominent among the African American community during the years 1965 until 1972, which will serve as the temporal parameters for my pieces. Today I’ll give space to one particularly eye-opening piece from 1965 in America’s most prominent Black publication.
As intellectual historians, we often note how much the importance of cultural memory plays in the development of ideas over time. For African American intellectuals, battles over the importance of how we conceptualize both memories of the African American experience, as well as history of that experience, have been a rallying cry since Emancipation. With Black History Month having just ended, it’s as good a time as any to consider how memory of various events is contested terrain for different groups of people. After all, Carter G. Woodson’s original fight for a Negro History Week (which became Black History Month) was largely a battle to make sure that Americans were aware of the contributions by its Black citizens to the nation at large. The rationale for doing this was largely for the benefit of African Americans, however, so that they were aware that contrary to the popular narrative of American history circa the 1910s, people of African descent had a history worthy of remembering.
[Note: This is a guest post by Christopher Cameron, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, June 2014). Cameron is currently working on a book about liberal religion and slavery in early America, as well as a history of African American freethinkers from the early 19th century to the present. Enjoy!--RG2]
In her essay “Coming of Age: The Historiography of Black Abolitionism,” Manisha Sinha notes that abolitionists have generally been viewed as little more than “bourgeois reformers saddled with racial paternalism and economic conservatism.” This view of abolitionists changed with the work of scholars such as Patrick Rael, Julie Roy Jeffrey, W. Caleb McDaniel, John Stauffer, and Shirley J. Yee, to name just a few. While the reputations of “radical” abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, William Cooper Nell, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lydia Maria Child has undergone a drastic transformation in the scholarship on abolitionism over the past 40 years or so, much less attention has been given to “moderate” abolitionists such as William Ellery Channing. This situation is understandable, especially since Channing and many others like him often protested the tactics and rhetoric of their more outspoken counterparts. An analysis of Channing’s works, however, shows that he was actually fairly close ideologically to the Garrisonians, even while he deplored their sharp denunciations of slaveholders.
Recent weeks have seen the release of several books on slavery and Reconstruction. The culmination of the landmark trilogy written by David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, has already sparked considerable discussion on the fields of slavery studies, transatlantic history, and the intellectual history of Anglo-American abolition. The field of scholarship on slavery has also received another work on the evils of the slave trade through Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction is another important history of the Reconstruction era in American history. While this post is not intended as a review of this book, or of the others I’m going to discuss, I do want to express a few thoughts about what these books mean in terms of both scholarship and public history.
On New Year’s Day, many older fans of television were saddened to learn of the passing of James Avery. The African American actor was best known for his role as Philip Banks in the hit 1990s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With his passing, people all over the internet began to talk about their love for the television show, which became a vehicle for Will Smith in his pursuit of greater fame. However, many zeroed in on their respect and admiration for the character that Avery played in the series. Philip Banks was a tough, no-nonsense judge in California who, married to Vivian Banks and raising several children, was an example of an African American man who lived out his own version of the American Dream. What I’d like to do in this short post is think about the ways in which The Fresh Prince portrayed the Banks family and their relationship to larger trends about Black politics and Black intellectual thought in the early 1990s.
The previous week has occasioned serious reflections on the idea of public intellectuals. Two events have contributed to this: first, the Ta-Nehisi Coates post that argued for Melissa Harris-Perry as America’s “foremost public intellectual”, and second, the death of poet and activist Amiri Baraka. Both events called for people to consider ideas about African American intellectuals in the public sphere, and how those individuals carve a space for themselves. While the situations are profoundly different, there is something to think about when comparing Baraka’s place as a public intellectual in the late 1960s, versus Harris-Perry and present-day notions of public intellectuals.
PBS has recently finished up their miniseries, “Many Rivers: The African Americans.” Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the miniseries offered an overview of Black American history from the era of slavery and colonization until Barack Obama’s election in 2008. It was an interesting look at a fascinating aspect of American history, and featured plenty of historians both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. With the series wrapping up, however, I find myself asking questions about the present and future of Black American history. This isn’t to say that the series didn’t do a good job. On the contrary, I found it to be both an excellent analysis of Black American history and a showcase of where most of the (popular, at least) scholarship is at this moment. But I do find myself wondering where the field of Black American history can go from here, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.