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.
The African American Intellectual History Society has graciously allowed us to cross-post their new series on the twentieth anniversary of Robin D.G. Kelley’s landmark book, Race Rebels. The series was announced last night, and today is the first installment, written by Brian Purnell. Here’s a sample of what they’re doing to honor Kelley’s work (if this doesn’t whet your appetite to read the rest, I don’t know what will):
Ebony magazine’s October 1965 issue featured a long story by Louie Robinson on the Watts riots of August of that year. Robinson, reporting on the riots and their aftermath, expressed surprise that such an event could occur in Los Angeles. “Race relations, measured by the national yardstick, have been among the best,” he wrote. Yet he, and many Americans regardless of race or color, were surprised. “Harlem or Chicago, yes; Birmingham, maybe; but never, never Los Angeles. It was the wrong time and the wrong place. Los Angeles Negroes had—theoretically—everything but a fair housing law,” which Robinson reminded his readers did exist until being eliminated by California voters in 1964. It seemed that the “long, hot summers” that began the previous year in places like Philadelphia had spread to the unlikely West Coast city of Los Angeles. The riots themselves, however, exposed a fault line between the police and young African Americans that people in the Los Angeles area, and especially Watts, were already concerned about. Wrote Robinson:
Many Americans currently sit on pins and needles waiting for the grand jury decision on the fate of Officer Darren Wilson and, by extension, the fate of the passions that have animated events on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri for months. However, the story of Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown didn’t happen in a vacuum. What is important to consider is how we got to this moment intellectually—something that exists in a much larger intellectual context. I’ll sketch that out today and in coming weeks.
Jonathan Scott Holloway. Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013)
Review by Robert J. Greene II
The intersection of memory and history has proven to be a fruitful enterprise for historians in recent years. An understanding of both is essential if scholars are to attain a proper (or at least as close to proper as possible) grasp of what both what life was like in the past, and how people thought and believed in that era. Often times, memory proves to be a forum for understanding the creation of shared traditions, customs, and identity. That is no less the case for African Americans, as Jonathan Scott Holloway argues in Jim Crow Wisdom.
I’m happy to add to LD Burnett’s wonderful post from yesterday detailing her experience with Ebony magazine—and Vince Harding’s exhorting scholars to pay attention to it—as part of her overall research. Today I wish to add to that, demonstrating how Ebony has also played a role in my understanding of several strands of intellectual history running through the early 1970s. Considering Ebony as a place of considerable debate over African American politics, culture, and history is, as the Harding article indicated, important for anyone attempting to understand elements of the Black experience.
Readers of this blog – and members of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History – will be excited by the arrival of a sibling society and blog: the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). The AAIHS was founded in February 2014 in order to “foster dialogue about researching, writing, and teaching black thought and culture.” In July, their blog went online and it has already become an active and interesting place. Among the regular contributors are two scholars who should be familiar to our readership: Chris Cameron, who has been a frequent guest blogger at USIH, and Lauren Kientz Anderson, who was a regular blogger for us.
I look forward to continuing to follow the AAIHS blog and hope that our blogs – and societies – can work together in the future!
August 27 was the 51st anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest intellectuals the United States has ever produced. Reflecting on the life, death, and legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois allows us a chance to consider the enormous corpus of scholarship he left behind. However, more than that I’d like to consider a question of immense importance to historians and other scholars of American intellectual history: just what else is there to say about W.E.B. Du Bois? After several generations spent writing, debating, and researching Du Bois’ life and career, what stone or stones are left unturned in regards to scholarship on the man?
First of all, I’d like to thank Robert Greene II for organizing this roundtable. The intrinsic power of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on reparations was immediately obvious, but I am very grateful to Robert for encouraging us to see that US intellectual history might have much to say about the longer conversation on reparations as well as much to take from the history of that conversation.
I want to pick up, to some extent, where Kurt Newman left off in his Tuesday post on the legal scholar Boris Bittker. Kurt points us to Bittker’s first engagement with the legal aspects of institutional racism and potential state efforts to combat it, in Bittker’s 1962 essay, “The Case of the Checkerboard Ordinance.” As Kurt notes, the essay imagines a fictitious Illinois community called New Harmony through a thought experiment set in Bittker’s near future—1965. This town, which Bittker describes as being near Chicago and only incorporated in 1962, the year of the essay, is zoned such that, apart from “public, commercial, industrial, recreational, institutional, and other nonresidential properties,” all lots are given either an “N” or a “W” designation that is immutable—the ownership and occupation of all “N” lots must remain in the hands of African-Americans and all “W” lots must remain in white hands.
It was interesting to me that Bittker chose to place his fictional town in a real state, and it is worth pausing a moment to offer a few possible reasons why that state was in the Midwest, especially given that the closest contemporary analogue for a totally-planned community with a strong racial policy regarding occupancy and ownership would seem to have been the Levittown settlements in New York and Pennsylvania, with the Levittown, PA riots in 1957 likely still quite fresh in people’s minds. Continue reading