Unless otherwise noted, all events listed below are taking place virtually.
Closing out our blog posts for Black History Month 2021, the following excerpt by P. Gabrielle Foreman is taken from The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (available March 2021), edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Lynn Patterson
The Black press served not only as a conveyer of information but as a convener of audiences and ideas; such papers not only announced Black literary societies and convention events, but they functioned as a virtual meeting place. The Colored American (1837–41) reported on Black reading culture and societies with gusto and dedication, printing their constitutions and the discussions that occurred “as if the reader were a participant,” as Elizabeth McHenry points out, “reproducing the experience of being present at a meeting in its pages.” These papers both shared conventions’ content and happenings and offered another form of and forum for participation. They carried copious coverage of pre- and postconvention activities and featured commentary, critique, and encouragement by and for a much larger audience than those who attended the meetings themselves. In Frederick Douglass’ Paper alone, at least fifteen convention announcements and editorials appeared in the summer and fall months that preceded the mid-October 1855 national meeting in Philadelphia, as Carla Peterson’s essay in this volume reveals. Calls themselves could initiate debates that had a force and life of their own, appearing only in traces in the official proceedings, however robust they may have been in the press’s columns. As Peterson points out, though engaged in a vociferous newspaper debate before the convention, frustrated that his point might not carry an argument, James McCune Smith sat out the otherwise star-studded 1855 convention. If scholars consult the proceedings isolated from other materials, they risk muting the very loud debate that sometimes served as convention prelude. The print participants, or print attendees, as we might call them, may not have been in the physical spaces where the meetings took place, but to ignore their role is to diminish an understanding of conventions’ wider circuits and circles.
Black convention culture existed in close relation to nineteenth-century Black print culture; indeed, one could argue that conventions were held in the press as much as they took place in the halls, churches, and buildings in which delegates and attendees gathered. Control over the news and the need for a national Black press were on the agenda of multiple convention gatherings. The Colored American, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, the Christian Recorder, and the New Orleans Tribune, as well as many shorter-lived Black news organs, provided delegates and participants with a way to report on conventions and their concerns. They offered access to Black women and men from cities and hamlets alike. By extending the conventions’ geographic and temporal reach exponentially, these convenings were designed to inspire discussions and to spawn—even demand—action beyond the time and place of their occurrence. Organizers were keen to spread the word; as political tacticians, they were attentive to the dissemination and communication of their message and the role of the press in keeping their issues alive.
Attention to print was embedded in committee structures and taken up as a subject during the meetings themselves. Conventions were to include a “Committee on Printing” or a “Publishing Committee” to actualize and formalize strategies for reaching audiences beyond the convention halls over decades. It’s useful to take an in-depth look at the Troy, New York, 1847 national convention, where a proposal by the “committee on a National Press” elicited sustained discussion and spirited debate. The details of this meeting are illustrative. When Henry Highland Garnet called the meeting to order and read the convention call, he welcomed seventy-five delegates hailing from nine of the country’s twenty-nine states. The delegates filled the seats at Morris Place Hall, joining others for 9:00–1:00 and 2:00–6:00 sessions for four full days. Douglass, now an author just recently returning from England, joined William Cooper Nell, James McCune Smith, William Wells Brown, Alexander Crummell, Charles Ray, William Allen, Charles Remond, James Pennington, Amos Beman, and Thomas Van Rensselaer, among others, while W. E. B. Du Bois’s grandfather, Othello Burghardt, a Massachusetts delegate from Great Barrington, as we recall, took in the debate. They elected as the convention’s president Nathan Johnson, at whose home Douglass, as a fugitive nearly a decade before, had first begun “to feel a degree of safety” and where Johnson helped him choose the name by which he’d become so well known.
