First off—Happy Black History Month! Traditionally my favorite time of the academic calendar as a young boy, Black History Month offers plenty of new things for everyone to learn. As intellectual historians, we should think about African American History Month in context of the ongoing struggle to make black history central to American history. Our colleagues and friends over at Black Perspectives have already offered provocative pieces on the history of black history. Today I wish to offer a bit to chew on regards to how we think of post-World War II African American history.
June 16 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Stokely Carmichael’s use of the phrase “Black Power” at a rally in Meredith, Mississippi. This was an important moment in the history of post-World War II American intellectual history—something that we are still dealing with today. There have been several intriguing essays about Black Power posted on the web this week, and I hope you check a few of these links out.
This semester I am teaching an African American History course, and today’s lecture was about the differences between the two understandings of the civil rights movement—the standard one that is part of the American civil religion, often referred to as the “classical” or “heroic” period; and, as Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Kevin Mattson have called it, the “harder” history of the “long civil rights movement,” a history that fits much less easily into nationalist pieties of progress and respectability.
This was a poignant lecture because of today’s date: April 4th is the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis in 1968 (see Robert’s post yesterday). And all yesterday and today as I reviewed and revised my notes, and especially as I re-read Hall’s essay “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” what ran through my head was a little saccharine ditty from August 1968, Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Written as a tribute to King and Robert Kennedy—who had also been assassinated in June—it lined them up with Bobby’s brother and Abraham Lincoln as fallen icons of racial justice and compassion. An extremely simple song with a haunting melody, each verse went something like this:
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people
But it seems the good die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone.
The song was very popular and it must have had an impact on my father—who was, I believe, an eleven-year-old in ‘68—for it was through this song that he first described the civil rights movement to me when I was probably five or six, singing it from memory. Continue reading
Guest Post by Holly Genovese
Last weekend, Albert Woodfox walked free after 43 years of incarceration, much of which was spent in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. Woodfox, alongside Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King, has long contended that they were unfairly incarcerated because of their association with the Black Panther Party.
I have spent the better part of three years writing about Woodfox, Wallace, and King. My interests began in the Black Power origins of the Angola 3 and their connections to the New Orleans Black Panther Party. But as I continued to write about the Angola 3, I started to argue for an intellectual history of the Angola 3. Knowledge creators and producers don’t have to be in positions of power and in fact the Angola 3 follow in a long line of incarcerated writers and artists using art and intellectual pursuits to gain power. The Angola 3 have done just this. By writing and participating in art projects the Angola 3 have attempted to change narratives about the Black Panther Party and its aims, as well as the perceived guilt of Albert Woodbox and Herman Wallace in the 1972 murder of prison guard Brent Miller.
Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D Savage, editors. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Review by Lilian Calles Barger
When thinking of black women in history, Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston, or Pauli Murray may come to mind. Going further back into the nineteenth century, we may think of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, or any number of authors of slave narratives. Their actions impress us. However, we are less likely to think of these women as forming a subfield of intellectual history. Black women usually show up alongside white women and black men fighting for political rights and rarely stand alone as a group of thinkers. Mia Bay and the editorial team of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women want to change that. They have brought together a strikingly good collection of essays presenting us with a sampling of a neglected field of thought. The collection came about through a series of interdisciplinary meetings begun at Rutgers University in the spring of 2002. All sixteen essays focus on black women in the diaspora of North America, the Caribbean, and Africa as subjects of critical thought and articulators of ideas. In defining this focus, the authors demonstrate the particularity of black women’s thought at the intersection of race and gender. The aim of the editors is to bring attention to a stream of thought that remains largely unrecognized in intellectual history.
Recent weeks I’ve attempted to lay out an intellectual history of African American thought since the late 1960s, leading up to the concurrent Ages of Obama and Ferguson. While today’s post is a slight detour from that, my thoughts today about the relationship between intellectual history and Black Power history add to greater thinking about how we as intellectual historians should not hesitate to ask new questions when thinking about African American, or for that matter American, intellectual history. Indeed, my experience at South Carolina’s Media and Civil Rights History Symposium will inform my own work for years to come.
The most recent issue of the Boston Review includes a provocative review essay by Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. In the essay, Kennedy assails what he interprets as a recent historiographic trend that praises the exploits of prominent Black Nationalists Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. Kennedy’s reviews of Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Peniel Joseph’s Stokely: A Life, and Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s Black Against Empire¸ all reveal a discomfort with the praise the books offer for these complicated historical figures. For Kennedy, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton were nothing more than, at best, misguided young men handed a prominent media stage too early in their lives. At worst, they were Black Nationalists who accomplished little and, in fact, rendered more harm than good to the greater African American freedom struggle.
Daniel Matlin. On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 350 pages.
Review by Aaron Pride
The African American experience in the United States has been full of pitfalls and perilous challenges. These obstacles have been particularly daunting for African American intellectuals and scholars that have aimed to represent the race to the American public. In On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis, Daniel Matlin, professor at King’s College, examines African American intellectual life through the experiences of Romare Bearden, Kenneth Clark, and Everett Leroy Jones. He describes these men as, “down on the streets of black America and so uniquely positioned to convey to white audiences the physical, social, and emotional realities of life in black urban communities.” Intellectuals have been responsible for interpreting and articulating the meanings of American civilization to the masses and the public. Matlin asserts that this holds true for African American intellectuals and their relationship to black people. He argues that the emergence of the black public intellectual in the 1960s, “inaugurated a new phase in the history of black intellectual life, one in which long-standing notions of racial representation and responsibility were reformulated around the task of interpreting and transforming-black urban communities.” The intersection between racial obligation and intellectual proclivity proved to be a difficult balancing act for African American intellectuals.
Ebony magazine’s October 1965 issue featured a long story by Louie Robinson on the Watts riots of August of that year. Robinson, reporting on the riots and their aftermath, expressed surprise that such an event could occur in Los Angeles. “Race relations, measured by the national yardstick, have been among the best,” he wrote. Yet he, and many Americans regardless of race or color, were surprised. “Harlem or Chicago, yes; Birmingham, maybe; but never, never Los Angeles. It was the wrong time and the wrong place. Los Angeles Negroes had—theoretically—everything but a fair housing law,” which Robinson reminded his readers did exist until being eliminated by California voters in 1964. It seemed that the “long, hot summers” that began the previous year in places like Philadelphia had spread to the unlikely West Coast city of Los Angeles. The riots themselves, however, exposed a fault line between the police and young African Americans that people in the Los Angeles area, and especially Watts, were already concerned about. Wrote Robinson:
Recently I came across a brief but very rich historiographic essay by Vincent Harding, “Power From Our People: The Sources of the Modern Revival of Black History,” published in The Black Scholar (Jan/Feb. 1987). Harding’s essay was originally delivered as a lecture during a summer seminar for college instructors hosted by the African-American World Studies Program of the University of Iowa. I’ll be discussing the essay today in connection with my own research, and my colleague Robert Greene will have more to say tomorrow about how the essay connects to his research interests.
I found Harding’s essay in a search for scholarship that could speak to the significance of Ebony magazine in Black intellectual life. Specifically, I was looking for work that could shed some light on the role Ebony played in providing a forum for Afrocentric classicism or Afrocentric histories of Western civilization.