Recently, I have been rereading Kenneth Clark’s famous commentary on inner-city poverty, Dark Ghetto. This time, however, I checked out the second edition instead of the first, discovering that the later edition, published in 1989, included a new introduction by William Julius Wilson.
This was an interesting choice – Wilson, an African American sociologist, published two books in the 1980s, The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged, which had received widespread acclaim. Credited with returning to an analysis of the “pathology” of the ghetto in a context of supposedly stifling political correctness, Wilson’s book had tried to revive an acknowledgement of the existence of a “culture of poverty” in black ghettos while keeping that analysis clearly tied to larger structural obstacles.
In some regards, Wilson seems like an entirely appropriate commentator for Clark’s classic study. Both sociologists attempted to navigate the uncertain waters of scholarly discussion about black poverty without committing either to a conservative or a leftist (as in, not liberal) perspective. In his introduction, Wilson revisits the controversies over the Moynihan Report and the idea of a culture of poverty, and, like Clark initially did as well, argues that Moynihan was misunderstood and abused by a series of accidental or willful misunderstandings. However, this continued defense of Moynihan, written in the midst of the Reagan era, seems misleading; obscuring the white backlash that ensued after the apex of liberal reform and failing to mention Moynihan’s own participation in early neoconservative thought, Wilson leaves us with the impression that Clark remained comfortable with Moynihan’s later elaborations on race, and both of their contributions should be regarded, therefore, as part of the same “school.” As I will discuss at the S-USIH conference in October, however, this is hardly the case – and so while Wilson’s introduction seems very appropriate on some levels, it seems clear to me that it also operated as an attempt to shape interpretations of what remains, to this day, a very contested issue.
And that got me to thinking about how often the intervention of the introduction has popped up in my research. Another eye raiser, for example, is Nathan Glazer’s introduction to the 1963 edition of Stanley Elkins’ Slavery. In this influential book, Elkins had used the archetypical image of Sambo, a child-like, subservient slave, to argue that slavery had so destroyed the egos and psychological health of slaves that their personalities lost all autonomy or integrity. This argument proved appealing to future neoconservative thinkers, like Glazer and Moynihan, who argued that the problems of poverty in black ghettos were in part distinguished from previous concentrations of poverty because of the still-lingering cultural devastation of slavery. (An emphasis which conveniently elided the more recent and ongoing history of structural and institutional racism.) Not surprisingly, Moynihan drew inspiration from Elkins’ Slavery while drafting the Moynihan Report two years later, and he is widely regarded as one of the primary influences on Moynihan’s conception of the “problem” of “black matriarchy.”
Moreover, there is also the classic introduction by the author(s), recounting the context in which they originally wrote and commenting on subsequent developments. As I posted about a few months ago, Glazer and Moynihan’s introduction to the 1970 edition of Beyond the Melting Pot is an excellent example of this dynamic, as they not only shed further light on their thinking in 1963 but spend an extraordinary amount of time articulating new arguments about the storm of political developments that occurred between the first edition and the second.
In all of these cases, the introductions serve, of course, as a guide for readers in how to interpret the following text. An otherwise unaware reader will learn from Moynihan and Glazer, for example, that by the late 60s black militancy had gotten out of control, in part because the liberal press irresponsibly slobbered all over them, and likewise nearly two decades later the same reader would learn from Wilson that Moynihan and Clark more or less agreed with one another. In both cases, however, each depiction was strongly contested at the time, and continues to be to this day. Presented in most cases as neutral if thoughtful commentaries on an important piece of work, these introductions actually operate as interventions in a debate that are at least as, if not more, argumentative as the original work.
So what can or can’t we conclude about the intent of an author – presuming she is still alive – on the basis of who pens an introduction to her text? For example, how much agency does the author have over how her texts are used as battlegrounds for contemporary struggles? Presumably Clark agreed to Wilson’s authorship of the introduction, but it does not follow that he was granted the power to closely edit the content or arguments. Book blurbs present a similar puzzle – what does it mean for a liberal author (like James T. Patterson, for example) to accept praise from a conservative publication on the back cover of their text? Or when a historian boasts having several prestigious scholars write a blurb, does that imply simply that she was happy to have the promotion or that she is sympathetic with their own scholarly and political interpretations? (For example, would you accept a positive book blurb from say, Gordon Wood? I don’t think I would.)
The interesting dynamic about introductions, forwards, and book blurbs is how they provide immediate pointers on how to situate the text on hand; the text itself, of course, remains the most important source, but who is praising that text and interpreting it alongside the author also speaks to the larger political and social context in which the text was created. Yet at the same time, this association is not always straightforward; Wilson, I think, was an appropriate choice to write an introduction to Dark Ghetto, but probably not for the same reason either Clark or the publishers intended – like Clark, Wilson maintained a faith that prejudices rooted in racism and individualism could best be overcome by a hard, but truthful look at the “pathologies” of the ghetto and their relationships to structural inequalities. Yet both, I would argue, would come to be proved wrong by subsequent events (which is partially what I will discuss in my paper).
But in any case, it is only because it relates to my own body of research that I could come to an informed argument about the significance of that introduction in the first place – which makes me wonder how many times I have read an introduction, unaware of the baggage it represents, and accepted too uncritically a certain interpretation of politics and the past because I was unaware that the introduction itself was engaged in a broader debate. Indeed, as a way of crafting relationships between interlocutors and intellectuals, the introduction is a powerful tool in determining historical memory and which side, or “school,” if you will, a text and author becomes associated with. So, it would seem, as with all texts, tread carefully and read critically!