In the last six months, it has become a trend among intellectuals and academics to mine the past for thinkers to whom we can look to for guidance in how to address the “Age of Trump.” Hannah Arendt and Richard Hofstadter have, not surprisingly, become the leaders in this renaissance of thinking about oppressive regimes abroad and at home. Thankfully, other scholars have critiqued this, reminding us that African American intellectuals, among many others, embody a tradition of fighting government tyranny at home. For many Americans, fear of the government, concerns about the trampling of their constitutional rights, and desperation to find hope during hopeless times, is nothing new during the Trump Administration. It is merely day to day life in America.
Like last week and Andrew Hartman’s wonderful post, today I am posting the paper I gave at the African American Intellectual History Society. Some of this will seem familiar to readers of this site, but it is my first crack at what I hope to be the beginning of the second, post-dissertation project I shall begin working on over the summer. Meanwhile, AAIHS has begun publishing a re-cap of the conference–my reflections on it will be posted on their website later this week. Enjoy!
The plight of the black South as an intellectual center was on the mind of Vincent Harding when he wrote a nuanced and otherwise appreciative review of Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in 1968. Cruse’s book, released the previous year, set off an avalanche of both praise and criticism amongst leftists of all racial hues and ideological dispositions. Harding, a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a Southerner, noticed an unfortunate omission from Cruse’s magnum opus. “His single-minded focus on Harlem,” wrote Harding, “eliminates treatment of that crucial group of black intellectuals who have operated in the South for the last decade, and who have much to do with the latest resurrection of blackness.” For Harding, forgetting about the African American South was a mistake which threatened to erase not only an entire region of the nation—not to mention the experiences of millions of African Americans—but also damage the growing intellectual ferment of a resurgent African American radical tradition.
On February 23, 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born. One of the true titans of American intellectual history, Dr. Du Bois’ life stretched from the high tide of Reconstruction to the middle of the Civil Rights Movement—his death on August 27, 1963 came one day before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. It is impossible to imagine American history without Du Bois’ outsized influence. Here at the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians, we celebrate his life by doing some of what we do best: recommending a few books and essays to read by Du Bois and about Du Bois.
Phillis Wheatley walked the White City, thanks mainly to the black women of Pittsburgh. A bronze bust of the colonial-era poet, contracted by a local group of women citizens and crafted by African-American sculptress Edmonia Lewis, gazed out at the World’s Fair of 1893. The Paris-trained Lewis reduced her usual fees to finish the commission. “This is indeed a little history, and always to be remembered,” she wrote of recreating Wheatley. Around Wheatley, in the Woman’s Building, roughly 200,000 attendees came in waves. In a show of intellectual citizenship that amplified new political needs, American women gathered to hear a global congress of speakers address them in the poet’s shadow. Six African-American women leaders, all presidents or pioneers in diverse fields, stood ready to take the Chicago stage and talk history. Today, resuming my series on early American women intellectuals, let’s see another set of founders step out of their frames and speak. Continue reading
Spurred on by L.D. Burnett’s fantastic post yesterday on primary sources and 1970s feminist books (seriously, check it out now if you haven’t already done so), I looked back towards some of the books from that era I’ve used in my own research. Among those is a beat up copy of Lerone Bennett’s The Challenge of Blackness, a collection of essays published in 1970. Many of the essays in that collection were originally published in Ebony magazine while Bennett was editor. Still others were from speeches and talks he gave to various black-oriented organizations in the late 1960s. Reading through the marked-up essays, I began to think about one that would actually come out in 1970 and has stuck with me since I first read it years ago: Bennett’s idea of “liberation” and what it would look like for African Americans.
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.
Normally, around this time of year, we at S-USIH would post something about Martin Luther King, Jr. and American intellectual history. Considering that today is King’s actual birthday—we as a nation observe it tomorrow—I highly recommend reading works on King and intellectual history. Whether it is Richard King’s book on civil rights history and intellectual history, Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom, or the still-underrated From Civil Rights to Human Rights by Thomas F. Jackson, and numerous works in between, King’s legacy within intellectual history is one that has been explored time and again by historians. Not to mention the fact that King’s legacy as shaped by American memory is also slowly being explored by historians, and King offers plenty for intellectual historians to explore.
Today, though, I would like to take a moment to talk about Coretta Scott King. Her own leadership in the Civil Rights Movement—both before and after MLK’s death—is worth its own monograph length work. After all, Coretta Scott was already an activist and thinker long before she met Martin Luther King, Jr.
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
As I get ready for another fall semester at the University of South Carolina—finishing a dissertation and teaching a course on “the New South” of late 19th century and 20th century America—I decided to finally complete a book I have longed to read on my coffee table. James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul was released to considerable fanfare earlier this year. About the life and legacy of the musical legend, McBride’s book is a meditation on African American life during and after the age of segregation and Jim Crow (which, by the way, is a reminder that Tim Lacy’s series on Jesse Jackson is another reflection on that history). But beyond that, Kill ‘Em and Leave should leave any reader—certainly any historian—thinking about the places within America left behind by modern American history.
II. The Person
What of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., himself? Who was he? From where did he come? Continue reading