Though the discussion about the ability to launch and sustain a national Black paper in the 1847 convention was spirited, there was little debate about the importance of the Black press in advancing the work of equal justice. Garnet staked the claim that “the most successful means which can be used for the overthrow of Slavery and Caste in this country, would be found in an able and well-conducted Press, solely under the control of the people of color.” Establishing such a “National Printing Press would send terror into the ranks of our enemies, and encourage all our friends,” he averred.Douglass, on the verge of launching his own paper, spoke in opposition and was joined, as Garnet noted sarcastically, by other “editors, who are, or are to be.” After Douglass spoke, James McCune Smith, who had served for a short time as the editor of the Colored American, rose to declare that having a national press was necessary to amplify and connect state efforts for political rights. The debate was heated, but by the end of the four-day meeting, “a resolution was adopted recommending” a national press, alongside Black papers that included the “ ‘Ram’s Horn,’ ‘Nation Watchman,’ ‘Northern Star,’ ‘Disfranchised American’ and ‘The Mystery,’ as worthy of the encouragement and support of the people.” In the records of such debates, not only is the political necessity of a Black press made plain, but networks of Black editors and activists and the existence and contexts of scores of Black newspapers are preserved.
Preorder any of the following titles and save 40% on all UNC Press books with discount code 01DAH40. Visit the sale page to browse more recommended titles in African American History, or view our full list of books in African American Studies.
White Evangelical Racism:
The Politics of Morality in America
by Anthea Butler
Available March 2021 | In this clear-eyed, hard-hitting chronicle of American religion and politics, Anthea Butler answers that racism is at the core of conservative evangelical activism and power. Butler reveals how evangelical racism, propelled by the benefits of whiteness, has since the nation’s founding played a provocative role in severely fracturing the electorate. During the buildup to the Civil War, white evangelicals used scripture to defend slavery and nurture the Confederacy. During Reconstruction, they used it to deny the vote to newly emancipated blacks. In the twentieth century, they sided with segregationists in avidly opposing movements for racial equality and civil rights. Most recently, evangelicals supported the Tea Party, a Muslim ban, and border policies allowing family separation.
Capitalism and Slavery, Third Edition
by Eric Williams
With a new foreword by William A. Darity Jr.; Introduction by Colin A. Palmer
Available April 2021 | Slavery helped finance the Industrial Revolution in England. Plantation owners, shipbuilders, and merchants connected with the slave trade accumulated vast fortunes that established banks and heavy industry in Europe and expanded the reach of capitalism worldwide. Eric Williams advanced these powerful ideas in Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944. Years ahead of its time, his profound critique became the foundation for studies of imperialism and economic development. William A. Darity Jr.’s new foreword highlights Williams’s insights for a new generation of readers.
Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD; FINALIST, 2020 PULITZER PRIZE IN HISTORY
Available April 2021 NEW IN PAPERBACK | Race for Profit uncovers how exploitative real estate practices continued well after housing discrimination was banned. The same racist structures and individuals remained intact after redlining’s end, and close relationships between regulators and the industry created incentives to ignore improprieties. Narrating the story of a sea-change in housing policy and its dire impact on African Americans, Race for Profit reveals how the urban core was transformed into a new frontier of cynical extraction.
How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence
by Robert G. Parkinson
Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press
Available May 2021 | In his celebrated account of the origins of American unity, John Adams described July 1776 as the moment when thirteen clocks managed to strike at the same time. So how did these American colonies overcome long odds to create a durable union capable of declaring independence from Britain? In this powerful new history of the fifteen tense months that culminated in the Declaration of Independence, Robert G. Parkinson provides a troubling answer: racial fear. Tracing the circulation of information in the colonial news systems that linked patriot leaders and average colonists, Parkinson reveals how the system’s participants constructed a compelling drama featuring virtuous men who suddenly found themselves threatened by ruthless Indians and defiant slaves acting on behalf of the king.
African Americans and the United States of Barbecue
by Adrian Miller
Available April 2021 | In Black Smoke, Miller chronicles how Black barbecuers, pitmasters, and restauranteurs helped develop this cornerstone of American foodways and how they are coming into their own today. It’s a smoke-filled story of Black perseverance, culinary innovation, and entrepreneurship. Though often pushed to the margins, African Americans have enriched a barbecue culture that has come to be embraced by all. Miller celebrates and restores the faces and stories of the men and women who have influenced this American cuisine.
