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
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.
She was named for the ship that stole her away. At seven years old, Phillis Wheatley crossed the Atlantic from West Africa, another dot in the mosaic of roughly six million enslaved Africans who landed in the Americas between 1700 and 1808. Small and so young, she became Boston merchant John Wheatley’s gift to wife Susannah. Early on, Phillis’ talent shone. She mastered Latin and Greek, earning transatlantic praise for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book of poetry by an African-American, published in London in 1773. She sat for an author portrait, toured England, met George Washington, and, finally, secured her freedom before dying, impoverished, in 1784.
Early Americans and early Americanists have pored over her too-brief career ever since. Phillis Wheatley’s byline alone, threading together her sacrifice and her sale, bears hard history in it. As an African-American founding mother of our national literary tradition, Wheatley owns a leading role in survey classes, public statues, and cultural memory. Wheatley’s last manuscript, 300 pages of poetry, may be lost; but we hold pieces of her legacy intact. Here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I pass by her writing desk nearly every day. It’s not the one in her formal portrait. Rather, it’s the mahogany “card or tea table” that John Wheatley gifted Phillis with sometime during her long servitude. Ball-and-claw feet grip the carpet. A neat apron-front drawer has room enough for cards, ink, and a few cottony sheets of colonial paper. Sold at auction to settle her heavy debts, the poet’s desk is a rich artifact of literary technology, an Enlightenment-era laptop. Polished and bare, Phillis Wheatley’s desk raises the question: Who took up her pen? Continue reading
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: