Forty years ago CBS aired the miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 bestseller in which he traced his own ancestors back to West Africa, followed them to the United States as slaves, and took them forward into freedom. For the first time, a massive audience—roughly half the country’s population—confronted slavery and its legacies through an African American perspective. Roots prompted Americans to search out their own ancestors, particularly in subsequent years as digitization and personal computing brought resources to searchers’ fingertips.Now genealogy’s popularity—attested by the success of ancestry.com and the television show Who Do You Think You Are—makes it tempting to forget that we often shape our ancestors ourselves, even at the expense of historical evidence. Professional historians, in fact, were quick to point out fictions within Roots, a charge Haley accepted by originally calling his book a work of “faction.” I (re)learned this lesson about historical memory myself when it almost derailed the project that became my book, Atlantic Bonds.
The outcome of this nineteenth-century emigration movement offers little comfort for those who would leave today. At least half of the African Americans who settled in West Africa perished of tropical diseases, while others struggled to eke out a living. And they were not welcome there. Though they called their colony Liberia and touted “the love of liberty” in their official motto, the settlers’ encounters with local Africans were marked by violence, condescension, and—ironically—conditions not unlike slavery.
We have celebrated the theme of Community for the past several days with our sibling publishers in the Association of American University Presses’ #UPweek. Today we invite you into our own virtual rolodex to introduce you to just some of the many partner organizations with whom we have collaborated to make many of your favorite books and journals possible.
To some degree, all of the contributors to this volume are engaged in some form of what might be called “activism,” though almost no one will apply the label to themselves or their work. They may call it “community service,” “community building,” or, as I prefer, “community engagement.” Or they may resist labels by not calling it anything at all. All, however, are rooted in the understanding that their research and teaching need to have a material impact on the world outside of the work the academy recognizes. The challenge, then, is to think through the implications, through the risks and stakes.
John Hammond’s knack for discovering talent was so uncanny, so unparalleled in the history of American music, that it’s regularly celebrated. It is, however, rarely examined. Perhaps, that’s because scrutiny can come off as suspiciousness poisoned by ungratefulness.
Poverty may have won in the end, but this outcome was not inevitable. Innovative projects sponsored by the federal government in the 1960s put poor people to work providing needed services in their communities and helped to lift many participants into the middle class.
Early record men, therefore, most resembled movie producers, not movie directors. Ultimately, their control derived from the power to grant or to deny access to capital. “I invented Louis Armstrong,” said Ralph Peer in a 1959 interview with Lillian Borgeson.
Trump voters are not likely to look to African American history for help in making sense of their situation or forging solutions, but if they did they might find that they have more in common with black Americans than they thought. In the mid-twentieth century, rural communities in the South—and their predominantly black labor force—experienced processes of displacement and decline that foreshadowed those that afflicted white workers in later decades.
Published in the New Yorker, the long piece meditated on American racism, seeing white prejudice as arising from the reality that the “white man’s masculinity depends on a denial of the masculinity of the blacks” and that therefore the nation subjected the “Negro” to many “horrors.” After reading the essay, Kennedy had reportedly contacted Baldwin and sought the meeting because he wished to hear “fresh” ideas on “coping with civil rights problems.” If he had invited only the older and more moderate celebrities, such as Lena Horne or Harry Belafonte, it seems unlikely that the meeting would have ended as it did, in frank disagreement and an acrimonious exit. But the presence of Jerome Smith, a participant in the southern Freedom Rides that continued to press for the desegregation of buses and stations, had raised the stakes.
In 1969 the Pensacola NAACP’s Youth Council listed “police brutality” as one of their two primary concerns for the coming decade, and numerous incidents supported their claim into the 1970s.
Don’t let Melania Trump’s Monday night speech be your guide to what Michelle Obama said in 2008. Instead, keep listening. There is more to learn than who borrowed what words.
