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.
The previous week has occasioned serious reflections on the idea of public intellectuals. Two events have contributed to this: first, the Ta-Nehisi Coates post that argued for Melissa Harris-Perry as America’s “foremost public intellectual”, and second, the death of poet and activist Amiri Baraka. Both events called for people to consider ideas about African American intellectuals in the public sphere, and how those individuals carve a space for themselves. While the situations are profoundly different, there is something to think about when comparing Baraka’s place as a public intellectual in the late 1960s, versus Harris-Perry and present-day notions of public intellectuals.
PBS has recently finished up their miniseries, “Many Rivers: The African Americans.” Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the miniseries offered an overview of Black American history from the era of slavery and colonization until Barack Obama’s election in 2008. It was an interesting look at a fascinating aspect of American history, and featured plenty of historians both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. With the series wrapping up, however, I find myself asking questions about the present and future of Black American history. This isn’t to say that the series didn’t do a good job. On the contrary, I found it to be both an excellent analysis of Black American history and a showcase of where most of the (popular, at least) scholarship is at this moment. But I do find myself wondering where the field of Black American history can go from here, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thinking about discussions in recent days about American Studies, Christopher Lasch, and the various cultural and intellectual wars over the last thirty years, I’m always thinking of new ways to view old topics. So, while today’s post won’t deal in particular with those topics I’ve just mentioned, I hope to provide some further food for thought about general themes that the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians have dealt with both on the blog and at the recent conference. It’s also a chance to put together some thoughts that have been spurred by still-forming research questions in my mind.
The response of the Black Left to Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual reflected, in many ways, the uncertainty facing many Black intellectuals in 1967. Confronted with “white backlash”, the rise of Black Power, the retreat of liberalism, and the dilemma of Vietnam, Black intellectuals (especially those on the Left) found themselves trying to grapple with a future full of both potential and serious pitfalls. However, Cruse’s work, which was quite personal in attacking many Black intellectuals who still held serious influence on the Black Left, elicited a variety of responses. While it would be a mistake to assume they were all positive or (more believable to assume) all negative, the reviews of Cruse’s book in Freedomways, Motive, and other organs for Black intellectuals showcased a diversity of thought influenced by then-contemporary crises in ideology and vision.
The works of Black American intellectuals since 1965 have been shaped by a growing awareness that the place of Black Americans within larger American society is always in flux. After the major victories for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, questions arose as to what Black Americans could do next to further cement their place as equal citizens and consumers in America. As I examined last week with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here, Black intellectuals began to think about a world after the Civil Rights Movement. For King, obviously, the battle for equal rights and economic justice was far from over. But he was also aware that the tenuous goodwill he and other civil rights leaders gained through 1965 from the mainstream press was beginning to wane by the summer of 1966. The rise of white backlash, feared by civil rights leaders and white liberals alike, finally came in 1966, voiced itself in the midterms that year, and would become a key part of American politics for the rest of the 1960s.
(Editor’s Note: this is the sixth, and last, in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. I expect, however, that he will be appearing on this blog in the future… — Ben Alpers)
Over the last few weeks, I’ve written on a wide variety of subjects related to the Black American Experience and American Intellectual History. Now I think it’s time to look towards the future, and look at several books that will be released in the next several months that deal with Black Americans and the era that Daniel Rodgers referred to as an “Age of Fracture.” Continue reading
Editor’s note: The following is a guest essay by Kurt Newman, PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara.
Whiteness as Intellectual Property: Some Notes Towards a History of Copyright Law’s Racial Unconscious
by Kurt Newman
As a left historian working on the history of intellectual property (IP), few recent events have been as heartening as the appearance of a special section of Jacobin magazine dedicated to the politics of copyright and patent law. Jacobin, as readers of this site surely know, has emerged in recent months as a force in new new left journalism, attracting deserved attention as a key site of a revitalized New York-based radical politics.
While IP was a big topic on the Left a few years back, attention to it has faded in recent years. I have had some worries that perhaps I have chosen to work on yesterday’s topic. The Jacobin IP forum relieves some of those anxieties, and also points to the need for further conversation.
To my mind, the best part of the Jacobin IP section is an excellent essay by the artist and critic Anne Elizabeth Moore on the often-neglected gender dimensions of IP. I urge everyone to read it—Moore is a wonderful writer and makes an ironclad case for the need to reorient discussion of IP around feminist priorities. Reading Moore’s essay led me to think about race as a missing term in the Jacobin forum. Thus, in the following section, I thought I would share some work I have done on that topic. Continue reading
(Editor’s Note: this is the fifth in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. — Ben Alpers)
Reading Andrew Hartman’s piece on his time in Denmark so far, one line in particular caught my eye. It was a quote from David Nye on the Danish outlook of the United States: “Danes have taken an increasing interest in American popular culture, which seems to them an exotic mix of personal freedom, informality, creativity, extreme wealth and poverty, glittering skylines, crime, oppression, African-American struggle, circus-like elections, rock and roll, religious fanaticism, the Wild West, and rags-to-riches success.” The three bolded words, in particular, caught my eye.
When talking and writing about American history there is one, iron-clad belief that I have always espoused: the centrality of the African American experience to understanding American history. This is in no way to minimize the many important stories within American history about a wide variety of peoples. It’s difficult to mention American history however, especially that of the 20th century, without talking about the “Black experience.” That term, “Black experience”, says very little about the rich diversity of African American history. It encapsulates so much as to nearly say little or nothing about figures as different as W.E.B DuBois, Hubert Harrison, Booker T. Washington, George Schuyler, Martin Luther King, or Ida B. Wells. But, I suppose, “Black experience” will have to do. At the very least it allows for exploration of the ways in which Black Americans came to grapple with their place in the American body politic. My posts a few weeks ago were an attempt to talk about a particular aspect of that “grappling”, if you will, when it comes to sports and civil religion. Continue reading
(Editor’s Note: this is the
third fourth in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. — Ben Alpers)
The noted writer Albert Murray passed away about two weeks ago. Since then, the media has devoted some (but not nearly enough, in my opinion) coverage of the man, his writings, and his particular ideological focus. Murray, you see, was the product of a unique intellectual and cultural moment in American history, one which I shall focus on today. The output of Murray’s career is unique and deserves to be examined, but for the purposes of today’s discussion, I want to focus on his landmark work, The Omni-Americans. Continue reading