U.S. Intellectual History Blog

New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition: An Editor’s Response

Editor's Note

Welcome, readers, to our special roundtable on New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition, edited by Keisha N. Blain, Christopher Cameron, and Ashley D. Farmer (Northwestern University Press, 2018). Please join our conversation in the comments! Thank you. —Sara Georgini

I would like to start by thanking Sara Georgini for organizing this roundtable and the Society for U.S. Intellectual History for hosting it on the blog. It is no exaggeration to say this volume likely would not exist were it not for the model this blog provided for the AAIHS blog, now named Black Perspectives. It was after writing a series of guest posts for S-USIH and seeing the vibrant intellectual community this blog fostered, both online and in person, that I created  AAIHS. Thank you as well to Andy, Peter, and Lora for their close reading and engagement with New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition in their respective posts.

As the introduction to the volume indicates, Keisha, Ashley, and I decided to put together this book after the first AAIHS conference in Chapel Hill in March 2016. Although the conference featured just a little over 100 participants, its size does not begin to speak to its influence. Featuring panels on topics such as “Performance, Space, and Movement in Africa and the Diaspora,” “Insurgent Knowledge Production and the Black Radical Tradition,” and “African American Education: Theory and Praxis,” the conference brought together some of the leading junior and senior scholars of black thought and culture across the country and helped establish  AAIHS as an organization that promotes black intellectual history both on and offline.

This volume’s title is taken directly from the theme of that first conference but its content also largely reflects the theme of our second conference held at Vanderbilt University in March 2017—Expanding the Boundaries of Black Intellectual History. For us editors, this expansion would come in many different forms—geographical, chronological, archival, and career stage.

I’ll begin with the latter point, which speaks to an observation from Peter’s piece. While every contributor to the volume is now a faculty member, when we began organizing the book, some were still graduate students and Rhon Manigault-Bryant and I were the most senior faculty members as associate professors. Our approach was similar to the larger approach of the African American Intellectual History Society, namely to publish great work no matter the authors’ career stage, institutional affiliation, or other traditional marker of status in the field. Too often, great scholarship goes unnoticed at conferences, in journals, in edited collections, and in monographs because the author is not a tenure-track or highly-visible professor  so we were excited to be able to highlight the work of new voices in the field of intellectual history.

We also hoped to push the boundaries of black intellectual history chronologically and geographically. The field has always tilted heavily in favor of exploring black thought and black thinkers in the 20th century and has focused most often on black intellectuals in the United States. We thought it was important to foreground  examinations of 19th century black intellectual history, hence the inclusion of Chris Bonner’s excellent piece on the politics of lawbreaking among black abolitionists and Guy Mount’s essay on black intellectuals’ perceptions of Frederick Douglass’s marriage during the Reconstruction era. The inclusion of Greg Childs’s essay on the category of slave conspiracies pushed the chronological scope of the book back into the 18th century while also expanding our geographical focus to include Brazil. Reena Goldthree’s essay likewise broadened the geographical focus of the book with her examination of Afro-Cuban intellectual Bernardo Ruiz Suarez, while Russell Rickford’s piece explored African American intellectuals in Guyana during the 1970s. These pieces all speak to the richness of the black intellectual tradition, a tradition that spans the entirety of American history and includes critical links between the United States and other parts of the African Diaspora.

Perhaps our most important intervention in this work is expanding the archive of intellectual history. I leave the “black” out of intellectual history in the last sentence because, like Andy, Peter, and Lora, I believe this book has much to teach all intellectual historians, not just scholars of black thought. Rhon Manigault-Bryant and Ashley Farmer’s essays are some of the most innovative in their use of non-traditional sources for intellectual history. In Manigault-Brayant’s piece “‘I Had a Praying Grandmother’: Religion, Prophetic Witness, and Black Women’s Herstories,” she argues for the existence of four “grand-matrilineal ways of knowing”—perspective knowledge, experiential knowledge, faith knowledge, and conjure knowledge—and notes that these forms of knowledge “are as valid a historical source as more traditional (written) forms of archival information” because of how they are used and their historical significance.[1] Grand-maternal epistemologies, she notes, can help expand the archive of black intellectual history and black women’s herstories.

The same is true of Ashley Farmer’s essay “Becoming African Women: Women’s Cultural Nationalist Theorizing in the US Organization and the Committee for Unified Newark.” Here Farmer explicates the complicated gender politics of women in the Black Power movement, noting that while black women participated in organizations that “espoused conservative gender politics” they were nevertheless able to ascend to leadership positions and redefine gender roles.[2] To uncover the political thought of women in the Black Power movement, Farmer relies on sources such as handbooks and advice columns. These sources might not make it into more traditional histories of American political thought and for Farmer, that is exactly the point. If we want to get beyond the interpretations of traditional intellectual histories, whether of whites or of black men, we need to think creatively and look for ideas wherever they might be.

While New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition is an important accomplishment arising out of AAIHS’s first conference, we do not view this book solely as the culmination of that event but rather the beginning of a conversation. By practicing a radical inclusiveness—both in who counts as an intellectual and whose intellectual histories count—by exploring time periods and regions that have received less attention, and by utilizing a novel source base, this volume, along with single-authored works by contributors and editors such as Keisha Blain’s Set the World on Fire and Ashley Farmer’s Remaking Black Power, has the potential to transform the fields of American and African American intellectual history for years to come.

[1] LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, ‘“I had a Praying Grandmother’: Religion, Prophetic Witness, and Black Women’s Herstories” in Keisha N. Blain, Christopher Cameron, and Ashley D. Farmer, eds. New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018), 118.

[2] Ashley D. Farmer, “Becoming African Women: Women’s Cultural Nationalist Theorizing in the US Organization and the Committee for Unified Newark,” Ibid., 177.

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  1. One of my great laments, as a founder of S-USIH and this blog, has been my structural inability, since 2016, to participate in AAIHS conferences. I made a commitment to higher ed staff work in 2012, and have scrounged to keep up even with S-USIH and in other arenas (OAH, HES). As soon as AAIHS comes to Chicago, or nearby, I’ll do everything I can to engage–whether as a conference attendee/goer, or perhaps through a paper or panel participation. In sum, I’m so glad that we’ve hosted this book in this space.

    As I continue to write (when possible), I take seriously the encouragement to expand “the archive of intellectual history.” Even more importantly (or as a result?), I try to think of hypotheses that can include and fully respect the participants in my stories—whether those participants were originally included or not. I want to tell stories that argue for, and about, visions and ideas that might forward the American and human project—being radically inclusive in the process. Yes, there’s a bit of Enlightenment thinking in there–some hope for a non-oppressive future that is marginally better, and not just treading water or polluting existing waters of human society. I think that this *New Perspectives* volume shares in that vision, while it also works with ideas and human thought. I look forward to reading it.

    Meanwhile, cheers for the production and the work that went into it. I hope the editors and all contributors had a nice celebration before returning to other projects. You deserve it. – TL

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