U.S. Intellectual History Blog

African Americans and Intellectual History in 2015

The year 2015 has provided plenty of fodder for conversations about race and American intellectual currents. Peter Wirzbicki’s piece on history and the idea of “hope” was a wonderful cap to a fascinating year of writing on history and race. Between the continuing Black Lives Matter protests, the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates (and the responses he provoked from across the intellectual and political spectrum), the debates over Hispanic immigration, arguments over Confederate memorials, and the place of Muslims in America, questions of race and identity dominated national discourse in 2015. Here I’d like to provide a brief recap of some of these debates. By no means will this be comprehensive. Far from it—I will focus mostly on debates about African Americans and intellectual history. In fact, I encourage readers to add important pieces they read on race and intellectual currents in modern American life in the comments.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, as well as his October 2015 piece on mass incarceration and the African American family, both became fodder for numerous essays on race and American democracy. Andy Seal’s writing on Coates’ book provided a look at the importance of family in Coates’ work, and how it is both similar and different to black_lives_matterthe importance of familial relations in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. As I’ve written elsewhere, the responses by Randall Kennedy were an attempt by the Harvard Law professor to salvage a liberalism that both accepted the continued need to fight against institutional and structural racism, while also crafting a memory of the past that privileged the Civil Rights Movement over the Black Power Movement. Indeed, memory was at the center of conversations about race in American society in 2015.

Memory of the American Civil War was at the heart of many of these conversations about race. The Charleston shooting—something that hit far too close to my adopted home here in South Carolina—became the occasion for national soul-searching about the memorialization of the Confederacy. For decades, historians have talked about the memorialization of the “Lost Cause” and its ties to the forging of a new white supremacist order in the South (and across the nation) after the Civil War. But this scholarship took on a new relevance with the actions of Dylan Roof and the outcry over the continued flying of the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina.

The fact that the Charleston terrorist shooting coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests meant that, during the summer at least, the nation experienced a long-overdue debate about Confederate memorialization. Our blog was party to some of those debates, with both Tim Lacy and Ben Alpers writing about the issue. A society’s intellectual and political health can be measured, in some ways, by how it re-thinks its own memorials and memory over time. Without robust, informed debate about how the nation sees its past, it is doubtful substantial debate about the nation’s future can occur.

Looking back on 2015, the usefulness of social media as a way to discuss history with the broader public became clearer than ever before. Hashtags such as #Charlestonsyllabus and #Mizzousyllabus (about the campus protests at Missouri and elsewhere across the nation) allowed historians to cobble together useful reading lists that helped to explain how we arrived the state of race relations in 2015. With #Charlestonsyllabus even generating a book, due for release next year, it’s clear that there will be a place for social media in the arsenal of publically engaged historians. The death of civil rights leader Julian Bond was also the occasion for thinking back about previous eras of struggle over racial justice–and bond deniedhow far there is to go.

As a historian, I know better than to try to make any predictions for next year. But campus protests, born of numerous causes both national and local in origin, will likely continue next year. Mississippi’s state flag will also continue to contain the Confederate battle flag into 2016. But it is safe to say that intellectuals, pundits, and journalists will also continue to wrestle with questions of race, identity, and American life next year—and the long, complicated relationship between African Americans and the idea of America will be near the heart of those debates.