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
[The following is a guest post from our frequent guest blogger, Chris Cameron — BA]
Last week on the blog I discussed Phillis Wheatley and the origins of the black prophetic tradition. I would like to continue that discussion this week by exploring the ideas of another prominent black female thinker in early America, Maria Stewart. Unlike Wheatley, Stewart has received little attention from either literary scholars or historians, although her work continues the same prophetic tradition that Wheatley initiated and adds a sharp critique of the intersection of racism and sexism so prevalent in antebellum America. Continue reading
Recently Ben Alpers asked some pertinent questions about the study, or lack thereof, of Roots by historians seeking to understand the 1970s. Thinking back to that era also has me curious, but about a different cultural and political event: the 1983 March on Washington. Ostensibly to commemorate 20 years since the March on Washington of 1963, “March on Washington II”, as it was called in the pages of Ebony magazine and elsewhere, was an event in its own right. To understand it is to think deeper about the ideological debates occurring in the 1980s, as well as to understand how activists and intellectuals viewed, and used, memory of the 1960s in 1980s debates about race in American society.
Late last year, I asked what makes a book fall into obscurity. I had in mind F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West, which was, briefly, a sensation when it first appeared in 1946, but quickly became unknown, kept alive in a fairly obscure corner of public (and scholarly) memory largely by the fact that it was a major influence on Robert Pirsig, who mentions the book by name in his enormously popular philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). I was particularly interested in the fact that intellectual historians don’t much discuss Northrop and his book when we think about the mid-1940s (though I was delighted to discover in comments that some people are now thinking about Northrop some more).
I have just returned from spending four days working at the Alex Haley Papers at the University of Tennessee. Unlike F.S.C. Northrop, Alex Haley is a name that is almost certainly familiar to readers of this blog. My guess is that most of you could identify what are generally considered to be Haley’s two most significant works: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Roots (1976). For years, The Autobiography was far and away the most accessible entrée into Malcolm’s thoughts. Not surprisingly it’s been written about a fair bit as a result. Interest in The Autobiography seemed to increase following the great success of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), which formally presented itself as an adaptation of Haley’s book. Later in the 1990s, Harold Bloom produced a book in his Bloom’s Reviews series on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011)—discusses The Autobiography‘s creation in great detail.
But the popular success of The Autobiography of Malcolm X pales in comparison to that enjoyed by Roots, Haley’s story of his family’s history starting with Kunta Kinte, a Mandingo from the village of Juffure in what is now the Gambia, who was kidnapped into slavery in 1767 and eventually became Haley’s great great great great great grandfather. Continue reading
[Note: the following is a guest post by Christopher Cameron.]
Phillis Wheatley and the Black Prophetic Tradition
Phillis Wheatley’s reputation as an important prophetic voice for Africans and African Americans in the colonial and revolutionary eras has undergone a drastic transformation in the past two decades. Some of the first critics of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry claimed that she was irrelevant in the fight against slavery and racial oppression. Vernon Loggins, for instance, argued that her work “dwelt at length on the common notions of her day regarding liberty, but she neglected almost entirely her own state of slavery and the miserable oppression of thousands of her race.” Similarly, Rosey E. Poole claimed that if Wheatley “had had the strength to give all that was really hers, and not that which others had given her, she might have become a really important figure.” Poole argued that Wheatley was content to assimilate into white society rather than attempt to advance the cause of blacks. Continue reading
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