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
Timothy Messer-Kruse’s reply to my earlier post about his book The Yankee International confirmed two things for me. First, wading into unfamiliar historiographical debates is treacherous business. Second, Marx’s ideas still rile!
This twentieth-century historian has a great deal to learn about nineteenth century radicalism, so I am postponing a full response to Messer-Kruse until I am able to do more reading on the subject. For now, I will say that my reading of Marx and how his ideas played out in an American context is at odds with Messer-Kruse’s interpretation. Messer-Kruse portrays Marx and his followers as dogmatic on questions of race and slavery, among other issues. I think Marx’s thought on those issues and more was quite supple, and that such suppleness contributed to a full flowering of Marxist thought on American soil. But I have yet to prove this case, and I willingly admit that I may be wrong. In any case, I welcome the challenge, and for that I am glad Messer-Kruse responded as he did.
One thinker that Messer-Kruse failed to mention in his rebuttal is W.E.B. DuBois. I argued in my original post that Marx’s analysis of the Civil War exemplified his linking up race and class in ways similar to W.E.B. DuBois’s masterful Black Reconstruction in America (1935). After having recently re-read large chunks of Black Reconstruction, I can say with confidence that there is something to this connection. Also, I am not alone in thinking this. Continue reading
My thesis is this: A full reconsideration of the politics, ideology, and political philosophy of the 1970-2000 period must involve a new, long, and serious study of Jesse Jackson.
The necessity of this became apparent, to me, after a close reading Jason Stahl’s wonderful new book, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945 (Carolina, 2016). To be clear, Stahl doesn’t place any special emphasis on Jackson’s life or work. Rather, as Stahl’s narrative moves through the late 1980s and early 1990s, covering the rise of the New Democrats, Jackson’s role therein, as a caricature and punching bag, is indirect but nonetheless crucial. This leads me believe that Jackson’s symbolism, person, actions, and thought are due for a thorough reconsideration. Today’s post and my three after will, I hope, provide some seeds for that reconsideration. 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.
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.
Sometime last week, I was reading the forward to The Essential Harold Cruse reader, written by Stanley Crouch. An acerbic critic of many African American radical intellectuals, Crouch’s forward—an ode to Cruse’s brilliance as a writer and thinker—made for exciting reading. I was stopped by the following passage, where Crouch mentioned Cruse (and his magnum opus, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) in concert with two other important 1960s intellectuals, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray:
“With that book, Cruse did, in his own way, what Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray have become either well known for or barely known for arguing. He recognized that the call and response between the Negro and America at large is central to what Negroes became and what this nation became (iii)” (emphasis mine)
In essence, Crouch argued that Murray deserved far more credit among African American intellectuals for his work in the 1960s, 70s, and beyond. Crouch went on to point out that Murray “produced far more material than Ellison did while living” (iii). Of course, quantity does not always equal quality. But Murray’s work is important to gaining an understanding of African American life during and after the Civil Rights Movement. Books such as The Omni-Americans (1970) argued that American culture was a mélange of various cultures, such as African American and white cultures. Further, it pushed for an understanding of African American culture that Murray felt was beyond the grasp of social science (an argument written about extensively in Daniel Matlin’s On The Corner). Murray’s work, like that of Ellison, rejected many tenants of Black Power ideology within African American intellectual circles.
With it being Black History Month, I find myself thinking about works written by African American men and women that have influenced me the most during my career as a student of history. There are many to choose from, and I hope you, the reader, will chime in with your own favorite works of intellectual history written by African Americans. I would argue that the subfield of African American intellectual history has its roots in the slave narratives written by Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs, among others; the poetry of a Phillis Wheatley and the plays of William Wells Brown; and the histories written by George Washington Williams. In all of these works, African Americans defended their humanity to skeptical white audiences by proving their intellect to be the equal of anyone else. Since then, African American intellectual history has continued to push the contours of whose voices deserve attention from intellectual historians and intellectuals in general, as the United States continues to wrestle with the multifaceted question of “race relations.” Interest in the field has never been higher, evidenced by the existence of the African American Intellectual History Society (and their upcoming conference), and strenuous debate about the writings of individuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The following list is, of course, not meant to be comprehensive. And by all means, add yours in the comments below:
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.
The most recent issue of n+1 features a fascinating piece by Aziz Rana titled “Race and the American Creed.” Here, Rana argues for the need to understand the relationship between American ideas of race and ideas of its “creed,” that long-cherished idea of freedom and equality that, as Rana argues in his essay, has been built up by segments of American society since the Civil War. For politicians, it has been an effective tool to demonstrate America’s moral power to the world; for activists, however, it has offered a tolerant, equal vision of a nation crippled by racial, gender, and economic inequalities. His essay includes a useful reminder of the perils faced by African American radicals in confronting the American state during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In addition to Rana’s arguments I argue that intellectuals considering this history of the “American Creed,” along with the state of the modern American left, would be wise to look back to the 1990s and its trials and tribulations during the presidency of Bill Clinton. We should not discard the history of the New Left of the 1960s, or the splintering of the left in the 1970s. Nor are we anywhere near being done with researching the left’s many battles against Ronald Reagan and a resurgent right in the 1980s. But the 1990s do offer some interesting lessons for American intellectual historians (and, I would add, for intellectual historians of other nations too). Among the topics of the intellectual history of the 1990s that fascinates me is the creation of the Black Radical Congress, formed by African American intellectuals during the decade.
As I imagine has been a common experience for historians and educators, I have been a bit distracted in the past week by the events unfolding at Yale and the University of Missouri. Consequently, I don’t have much to offer today – everything that desperately needs to be said is being said, not only by commentators, writers and historians but most of all by the students of Yale and Mizzou who are daily enduring the frenzied attempt of white America to delegitimize their concerns, their activism, and their claims about the reality of institutionalized racism itself.
And so I thought instead just to direct your attention to one of the events leading up to the resignation of Tim Wolfe. A month ago, student activists staged a protest when they blocked Wolfe’s car from moving forward during the Homecoming parade by joining together and linking arms. Starting in 1839 (the year the university was founded), each student came forward to relate a historical event that illustrates the deep foundational relationship the University of Missouri, higher education, and by implication the entire United States has with white supremacy. Watching the entire demonstration, and the outpouring of emotion that followed, is well worth your time – as the students illustrations of oppression inch closer to the present, the discomfort of the surrounding crowd grows, and it is an amazing thing to watch the activists push forward with their story as the auditory and physical resistance around them mounts.
Our discipline is currently engaged in a long debate about the meaning of public intellectuals and the responsibility of the historian to create publically accessible scholarship. Watching these students bravely connect the past to the present and personal experiences to policy, it occurred to me that such hand wringing, in light of this, seems a bit myopic. Where are our public intellectuals? They are right here – disrupting the easy and celebratory routines of white Americans’ every day lives with the reminder that, as they eloquently put it, all of this was built on their backs.