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.
The most recent issue of n+1 features a fascinating piece by Aziz Rana titled “Race and the American Creed.” Here, Rana argues for the need to understand the relationship between American ideas of race and ideas of its “creed,” that long-cherished idea of freedom and equality that, as Rana argues in his essay, has been built up by segments of American society since the Civil War. For politicians, it has been an effective tool to demonstrate America’s moral power to the world; for activists, however, it has offered a tolerant, equal vision of a nation crippled by racial, gender, and economic inequalities. His essay includes a useful reminder of the perils faced by African American radicals in confronting the American state during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In addition to Rana’s arguments I argue that intellectuals considering this history of the “American Creed,” along with the state of the modern American left, would be wise to look back to the 1990s and its trials and tribulations during the presidency of Bill Clinton. We should not discard the history of the New Left of the 1960s, or the splintering of the left in the 1970s. Nor are we anywhere near being done with researching the left’s many battles against Ronald Reagan and a resurgent right in the 1980s. But the 1990s do offer some interesting lessons for American intellectual historians (and, I would add, for intellectual historians of other nations too). Among the topics of the intellectual history of the 1990s that fascinates me is the creation of the Black Radical Congress, formed by African American intellectuals during the decade.
Since I started here at the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians’ blog in the summer of 2013 as a guest poster, I have come back time again to questions of the race and the South in the American mind. Even then, though, I had no expectation that such talk would eventually lead to analyzing the deaths of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, or a now-year long “Black Lives Matter” campaign. Closer to home for me, Columbia, South Carolina just experienced a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 18 (which, coincidentally, was the 152nd anniversary of the African American 54th Massachusetts’ Regiment charge on Fort Wagner). Held to uphold the “heritage” idea behind flying the Confederate flag, the group that converged on the Statehouse—outnumbered by counter-protestors, including the African American group Black Educators for Justice, which held their own rally earlier that day—the mixed group of Klansmen and women, along with Neo-Nazis, needed police protection to ensure their own security. No doubt the Klan has seen better days, especially in the South.
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.
Today is Pulitzer Prize announcement day. The big news will no doubt be the decision not to award a prize in fiction for the first time since 1977.
But of greater interest to this blog are three of the awards that were given.
The Pulitzer Prize in Biography went to John Lewis Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life.
The Pulitzer Prize in History went to the late Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which, in an unusual move, was originally nominated for the biography prize and moved over to History by the Pulitzer Board.
And the winner for General Nonfiction was Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Though Greenblatt is of course a literary scholar, this book, on the impact of the 15th-century re-discovery of Lucretius’s De rerum natura, is the most intellectual history-oriented of the bunch.
I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read any of these three books yet. Each is of some interest to me, though all are rather far removed from anything I’m working on at the moment.
Consider this an open thread to discuss the Pulitzer winners…and any even worthier books from the last year that you feel might have been overlooked.