Once again, for the second time in two weeks, I find myself having to write after the death of an African American legend in the field of the humanities. While two weeks ago saw the passing of Vincent Harding, last week included the passing of Maya Angelou. Passing away at age 86, Angelou’s death sparked (not surprisingly) discussion about her legacy as a writer and poet. My post today will take a slightly different look at Angelou’s life, however, and place her and Harding within a larger intellectual historical context.
My earliest encounter with Vincent Harding was through two avenues: primary research and a scholarly monograph. He became a prominent voice in a paper I wrote last year about the 1980s, memory of the American Civil Rights Movement, and debates among the Left about its future during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. His columns in The Progressive were full of hope for the future of the Left, while at the same time reminders to his readers of the need to continue to confront the issue of race as the 80s dragged on. At the same time, I began reading the book The Challenge of Blackness, where Dr. Harding was co-founder of the Institute of the Black World, an Atlanta-based think tank that during the 1970s played a major role in the development of Black Studies.
Thinking about the South and questions of capital-E Exceptionalism means, ultimately, considering how others view the South as much as it does how Southerners view themselves. In the field of intellectual history, this is a useful tool to use in a deep analysis of how the South has been perceived, and used in 20th century American discourse. Here I’ll lay out a few thoughts on questions we as historians can ask, while zooming in on the post-1965 period for my examination. In the process, I hope to begin a series on the American South and a variety of “minds”, which I’ll get to in a moment. Also, I want to make clear that questions of how the American South is perceived by other nations—say, those in Europe or Latin America—is also a useful exercise. A recent article in the Journal of Southern History, for example, covers the topic of Great Britain’s interpretation of “the South” through music.
[One small housekeeping item:I’ll be blogging as Andy Seal here in order to avoid confusion with Andrew Hartman. I truly value informality and collegiality, so I hope that this means we all can just continue using first names, with no last initials needed!]
Over the past few weeks, I have been following quite avidly the recent Ta-Nehisi Coates-Jonathan Chait debate over the “culture of poverty” thesis. It’s a fascinating and exceptionally useful exchange—one can easily imagine it being read some time down the road as a sort of parallel to the Irving Howe-Ralph Ellison exchange of the early 1960s.
What was most remarkable to me about the debate was not so much that it got personal, since that is not such a rare thing, but the interesting way that it got personal. The turning point of the Coates-Chait argument really came about not on a point of fact or even interpretation about the “culture of poverty” thesis, but rather when Chait worried aloud that Coates was “turning” to a “grim fatalism.” Continue reading
For the last few weeks, I’ve devoted my blog space to reflecting on ways in which African Americans in the late 1960s used memory of the Reconstruction era to ask questions about the “Second Reconstruction” of the late 1960s. I zeroed in on Lerone Bennett, historian and editor of Ebony magazine, due to the prominence of his essays in what is best thought of as a Black Public Sphere. While I’m quite fond of studying African American print culture, I also recognize that when it comes to the 20th century, there are plenty of other rich media forms that need to be included in any conception of the public sphere. Today I’d like to mention a few books on these media forms, and on the Black Public Sphere idea, that I think would be of interest to the readers of the S-USIH blog.
As I’ve written before, the late 1960s were an era of considerable intellectual ferment among African Americans. During this time period, many African Americans invoked the Reconstruction era of the 1860s as a template for both the potential and peril for the late 1960s. It was an obvious era for comparison, considering that both periods were marked by the rise (or in the case of the 1960s, the return of) Black political power across the South. In this brief essay, I’ll take a look at just a few examples of African Americans calling forward the memory of the Reconstruction era for the present-day battles of the 1960s. In order to do this, I’ll be looking at several print publications prominent among the African American community during the years 1965 until 1972, which will serve as the temporal parameters for my pieces. Today I’ll give space to one particularly eye-opening piece from 1965 in America’s most prominent Black publication.
As intellectual historians, we often note how much the importance of cultural memory plays in the development of ideas over time. For African American intellectuals, battles over the importance of how we conceptualize both memories of the African American experience, as well as history of that experience, have been a rallying cry since Emancipation. With Black History Month having just ended, it’s as good a time as any to consider how memory of various events is contested terrain for different groups of people. After all, Carter G. Woodson’s original fight for a Negro History Week (which became Black History Month) was largely a battle to make sure that Americans were aware of the contributions by its Black citizens to the nation at large. The rationale for doing this was largely for the benefit of African Americans, however, so that they were aware that contrary to the popular narrative of American history circa the 1910s, people of African descent had a history worthy of remembering.
[Note: This is a guest post by Christopher Cameron, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, June 2014). Cameron is currently working on a book about liberal religion and slavery in early America, as well as a history of African American freethinkers from the early 19th century to the present. Enjoy!–RG2]
In her essay “Coming of Age: The Historiography of Black Abolitionism,” Manisha Sinha notes that abolitionists have generally been viewed as little more than “bourgeois reformers saddled with racial paternalism and economic conservatism.” This view of abolitionists changed with the work of scholars such as Patrick Rael, Julie Roy Jeffrey, W. Caleb McDaniel, John Stauffer, and Shirley J. Yee, to name just a few. While the reputations of “radical” abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, William Cooper Nell, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lydia Maria Child has undergone a drastic transformation in the scholarship on abolitionism over the past 40 years or so, much less attention has been given to “moderate” abolitionists such as William Ellery Channing. This situation is understandable, especially since Channing and many others like him often protested the tactics and rhetoric of their more outspoken counterparts. An analysis of Channing’s works, however, shows that he was actually fairly close ideologically to the Garrisonians, even while he deplored their sharp denunciations of slaveholders.
The historiography of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States has, in the last decade, undergone some serious revision. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s landmark essay, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,”(Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 4, p. 1233-1263, March 2005) argued for both lengthening the time period of the Civil Rights Era (making it a struggle from the 1930s until the 1970s) and spreading out the movement spatially (going beyond the American South and seeing it as a problem with various fronts all over the country). Since that essay appeared in the Journal of American History, additional arguments by Peniel Joseph have pointed to the complex and varied relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power ideology. For both Hall and Joseph, and other historians (such as Robert Self, Jeanne Theoharis, and Thomas Sugrue, as three key examples) it has become imperative to show the Civil Rights Movement as a struggle that went beyond the Mason-Dixon line and lasted from the New Deal era until the rise of New Right conservatism in the late 1970s.
On New Year’s Day, many older fans of television were saddened to learn of the passing of James Avery. The African American actor was best known for his role as Philip Banks in the hit 1990s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With his passing, people all over the internet began to talk about their love for the television show, which became a vehicle for Will Smith in his pursuit of greater fame. However, many zeroed in on their respect and admiration for the character that Avery played in the series. Philip Banks was a tough, no-nonsense judge in California who, married to Vivian Banks and raising several children, was an example of an African American man who lived out his own version of the American Dream. What I’d like to do in this short post is think about the ways in which The Fresh Prince portrayed the Banks family and their relationship to larger trends about Black politics and Black intellectual thought in the early 1990s.