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.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s annual conference. This year’s ASALH conference, held in Atlanta, was a historic event: it marked one hundred years since the organization was founded by historian Carter G. Woodson. As always, ASALH was a mixture of academics and lay persons fascinated by African American history, all united in continuing the traditions of a now century-old organization.
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