Last night, people were saddened to learn of the passing of Civil Rights icon Julian Bond. The son of Horace Mann Bond (a scholar and educator who’s also an important person for intellectual historians to know about), Julian Bond personified the Civil Rights Movement, and more broadly, the history of the twentieth century iteration of the Black Freedom Struggle. His death will leave a gaping hole in national leadership on the question of civil and human rights in American society. As historians, we need to recognize the many ways he led during his long—although it feels like it wasn’t long enough—life.
I had never really thought of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) as a queer text before—at least not in any deeper sense than that it was a book written by an author who wrote about queer themes and who himself had both male and female partners. But by putting Fire alongside Between the World and Me, the new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I was struck by the significance of the fact that Baldwin’s book is addressed to his nephew and Coates’s is addressed to his son.
One of the more tedious aspects of the reception of Coates’s Between the World and Me has been the incessant comparisons made between Coates and Baldwin, with various personalities weighing in essentially to say “Coates is no Baldwin.” But as Robert argued forcefully last week, that kind of fatuous evaluative reflex—Robert compared it to the Kobe-MJ arguments—hollows out what could be a very productive comparison, one that sheds light in either direction, helping us understand both Baldwin and Coates more deeply. That is what I hope to do here. Continue reading
A few online and in-print readings caught my eye since the start of July. Here’s just a quick rundown of them, including blog posts from the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians:
Readings on the Confederate Flag: With the furling of the flag in Columbia, South Carolina, we see an end to over fifty years of the flag of secession and Jim Crow flying in South Carolina’s capital city. The last four weeks of dialogue and discussion have given many readers much to think about when it comes to the Confederate flag and its place as an icon of the American South. Brian Purnell wrote a fascinating piece over at the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog about the history of the Confederate flag being used in the Northern United States as a symbol of racism. It is definitely worth a read, and after that you should read Jessica Marie Johnson’s post today at AAIHS about the ways in which African American intellectual history represents both a reckoning with the past and imagining better futures.
Last week, I spent a few days reading James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street. I knew immediately that I was going to have to write a post about this, but I was at a loss, initially, as to what to say.
That’s because No Name in the Street is so good that I was afraid any attempt to explain why would devolve into block quote after block quote, followed up by commentary that basically amounted to “and isn’t that amazing?!?”
Fortunately, I found a focus to rope together my unwieldy enthusiasm, for I am planning on using No Name in the Street for teaching, and I think there are several things about it that highly recommend its use for any course that explores in part or in whole either the history of American racism or the post-war period more generally.
Yesterday I was privileged to be commentator for the monthly “#Blktwitterstorians” discussion. This hashtag was invented with the idea of getting together various African American professors on Twitter to discuss issues of particular importance to African Americans in the academy and in the profession of history. Created by graduate students Aleia Brown and Joshua Crutchfield, #Blktwitterstorians has served as an online space to debate issues of particular import to African American scholars—as well as those who study the African American experience, regardless of race. Not surprisingly, the issues debated every on the first Saturday of every month are often reflections of larger issues in the academy. June’s topic—the question of the role of African American historians as potential “public intellectuals”—is one of interest to the readers of this blog. Yet the larger questions being dealt with, most notably the future of the academy and the lack of job or, for that matter, intellectual security within the academy, link to issues that have become both hot topics across academia and on this blog in recent weeks.
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History has, since it’ founding in 1916, used history as a tool in the struggle for African American freedom. ASALH has had a long relationship with activism and the larger community, a relationship that makes it somewhat different from the other professional organizations discussed this week. This comes as no surprise to the readers of this blog. After all, the history of African American history (chronicled so well by historians such as Pero Dagbovie) is one of understanding that history, and the humanities, are never fully separated from the world in which they exist. Led this year by Daryl Michael Scott, professor of history at Howard University and a well-known scholar of intellectual history in his own right (his Contempt and Pity is still the most important text we have on the history of “black pathology” and the academy), ASALH continues this tradition during a time in which “conversations about race” have taken on a new life of their own.
The year 2015 has already proven to be an important one for the various intellectual viewpoints that form the African American intellectual tradition. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of several key events in American history revolving around race. As I’ve written elsewhere, how we celebrate or commemorate these events matters. Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” moment during the Selma voting rights campaign. The presence of an African American president, along with a former Republican president, civil rights activist-turned-Congressman John Lewis, and a cavalcade of dignitaries from both parties, made yesterday’s gathering an emotional commemoration of the last dramatic moment of the “heroic period” of civil rights activism.
Jeet Heer’s essay in the newest The New Republic has brought our attention back to a conversation that, for a while at least, was on the backburner while others debated the latest Jonathan Chait piece on political correctness. But Heer’s essay also requires some serious thinking from intellectual historians. What he’s done is chronicled the long history of African Americans within the pages of The New Republic—both as writers and as subjects. However, Heer’s piece is not just a meditation on The New Republic. Instead, it needs to be read as part of a larger and more complicated history. American liberals and African Americans have had a testy, sometimes beneficial, sometimes wary, relationship. The New Republic’s own history is testament to that.
If the late 19th century was the golden age of American freethought, as Susan Jacoby posits in her recent biography of Robert Ingersoll, then the same can be said of the early twentieth century when examining African American freethought. The 20-year period from 1925 to 1945 saw an outpouring of black literature that explored themes of atheism and agnosticism in a bolder way than nearly all writers except Frederick Douglass had done before. Countee Cullen published a number of poems attacking the idea of a white God, Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road announced her Deism to the world, Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea likewise posited that he had no need for Jesus or church, and Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand featured an atheist protagonist (modeled largely on herself) for whom religion symbolized the oppressive, patriarchal culture of early 20th century America.
I’ve spent the last few weeks writing about how African American intellectuals viewed the rioting of the 1960s. Last week, I compiled a brief review essay laying out works that further describe how African American intellectuals, and American society in general, has dealt with crime and the African American community. Today I’ll consider how the discourse of the 1960s among African American intellectuals related to a wider discourse about the possibilities of the American state—and American life—at the end of the Sixties.