The following excerpt is taken from the introduction to Regina Bradley’s Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South
While I do not suggest that hip-hop’s presence in the South is the sole marker of its contemporary existence, I do suggest that hip-hop is integral to updating the framework for reading the South’s modernity. Although southern hip-hop existed before OutKast, they are the founding theoreticians of the hip-hop South. Their lyrical whimsicality and sonic and cultural experimentation with their southernness situates them as the epicenter of recognizing a collective—though not monolithic—contemporary southern black cultural landscape. Further, OutKast’s moniker embraces their (initial) displacement in hip-hop and is an acronym for “Operating under the Krooked American System Too Long.” Their embodiment as outcasts can be read on multiple levels, including outcasts of hip-hop’s dominant northeastern aesthetics and outcasts as less-than-respectable young black men in the post–civil rights South. Yet OutKast still uses rapping as a tool signifying their existence as young black men, gauging hip-hop as a lens for contemporary scripts of blackness in the present while referring both to the past and the future to annotate their southernness. OutKast’s intentional disjuncture of their southernness from the space and time vacuums that often dictate how the South is understood shifts paradigms of modernity and urbanity to reflect the on-the-fringe narratives of southern blacks. OutKast pivots on the use of the South as a renewable source of cultural currency and agency for blacks.
Still, it was not lost on them or their Atlanta-reared and -based producers Organized Noize, consisting of Rico Wade, Patrick “Sleepy” Brown, and Ray Murray, that they needed to demonstrate their awareness of hip-hop’s identity as an urban cultural expression that could be used to reflect their experiences in Atlanta. It is important to note that before Organized Noize’s efforts to solidify Atlanta’s place in hip-hop, the city was already holding its own as a funk music capital: with the help of Bunnie Jackson Ransom, the former wife of Atlanta’s first black mayor Maynard Jackson, Atlanta was home to funk music stars like S.O.S. Band, Cameo, and Brick, many of whom migrated to Atlanta to become part of its exploding musical scene. Atlanta’s brand of funk intentionally teetered on the line between the sacred and secular, unafraid to blend the aesthetics of faith, trauma, and perseverance in vocal and instrumental performances. This is central to understanding Organized Noize’s brand of hip-hop production: Jimmy Brown, the father of group member Sleepy Brown, was an instrumentalist and lead singer for Brick and frequently took a young Sleepy Brown to gigs where he watched from backstage as his father and Brick performed.
As Atlanta grew more visible, so did its arts and culture scenes. While Atlanta was well aware of the hip-hop coming out New York in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the arrival of artists like the New York transplant MC Shy D or homegrown talent like Kilo Ali and Raheem the Dream that Atlanta started getting serious about hip-hop.
Even the crossover success of hip-hop acts of groups like Arrested Development and Kris Kross in the early 1990s did not use Atlanta as central to their identity. Arrested Development offered a Bohemian even utopian black southern narrative, pulling from the folk tradition that buoyed southern black cultural expression inside and outside of the South. For example, their hit song “Tennessee” offered a view of country or rural blackness as an escape—for example, playing horseshoes and sitting on the porch—from many of the struggles black folks continued to face in light of the efforts of the movement. Kris Kross relied heavily on their youthful swagger, rooted in their time cruising southwest Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall, where they were discovered by the Atlanta producer and artist Jermaine Dupri. Although rooted in a southern experience, Kris Kross’s handlers like Dupri were careful not to make them an act that would have only regional appeal. Intriguingly, however, Kris Kross’s signature aesthetic, wearing their clothes backward and thus suggesting an alternative performance of black boyhood and masculinity, subverts the long-held belief of black southerners as backward and makes it cool. Still, Atlanta remained in pursuit of a solidified hip-hop identity that featured their city’s aesthetics and experiences more directly.
Therefore, Atlanta hip-hop artists had a multilayered challenge: Where did hip-hop fit in a largely established narrative of Atlanta as a city of promise and progress for black people? How could hip-hop culture be used to move the South away from the largely held and commercialized legacy of Dr. King? More specifically, producers like Organized Noize and performers like OutKast were inadvertently tasked with the validation of what Imani Perry argues is a contemporary urban South, the creation of a “unique meeting ground of the traditional, the old and new, plus the ‘same old, same old.’”
