Many Americans currently sit on pins and needles waiting for the grand jury decision on the fate of Officer Darren Wilson and, by extension, the fate of the passions that have animated events on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri for months. However, the story of Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown didn’t happen in a vacuum. What is important to consider is how we got to this moment intellectually—something that exists in a much larger intellectual context. I’ll sketch that out today and in coming weeks.
Jonathan Scott Holloway. Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013)
Review by Robert J. Greene II
The intersection of memory and history has proven to be a fruitful enterprise for historians in recent years. An understanding of both is essential if scholars are to attain a proper (or at least as close to proper as possible) grasp of what both what life was like in the past, and how people thought and believed in that era. Often times, memory proves to be a forum for understanding the creation of shared traditions, customs, and identity. That is no less the case for African Americans, as Jonathan Scott Holloway argues in Jim Crow Wisdom.
I’m happy to add to LD Burnett’s wonderful post from yesterday detailing her experience with Ebony magazine—and Vince Harding’s exhorting scholars to pay attention to it—as part of her overall research. Today I wish to add to that, demonstrating how Ebony has also played a role in my understanding of several strands of intellectual history running through the early 1970s. Considering Ebony as a place of considerable debate over African American politics, culture, and history is, as the Harding article indicated, important for anyone attempting to understand elements of the Black experience.
Readers of this blog – and members of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History – will be excited by the arrival of a sibling society and blog: the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). The AAIHS was founded in February 2014 in order to “foster dialogue about researching, writing, and teaching black thought and culture.” In July, their blog went online and it has already become an active and interesting place. Among the regular contributors are two scholars who should be familiar to our readership: Chris Cameron, who has been a frequent guest blogger at USIH, and Lauren Kientz Anderson, who was a regular blogger for us.
I look forward to continuing to follow the AAIHS blog and hope that our blogs – and societies – can work together in the future!
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