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.
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