U.S. Intellectual History Blog

ASALH and the Continuing Mission of African American History

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History has, since it’ founding in 1916, used history as a tool in the struggle for African American freedom.  ASALH has had a long relationship with activism and the larger community, a relationship that makes it somewhat different from the other professional organizations discussed this week. This comes as no surprise to the readers of this blog. After all, the history of African American history (chronicled so well by historians such as Pero Dagbovie) is one of understanding that history, and the humanities, are never fully separated from the world in which they exist. Led this year by Daryl Michael Scott, professor of history at Howard University and a well-known scholar of intellectual history in his own right (his Contempt and Pity is still the most important text we have on the history of “black pathology” and the academy), ASALH continues this tradition during a time in which “conversations about race” have taken on a new life of their own.

Carter G. Woodson’s objective when forming ASALH at the tail end of the Progressive Era was one of providing a space within which African Americans could develop their own history. ASALH, unlike the other professional organizations, also has a significant non-professional capacity. This means that the group also includes people who aren’t historians—whether they be undergrads who major in history, curious individuals not in the academy at all, and activists who utilize scholarship for their own causes. Whereas most professional organizations in history, and across the humanities, are devoted to the important goal of professionalizing historians, ASALH’s goals are also far more in tune with community concerns. This is, in no sense, an indictment of what other professional organizations do. It is simply recognition of how the goals of ASALH are different from, say, OAH or AHA.

Looking at the publication history of the Journal of African American History also provides us with a rich resource from which to understand the role of African American history in both the history profession and broader society. Flipping through the back issues of the old journal, stretching back to its days as the Journal of Negro History is a chance to see an alternate narrative of American, and African American, history in the twentieth century. It helped kick off, and still remains, part of a tradition of African American-run journals—I’m thinking of Phylon as another example, and Freedomways, Black Scholar, and Negro Digest/ Black World decades later—that provided a space in which black academics and activist-intellectuals could be published and debate each other. Just take a look at the first issue of the Journal of Negro History. The January 1916 issue included articles on why African Americans internalized inferiority (“The Passing Tradition and African Civilization” by Monroe N. Work) and an essay from the eighteenth century on black views of slavery (“What the Negro Was Thinking During the Eighteenth Century” by “Othello,” merely referred to as “a Negro” identified by Abbe Gregoire). The long tradition of the Journal of Negro History, and later the Journal of African American History, is one of a journal that pushed boundaries of the discipline of history, the boundaries of nation, and the relationship between the academy and outside activism.

ASALH’s also the only academic organization that also has local chapters. These chapters, located across the nation, include both academics and non-academics. Again, this is a reflection of a dedication to public scholarship and outreach. The academy may be racked by concerns about what constitutes being a “public intellectual,” but often it appears the members of ASALH are too busy to worry about that. For the sake of considering intellectual history, this is a point that cannot be emphasized enough. Intellectuals within the African American community have always had a different platform, and often a different mission, from their white counterparts. ASALH is an example of this difference—an organization of both scholars and lay people, devoted to African American history.

I had the pleasure of attending the 2013 ASALH conference in Jacksonville, Florida. The event itself was overshadowed by the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. The decision, seen by many African Americans as an insult to the memory of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, led to ASALH adding sessions to address the historical importance of the death of Martin. Last year’s conference included panels on the carceral state, and this year’s conference undoubtedly will include plenary sessions and panels about events in Ferguson, New York, and North Charleston (unfortunately, there are many more locations I could include here). While other conferences are addressing these same problems through academic scholarship and intellectual interrogation, what will make ASALH different is its openness to curious individuals from outside the academy.

This year’s conference is in Atlanta, and celebrates 100 years of the existence of the organization. Already, the JAAH has scheduled this year’s journal issues to cover different aspects of the organization’s history. Anyone interested in African American (or for that matter, simply American) intellectual history would miss out by not examining how scholars view the first century of ASALH’s existence. Without ASALH to provide a bedrock for budding African American scholars, it is difficult to image how the field of African American history would have developed before the educational and intellectual turning points of the 1960s and 1970s.