Paris is only a five hour drive from my home in the Netherlands. I have strolled its streets many times, undoubtedly also those covered in blood after the November 2015 attacks. I have also passed through San Bernardino, California, and have stood regularly at the former World Trade Center site. Yet as I commemorate those victims of religious terrorism, I cannot but remember my meetings with black civil rights activist Bob Moses and his colleagues of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their haunting tales of life in Mississippi in the 1960s wryly challenge some politicians’ and media pundits’ current claim to exclusivity for the term “terrorism” only in relation to Islam, reminding us that the most bloody and consistent trajectory of terrorism in the United States occurred under the banner of white supremacy.
Today the film Free State of Jones opens in theaters across the United States. Historian Victoria E. Bynum, whose book of the same name helped inspire the film, has been making media rounds this week, talking about what the New York Times has called “the first Hollywood drama to come with footnotes.” Director Gary Ross comes correct on the history in this project, so historians, enjoy! Here are four ways you can celebrate the opening of the movie today.
After the 2015 riots in Baltimore and elsewhere, I was struck—though not surprised—by many of the media’s depictions of its black inhabitants, as if they were irrational, self-defeating hoodlums, rather than emphasizing stories like that of Wayne, one of several hundred students in Baltimore’s public schools who participate in the Algebra Project (AP). Wayne had been kicked out of several schools until his AP involvement made him realize “what I can do inside of school and how I can help other people.”
My mother and her only sibling, my aunt, are losing their memories. Though their short-term memory has all but disappeared, their shared memories of childhood still remain vivid. One of their neurologists described the brain’s storage of memory and the onset of dementia as a file cabinet, with the most recently filed folders disappearing first, and the ones stored long ago as the last to go.
In January 1973, an African American EHS student and her mother asked for a permanent injunction against the school’s images. They did not file a new lawsuit; instead, they appealed under the Augustus v. Escambia School Board integration order on the basis that the symbols represented “symbolic resistance” to a court-ordered unitary school system. Winston Arnow, a federal district court judge, agreed. In a fourteen-page opinion, he called the Confederate icons “racially irritating,” declared they “generated a feeling of inequality and inferiority among black students,” and proclaimed them “a source of racial violence” at EHS. Because the county school board failed to resolve the conflict, Arnow reasoned, it violated earlier school desegregation mandates and he issued a permanent injunction against the “Rebels” nickname and all related imagery. His decision was not without precedent.
Some writers have noted the presence of the “southern gothic” or the “southern porch” in Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s visceral visual album Lemonade. But the landscapes are unambiguously part of the geography of Louisiana; the visual album is haunting because of its specificity to place. Barely visible, in the discussion thus far, is the history of slavery—and its remnants—all over the landscape of the album.
It was a cold, rainy December afternoon when my wife finally asked the question: “Who was Virgil Lusk?” It was a fair question. After all, I had dragged her around Asheville’s historic Riverside Cemetery for well over an hour trying to locate his grave. With each grave adorned with a miniature Confederate battle flag, my frustration mounted. Lusk was a Confederate soldier. So why was my strategy of driving toward those flags not producing any results? Was his flag missing? Who was Virgil Lusk?
But this current conversation is not the first time Americans and political leaders have attempted to talk honestly about slavery. In the 1930s, the federal government began an unprecedented and revolutionary discussion of slavery and its legacy by hiring unemployed writers to interview the last living generation of African Americans to have experienced slavery. The Federal Writers’ Ex-Slave Project sparked conversations between direct descendants of Confederate slaveholders and former slaves. This project, with its radical objective of recovering and reclaiming African Americans’ experiences with slavery and freedom, along with its failings and limitations, has much to tell us about why conversations about the past of slavery remain so difficult for Americans today.
Sixty years after the battle, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a triumphant hymn to the “embattled farmers” of Concord, Massachusetts who gathered at the “rude bridge that arched the flood” underneath “their flag to April’s breeze unfurled” and “fired the shot heard round the world.” Emerson solemnized the “spirit that made those heroes dare / to die, or leave their children free.” Emerson’s imagery added to the already thick layers of mythology surrounding the events of April 19, 1775, fusing together nature and nation to craft an American pastoral patriotism. Ever since, when Americans think about the start of the Revolution, it is Emerson’s chorus—of heroic white colonists fighting to preserve their liberty—that plays in the background of this nationalist legend.
But that wasn’t how some people thought about the events of that night. In fact, race played a role in how people reacted to the Lexington Alarm.