U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Towards a Sketch of Black Intellectual Traditions in 2015

The year 2015 has already proven to be an important one for the various intellectual viewpoints that form the African American intellectual tradition. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of several key events in American history revolving around race. As I’ve written elsewhere, how we celebrate or commemorate these events matters. Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” moment during the Selma voting rights campaign. The presence of an African American president, along with a former Republican president, civil rights activist-turned-Congressman John Lewis, and a cavalcade of dignitaries from both parties, made yesterday’s gathering an emotional commemoration of the last dramatic moment of the “heroic period” of civil rights activism.[1]

This follows on the heels of debate about the accuracy of the film Selma—accuracy of its portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and (perhaps more importantly) accuracy in regards to the role of grassroots organizers in Selma. It will be interesting to see how much attention is paid to the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts riots this August. Considering that the Watts riots were sparked by clashes between African Americans and the Los Angeles police, such a commemoration would be instantly tied to events last year in Ferguson, and the larger Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the nation in the last six months.

Civil Rights Movement commemorations—or memorials, or ceremonies, depending on who the audience is and who is sponsoring the events—can’t completely get away from partisan politics. The painful rail of American politics subsumed under the heading “race” is one that has vexed both political parties and been a headache for many political leaders, both before and after the Civil Rights Movement. Books about the crafting of civil rights memory have already begun to tackle the delicate politics of, say, remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. through a certain moderate-to-liberal political lens.

The growth and diversity of African American history and historians brings this all closer to home for us, as historians and scholars. Just yesterday, I was fortunate enough to participate in a Twitter conversation with the hashtag #BlkTwitterstorians. It was an attempt to link together African American historians in a friendly and scholarly social media space. As the exchange of book titles and academic topic ideas took place, I found it to be a refreshing use of Twitter for something other than political fights or talking about the big game (although, as most readers of this blog know, I participate in the latter quite often). Thinking about the new directions African American history is going in—the continued grappling with transnational implications for both African American and American history, new and sustained explorations of the intersections between gender and race, and most importantly (for my personal academic interests) the creation of a post-1968 African American history narrative—such a digital dialogue makes sense.

Furthermore, with this being the one hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH, taking stock of where African American history is and where it’s headed will be a task many American historians will need to take up. Let’s face it: if you deal with American history, there’s a very good chance you’re going to have to deal with African American history. This isn’t an attempt to make an argument for the exceptionalism of African American history. However, when respected thinkers both inside and outside the academy ask questions about the presence of public intellectuals, I’d ask them to look no further than the African American intellectual traditions—the various ways in which African Americans, inside and outside the academy, have tried to grappled with the major questions of American democracy.

Chernoh Sesay Jr.’s post from yesterday over at the African American Intellectual History Society blog made a fascinating argument about the importance of mining the past for “how ideas have reflected and shaped social identities, like that of the black intellectual.” As academics and intellectuals inside and outside the academy continue to probe the origins of current national ills surrounding questions of race, this problem of context becomes all the more important. The idea of the Black intellectual—indeed, of American intellectuals in general—spurs us on as intellectual historians. This question of where African American history, and intellectual discourse in general, is headed in 2015 is going to be the focus of an upcoming serious of posts from myself. The year 2015 promises to be an intriguing one in intellectual discourse on race. I look forward to fostering part of that conversation here at S-USIH.

[1] This is the phrase Peniel Joseph has attached to the 1954-1965 time period of civil rights activism, to give it some (but not too much) historical difference from the heavy Left influence on civil rights before 1954 and the turn to Black Power by many activists after 1965. He’s used this term in various publications, for example in his “The Black Power Movement: A State of the Field” essay for Journal of American History, December 2009, p. 751-776.

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