Regina N. Bradley is an alumna Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow at Harvard University and an assistant professor of English and African diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University.
“In her superb contribution to the history of the South, Cox targets the massive influence of the United Daughters of the Confederacy on Southerners in the late 1890s and beyond, especially in the area of monument building . . . . This is an invaluable study of all-too-frequently misplaced genealogical and regional venerations. Highly recommended for U.S., antebellum, Civil War, African American, and Southern historians and scholars, and for all readers. —Library Journal (Starred Review)
Award-winning historian and author Karen Cox will be touring (virtually, unless otherwise noted) to discuss her new book, No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, which examines the long history of Confederate monuments from those first built after the Civil War to the protests against them in the summer of 2020.
UPCOMING 2021 EVENTS (links forthcoming)
Minnesota State-Mankato, February 25, 2021
James Weldon Johnson Institute, Emory University, March 1, 2021
North Carolina Commission on Racial & Ethnic Disparities, March 25, 2021
Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, Inc., Chicago, IL, April 12, 2021
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC, April 13, 2021
Malaprops Bookstore, Asheville, NC, April 14, 2021
Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC, April 15, 2021
Park Road Books, Charlotte, NC, April 20, 2021
UNC Charlotte, UNC Press “As a Matter of Fact,” April 22, 2021
“Engrossing. . . . This clear and thorough account, essential for Southern libraries, is likely to become a standard reference work on its subject. . . . A well-documented history of Confederate monuments and the conflicting views they inspire.” —Kirkus Reviews
Karen L. Cox is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her other books include Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture and Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.
Guest post by Dr. Shardé M. Davis, editor of an anthology of #BlackintheIvory experiences coming 2022 from UNC Press. Also included below are details regarding an open call for stories to be considered for inclusion in the book; deadline is March 15, 2021.
On June 6, 2020, I created the viral, Twitter hashtag #BlackintheIvory to document the overt and covert racism that Black academics (“Blackademics”) across disciplines experience across their academic tenure. Black in the Ivory™ has opened the door for thousands of Blackademics around the globe to share their stories of anti-Black racism in the academy, so much so that the hashtag was in the top 20 trending hashtags on Twitter in the US that weekend. The origin and impact of the “hashtag turned movement” has been featured in over 50 news outlets including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Nature, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Since then, I have been invited by institutions of higher education from around the world to discuss the origin of my idea for the hashtag, my experiences with racism as a Black woman faculty person and the anti-Black racism work that I have done at my home institution, my research on resistance and resilience and its place in current discussions of anti-Black racism, and prescriptions about what people can do to enact change. I recently relaunched the Black in the Ivory website at the opening of Black History Month, and at that time announced a host of exciting ventures! They include a new beta community called Blackademic™ Social Network. This idea birthed out of the rise of the #BlackintheIvory hashtag and seeks to address a critical need for Blackademics to have our own, closed space to communicate, exchange resources, and have some fun along the way. Additionally, the new website announced the resurgence of the Bless a Black Graduate Student Project, which is a matching program where anyone (from anywhere) can send money to Black graduate students via an e-payment app. Black graduate students sign up on the website and their information is collated into a publicly accessible spread sheet, making it easy for anyone to find them on the list and send them a monetary blessing.
In addition to these exciting ventures, I announced a new #BlackintheIvory edited book! The idea for this edited volume was conceived almost immediately when the hashtag went viral. Individuals were referencing and quoting the #BlackintheIvory tweets during summer institutes and workshops on social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And in Fall 2020, faculty were assigning the tweets as course curriculum. The tweets were not necessarily intended for white gaze or white consumption, but were getting used as such. The need for a book on #BlackintheIvory was evident and multiple university presses were interested in making that happen; but, UNC Press became the book’s home.
For this book, I am curating a volume of personal stories from Blackademics to reveal the through line of how anti-Blackness and racism eats its way through the ivory tower and offer prescriptions about how academic institutions—and its individual members—might make lasting change. In this collection, Blackademics will share their stories of anti-Black racism: when conducting undergraduate research, applying to graduate school, working with a faculty advisor, entering the job market, attending academic conferences, publishing journal articles, teaching majority white students in the classroom, applying for promotion, being the only Black person (or even person of color) in a department, and so much more.
