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.
A few months ago, I sketched out this blog series, a new intellectual history of early American women. I was encouraged to see your reading list ideas (here and here) roll in. Over the summer, I canvassed bibliographies and archives, curating a portrait gallery of names, places, and ideas to fill many posts. I made a template, too: Supply a capsule biography; show how each woman fits into the “standard” American history survey class, or why she doesn’t; say where to find and assign her work. There’s one more (experimental!) piece to my series, A Woman’s Work, but you’ll have to keep reading for it. This is a public history project in progress, so please feel free to weigh in with ideas. We will swerve through history, ranging from the 1630s to the 1890s. Later on, I can organize subjects by theme, region, or era. The first few posts spotlight an understudied group: African-American women and the memoirs they made in order to narrate a way out of—or a way through—the “thousand natural shocks” of antebellum life and culture. Let’s begin early America in a new voice. Let’s listen to a free black woman who had little or no real social power until she made it for herself, and in three world markets. Meet Nancy Gardner Prince (1799-1859). Continue reading
This week was a microcosm of modern African American history. When I wrote this, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) just opened its doors in Washington, D.C. A testament to years of hard work in getting the museum funded, the NMAAHC has already received considerable media coverage. It is also part of the Smithsonian’s system of museums–more than likely “the last great museum on the (National) Mall.” Intellectual historians will have plenty of time to consider the “civil religious” ramifications of a museum devoted exclusively to the Black experience (although it should not be limited to within the United States). But events to the south and west of Washington, D.C. put into stark relief the continuing irony of African American history.
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
II. The Person
What of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., himself? Who was he? From where did he come? Continue reading
This post originally appeared on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Beehive blog.
The First Lady was lost. Nine miles off the main road, Abigail Adams, 56, hacked her way through the thick woods bordering Baltimore and the “wilderness city” of Washington, D.C. Eager to join husband John in the new capital, Abigail had left Quincy in early November 1800 with two servants. By Saturday the 15th, they had fallen a few days off course. For two hours, a frustrated Abigail circled the same forest paths—a precious gulf of travel time gone, since they only rode in daylight, and local inns were scarce. Abigail (accurately) reckoned that 36 miles of rough and lonely land lay ahead. She forged on, “holding down & breaking bows of trees which we could not pass,” as she told sister Mary Smith Cranch, “untill we met a Solitary black fellow with a horse and cart. We inquired of him our way, and he kindly offered to conduct us.” Abigail hired him on the spot. Following his directions, by Sunday afternoon she reached her new home, “a Castle of a House…in a beautifull Situation” with a “romantic” view of the Potomac River. Continue reading
Today, I had planned on writing a piece about Frederick Douglass’ well-known “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. It’s quickly noticeable that, every July Fourth, many friends and acquaintances of mine on social media post the speech. A stirring indictment of American society’s complete complicity with slavery in 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is one of the most important speeches in laying out a moral and political critique of American society from one of the most important intellectuals in American history. It is worth noting, however, that Douglass constantly debated the meaning and purpose of America during his lengthy public career.
Last week the academic community was stunned to hear of the passing of famed scholar Cedric Robinson. A professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Robinson shaped the careers of dozens of academics and intellectuals through his books and lectures. While each of his books was a major contribution to thinking about the African American experience, his magnum opus Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983), more than any other set the stage for the next thirty years of thinking about radicalism among people of African descent in the West. It is no exaggeration to say that few works have had more of an influence on intellectual history, cultural studies, and African American Studies than this one.
One cannot think of American history since the end of World War II without considering the importance of Muhammad Ali. He was, of course, one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport. In the 20th century it was often said that the heavyweight champion was one of the most recognizable people in the world. Ali definitely fit that bill in the Cold War-era world. Ali also transcended popular culture in a way few other athletes could. Considering that after his death Ali received tributes from sources as diverse as DC Comics fans and World Wrestling Entertainment, it is clear a wonderful book could—and should—be written about the massive impact Ali had on popular culture through the end of the 20th century and well into the 21st century. The era of Ali’s prominence, from the 1960s to the end of his life, could easily be called the “Age of Muhammad Ali.” But this essay wishes to reflect on Ali’s impact as a symbol—a symbol of African American strength and courage, and how that symbolism was transformed and, while being made universal, also weakened.
[Editor’s Note: The following guest post is an interview, crossposted from the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s blog, with Robert Vitalis (University of Pennsylvania) author of the new book White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell UP, 2015), Robert Vitalis (University of Pennsylvania), which explores how ideas of evolutionary theory, social Darwinism, and racial anthropology have been dominant doctrines in the discipline of international relations from its beginnings—and how a remarkable group of African-American scholars forming the “Howard School of International Relations” pushed back against this race-centric view of the world. The interview was conducted by Timothy Nunan, the Executive Director of the Toynbee Prize Foundation and author of Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan. The Toynbee Prize Foundation is a non-profit organization based in the United States that promotes scholarship in global history.- Ben Alpers]
If you’ve been following the news about race-related campus protests this academic year, it can sometimes be hard to keep them straight. In the autumn, students at Yale’s Silliman College demanded the removal of a College Master following his wife’s e-mail to students encouraging students to use their own judgment when it came to potentially insensitive Halloween costumes, rather than following guidelines issued by Yale administrators. In the winter, students at Oberlin College, a liberal arts college in Ohio, issued a sweeping manifesto to the President demanding significant investment in African and African-American Studies as well as the appointment of more black faculty members. And this spring, students at Princeton University occupied the President’s office to demand the removal of former U.S. (and Princeton University) President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s public policy school. Those demands led to the removal of a “celebratory” mural from the wall of a residential college also named after Wilson, but visitors to the New Jersey campus will still find themselves walking by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
These debates about how American universities today deal with race – whether they should scrub buildings of the names of white supremacists, or invest more in programs in African-American Studies and professionalization programs for faculty of color – are unlikely to end anytime soon. However, as the work of our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Robert Vitalis (University of Pennsylvania), suggests, the very structure of these debates may obscure an important history in the making of universities and the structure of academic knowledge today. While coming to terms with the racist legacy of individual Presidents or college donors may be a necessary task, as Vitalis shows in his new book, White World Order, Black Power Politics. In it, he shows that race was actually quite core to many disciplines, but especially international relations of the kind taught at the Wilson School and sister institutions in the United States long before African-American protest movements challenged existing structures of power.