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.
A new version of Roots premieres on American television today (CORRECTION: starts tomorrow, Monday May 30. Guess I am a bit too excited!). A natural question to ask right now is, quite simply, why a remake of a classic of American television? Remakes are, after all, always tricky products of a culture that is often accused of merely recreating what has come before, and shirking the responsibility of creating something new. But it is worth thinking about 2016’s Roots as an outgrowth of the “Age of Obama,” as well as in comparison to the cultural, political, and intellectual moment of 1977.
Two important history conferences were held this weekend: the Future of the African American Past Conference, hosted by the American Historical Association; and the Memphis Massacre Conference, commemorating the events of 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. Both conferences were important for two broad reasons. One, they both indicate a continued interest by some historians—especially those focused on the African American experience—to speak to the public about history. Second, they both speak to Emily Rutherford’s concerns about opening up intellectual history to groups traditionally marginalized within the field. An intellectual history from below, as it were, would provide the fodder for more questions to be asked within American intellectual history. As this week’s conferences prove, a general concern about history from below—and its connections to current events from below—engulf the historical profession in new, and intriguing ways.
Thanks to all of you for helping to build the first part of this intellectual history of early American women. In many ways, this work builds on conversations held at the 2011 USIH conference, and the comments that Ray Haberski kindly gathered and posted here. Now it’s time to crowdsource a bibliography for the second phase, which spans the Victorian period, from 1848 to 1891. For now, I define intellectual history as ideas in action. And so I’m interested in it all: manuscripts, monuments, myths, memorials, biographies, secondary sources, and public history sites that feature/analyze the intellectual and cultural contributions of early American women. Following up on L.D. Burnett’s sage notice of new media’s ability to broaden the realm of traditional academic scholarship, I’m seeking citations for related blogs/posts here, too, in order to form a sound bibliographical foundation. A short list appears below. Paging all historians, librarians, editors, archivists, journalists, and history fans: Please add suggestions in the comments. Continue reading
During the #BlkTwitterstorians chat on AAIHS a few days ago, we began by discussing what intellectual history is, as well as what it means to study African American intellectual history. The 140 character limit on Twitter, as well as the 15 minutes we spent on each question, did not allow me to answer as fully as I would have liked. I did offer a few thoughts on common approaches in the broader field of intellectual history but want to develop those just a bit.
My view of what intellectual history, as I noted in the chat, is that it is the sub-discipline of history that deals with the ideas and symbols that people use to make sense of the world. A guiding assumption of this sub-discipline is that human beings depend upon the use of language, which gives meaning to individual lives. Another assumption of intellectual historians is that human beings cannot live in the world without theories about what they are doing. These theories may be explicit or implicit, but they are always present and make up our cultural construction of reality, which again, depends upon symbols and language. So intellectual history is not about what people did, necessarily, but more about what they thought they were doing.
By nature, intellectual history is an interdisciplinary field, and there are many approaches that scholars take to studying the history of ideas. I would like to outline five of the most prominent of these approaches. Continue reading
Embarking on a study of early American women’s intellectual history calls for a strong bibliographical base, and I’m using this post to learn your news and views of useful literature. Hopefully, we can refer to and build on Patrick S. O’Donnell’s excellent list of resources regarding “Women Intellectuals in the European Enlightenment,” published here. Since this nascent project has a public history feel—I’m interested in how women’s lives and intellectual contributions (ca. 1612-1891) are reflected in everything from standard scholarship to city statues and social crusades—I have listed select digital and archival resources for the first phase (1612-1848), below.
This is, of course, only a preliminary list. Paging all historians, librarians, editors, archivists, journalists, and history fans: Please add your recommendations in the comments.
Questions about the relationship between Senator Bernie Sanders and African American voters have dogged the senator from Vermont almost from the start of his presidential campaign. Last year it was based around his views on the Black Lives Matter campaign. In the last week, however, the question has been raised once again, this time by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic. The rejection of reparations as a feasible, or even desirable, political goal by Senator Sanders was the occasion for Coates’ critique of Sanders and his particular brand of social democratic ideology. I believe, however, Coates’ arguments—and the pushback by some on the Left online—is a reason to revisit the long and complicated history of the relationship between Black Americans and the American Left.
I do not think there is much more I can say to add to the cacophony of voices that have spoken out since the horrific terror attack in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night. A massacre that harkened back as much to the racial strife of Reconstruction-era violence as it did to anything in recent memory, the attack on Mother Emanuel AME Church has reminded Americans of the continued presence of anti-black, right-wing extremism that exists on our shores. Historians have performed a great public service in recent days in contextualizing the attack within the history of Charleston, of South Carolina, and of Confederate imagery. But I want to remind readers that we also need to contextualize this attack within the history of recent, extreme right-wing terrorism within the United States.