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.
Thinking about discussions in recent days about American Studies, Christopher Lasch, and the various cultural and intellectual wars over the last thirty years, I’m always thinking of new ways to view old topics. So, while today’s post won’t deal in particular with those topics I’ve just mentioned, I hope to provide some further food for thought about general themes that the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians have dealt with both on the blog and at the recent conference. It’s also a chance to put together some thoughts that have been spurred by still-forming research questions in my mind.
The works of Black American intellectuals since 1965 have been shaped by a growing awareness that the place of Black Americans within larger American society is always in flux. After the major victories for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, questions arose as to what Black Americans could do next to further cement their place as equal citizens and consumers in America. As I examined last week with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here, Black intellectuals began to think about a world after the Civil Rights Movement. For King, obviously, the battle for equal rights and economic justice was far from over. But he was also aware that the tenuous goodwill he and other civil rights leaders gained through 1965 from the mainstream press was beginning to wane by the summer of 1966. The rise of white backlash, feared by civil rights leaders and white liberals alike, finally came in 1966, voiced itself in the midterms that year, and would become a key part of American politics for the rest of the 1960s.
(Editor’s Note: this is the sixth, and last, in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. I expect, however, that he will be appearing on this blog in the future… — Ben Alpers)
Over the last few weeks, I’ve written on a wide variety of subjects related to the Black American Experience and American Intellectual History. Now I think it’s time to look towards the future, and look at several books that will be released in the next several months that deal with Black Americans and the era that Daniel Rodgers referred to as an “Age of Fracture.” Continue reading
Editor’s note: The following is a guest essay by Kurt Newman, PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara.
Whiteness as Intellectual Property: Some Notes Towards a History of Copyright Law’s Racial Unconscious
by Kurt Newman
As a left historian working on the history of intellectual property (IP), few recent events have been as heartening as the appearance of a special section of Jacobin magazine dedicated to the politics of copyright and patent law. Jacobin, as readers of this site surely know, has emerged in recent months as a force in new new left journalism, attracting deserved attention as a key site of a revitalized New York-based radical politics.
While IP was a big topic on the Left a few years back, attention to it has faded in recent years. I have had some worries that perhaps I have chosen to work on yesterday’s topic. The Jacobin IP forum relieves some of those anxieties, and also points to the need for further conversation.
To my mind, the best part of the Jacobin IP section is an excellent essay by the artist and critic Anne Elizabeth Moore on the often-neglected gender dimensions of IP. I urge everyone to read it—Moore is a wonderful writer and makes an ironclad case for the need to reorient discussion of IP around feminist priorities. Reading Moore’s essay led me to think about race as a missing term in the Jacobin forum. Thus, in the following section, I thought I would share some work I have done on that topic. Continue reading
As I have mentioned before, one of my exam fields for the PhD was “Transatlantic History in the Long 19th Century.” During my exams, I had the opportunity (and it really was an opportunity) to discuss how and why this topic constitutes a field. I thought our readers here might also be interested in discussing that question.
To get the conversation going, I have excerpted below a few chunks of prose from my qualifying exam answer. I would probably say a few things differently here if I had to do it over again. But that would require doing it over again. And as Gawd is my witness, I would never do PhD exams over again. So here is an unimproved but certainly improvable portion of my response to this question: what distinguishes transatlantic history in the long nineteenth century as a field of historical inquiry? Continue reading
(Editor’s Note: this is the third in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. — Ben Alpers)
I thought it important to write a short piece on the March on Washington in light of the Fiftieth anniversary of the march this week. As one of the seminal events of 1963 (a year filled with seminal events, it’s easy to see), and a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington has captured the imaginations of millions of Americans since the summer of 1963. Of course, the commemorations of the March on Washington include certain memories of the event for certain groups of Americans. Continue reading
(Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from frequent contributor Chris Cameron — Ben Alpers)
As I get deeper into the research for my project on black freethinkers and closer to the point of publishing an article and applying for fellowships to start funding the study, one question has been continually on my mind: how should I categorize black humanism? Is it a religion, or more of a philosophy? Admittedly, humanism is not the only component of this project, but it is the largest, as I have encountered few black atheists (thus far) who do not also consider themselves humanists.
This question has very practical implications for anyone studying humanism, whether among Africans Americans or any other group. If a strong case could be made for humanism as a religion, then that opens up a number of funding opportunities that may not be available for someone studying black intellectual history. For graduate students, categorization becomes even more important, as how they market their dissertation projects will determine which types of jobs are open to them. Also, if I want to publish an article on black humanism, would I submit something to the new Journal of Africana Religions, or would I go with something such as Modern Intellectual History? Continue reading
(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Christopher Cameron’s series of Saturday guest posts. — Ben Alpers)
A question that I have been thinking about quite a bit over the past few months as I work on my book on black freethinkers is how their ideology and experience differs from that of the more mainstream (i.e. white) freethinking community. There are of course many common beliefs we can point to among most freethinkers. Secular humanists, for instance, be they black or white, generally believe in the importance of scientific literacy, expanded access to education in general, practicing compassion toward other people, finding meaning and value in nature and human relationships, and working to benefit society. Black and white pagans generally hold non-theistic beliefs revolving around veneration or even a form of deification of the natural world. And of course atheism and agnosticism are the same beliefs no matter who holds them. Where the signal differences seem to lie, then, is in the manner in which these different groups have historically come to their positions and the ways in which they do so today. Continue reading
(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Christopher Cameron series of Saturday guest posts. — Ben Alpers)
In one of the first books written on African American Humanism, Norm R. Allen Jr. noted that black “humanism entails a belief in reason, science, democracy, openness to new ideas, the cultivation of moral excellence, a commitment to justice and fairness, and a belief in the inherent worth of humanity.” Allen, the former director of African Americans for Humanism, believed that examining this topic would invigorate the study of Black history, especially by shedding light on the secular perspectives of civil rights leaders such as A. Phillip Randolph. He accordingly compiled short biographical essays on black humanists by various scholars, as well as essays by and oral interviews of black humanists ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois to Zora Neale Hurston to Charles W. Faulkner.
In the twenty-two years since Allen first published African American Humanism: An Anthology, not much progress has been made on our understanding of this vital intellectual tradition. Last year, however, Anthony Pinn published an important work that builds upon Allen’s definition of black humanism by articulating a fully developed African American humanist theology. Pinn, a professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, centers this new black humanism around the notion of “the end of God-talk.” Continue reading