Open Call For Stories
Black students, faculty, and administrators (“Blackademics”) have an opportunity to be a part of the book! There’s an open call for stories where individuals can share specific, personal experiences of anti-Black racism and/or anti-Blackness in the American university. Go the website www.blackintheivory.net to read the entire “Open Call for Stories” and see the link to submit a story.
- Submit a 150-word vignette about a specific, personal experience of anti-Black racism and/or anti-Blackness in the American university.
- Blackademics who are currently attached to the university or were at one point in the past are all welcome to submit.
- Vignettes must be submitted via the google form to be considered for the book.
- One submission per person. Submission Deadline: March 15, 2021, 11:59pm Eastern Time.
- Stories can be anonymized!
- I (Dr. Davis) will use these vignettes to determine which ones will be in the book, which ones will remain 150-words, and which ones will get expanded.
- Everyone who contributes to the published volume will receive a complimentary copy of the book; individuals asked to compose longer narratives will receive a book and an honorarium.
Head to the Black in the Ivory website to submit your stories and learn more details about the other exciting opportunities that support Blackademics!
Dr. Shardé M. Davis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and a faculty affiliate of the Africana Studies Institute and the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) at the University of Connecticut.
Save 40% on all UNC Press books with discount code 01DAH40. Visit the sale page to browse more recommended titles in African American History, or view our full list of books in African American Studies.
Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South
by Regina N. Bradley
This vibrant book pulses with the beats of a new American South, probing the ways music, literature, and film have remixed southern identities for a post–civil rights generation. For scholar and critic Regina N. Bradley, Outkast’s work is the touchstone, a blend of funk, gospel, and hip-hop developed in conjunction with the work of other culture creators—including T.I., Kiese Laymon, and Jesmyn Ward. This work, Bradley argues, helps define new cultural possibilities for black southerners who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s and have used hip-hop culture to buffer themselves from the historical narratives and expectations of the civil rights era. André 3000, Big Boi, and a wider community of creators emerge as founding theoreticians of the hip-hop South, framing a larger question of how the region fits into not only hip-hop culture but also contemporary American society as a whole.
Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Revised and Updated Third Edition
by Cedric J. Robinson
In this ambitious work, first published in 1983, Cedric Robinson demonstrates that efforts to understand Black people’s history of resistance solely through the prism of Marxist theory are incomplete and inaccurate. Black radicalism, Robinson argues, must be linked to the traditions of Africa and the unique experiences of Blacks on Western continents, and any analyses of African American history need to acknowledge this. To illustrate his argument, Robinson traces the emergence of Marxist ideology in Europe, the resistance by Blacks in historically oppressive environments, and the influence of both of these traditions on such important twentieth-century Black radical thinkers as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright. This revised and updated third edition includes a new preface by Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, and a new foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley.
At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, & Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C.
by Tamika Y. Nunley
The capital city of a nation founded on the premise of liberty, nineteenth-century Washington, D.C., was both an entrepôt of urban slavery and the target of abolitionist ferment. The growing slave trade and the enactment of Black codes placed the city’s Black women within the rigid confines of a social hierarchy ordered by race and gender. At the Threshold of Liberty reveals how these women–enslaved, fugitive, and free–imagined new identities and lives beyond the oppressive restrictions intended to prevent them from ever experiencing liberty, self-respect, and power.
The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War
by Van Gosse
In this meticulously-researched book, Van Gosse offers a sweeping reappraisal of the formative era of American democracy from the Constitution’s ratification through Abraham Lincoln’s election, chronicling the rise of an organized, visible black politics focused on the quest for citizenship, the vote, and power within the free states. Full of untold stories and thorough examinations of political battles, this book traces a First Reconstruction of black political activism following emancipation in the North. From Portland, Maine and New Bedford, Massachusetts to Brooklyn and Cleveland, black men operated as voting blocs, denouncing the notion that skin color could define citizenship.
Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War
by Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor
By focusing on the myriad strategies of black protest, including the assertions of gendered freedom and citizenship, this book tells the story of how the basic act of traveling emerged as a front line in the battle for African American equal rights before the Civil War. Drawing on exhaustive research from U.S. and British newspapers, journals, narratives, and letters, as well as firsthand accounts of such figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Wells Brown, Pryor illustrates how, in the quest for citizenship, colored travelers constructed ideas about respectability and challenged racist ideologies that made black mobility a crime.
The following excerpt is taken from Robin D.G Kelly’s new foreword to Black Marxism: The Making of a Radical Tradition, Revised and updated Third Edition by Cedric J. Robinson
Racial capitalism has been the subject of a robust body of scholarship and has become virtually a field unto itself since the re-publication of Black Marxism. In fact, the term has become so commonplace in Left circles that when the neo-Marxist philosopher Michael Walzer confessed his ignorance of “racial capitalism” in the pages of Dissent, social media lit up, shaming and schooling the professor for being a political and theoretical luddite. Walzer’s response, however, is typical of a number of leading Marxist thinkers who have dismissed as insufficiently anti-capitalist the decade-long uprising against state sanctioned racialized violence, mass criminalization, political disfranchisement, deportation, pipeline expansion, and starvation wages for fast-food and service workers. Racism, like heteropatriarchy, they argue, is not constitutive of capitalism but operates alongside capitalism—an added irritant, as it were—to oppress particular subgroups and divide the working class. When Alex Dubilet questioned the Marxist geographer David Harvey for ignoring or sidelining racialization in the “historical and material story of capitalism,” especially since “the most intense mobilizations [in the United States] against the capitalist order” were aimed at anti-Black police violence,” Harvey replied that race was simply not part of the logic of capital accumulation. There was nothing inherently anti-capitalist about antiracism, he wrote, adding, “I don’t see the current struggles in Ferguson as dealing very much in anti-capitalism.” Similarly, in a short essay published six months after Cedric’s death, Walter Benn Michaels declared,
It’s not racism that creates the difference between classes; it’s capitalism. And it’s not anti-racism that can combat the difference; it’s socialism. . . . You don’t build the left by figuring out which victim has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims. When it comes to the value of universal health care, for example, we don’t need to worry for a second about whether the black descendants of slaves are worse off than the white descendants of coal miners. The goal is not to make sure that black people are no sicker than white people; it’s to make everybody healthy.
Just to be clear, to insist that capitalism has always operated within a system and ideology that assigns differential value to human life and labor does not mean that hiring Black cops or incorporating Black elites into the existing power structure will hasten racial capitalism’s demise, or bring us closer to achieving a pure “color-blind” capitalism. Cedric Robinson never subscribed to this idea, and the movements who find inspiration in his work certainly don’t believe it. So Walzer, Benn Michaels, Harvey, and others are not only attacking straw people but also failing to grasp how the logics of racism fundamentally shape both capital accumulation and the role of the state. We know, for example, that Black people around North St. Louis County took to the streets of Ferguson not only to demand justice for Michael Brown Jr. but also to protest a predatory system of policing that used citations, fees, fines, and arrest warrants to extract millions of dollars from mostly poor, Black, overpoliced communities while extending generous tax abatements to corporations, stripping public schools and essential services of much-needed revenue. And they were fighting for the basic right not to be beaten, tortured, or killed by police (whose raison d’être is to protect property and maintain order). We also know that universal health care, a fundamental long-standing demand of the Black freedom movement, will not by itself magically abolish the conditions that produce racialized health inequities, nor will it guarantee equal, bias-free treatment for patients. Just on a descriptive level, we can plainly see that capitalism does not operate from a purely color-blind market logic but through the ideology of white supremacy. We see it in the history of the policing of Black and Brown communities, land dispossession, displacement, predatory lending, taxation, disfranchisement, and environmental catastrophe; in racial differentials in wages and employment opportunities; in depressed Black home values; in the exclusion of Black people from better schools and public accommodations for which they are taxed; and in the extraction of Black labor and resources to subsidize white wealth accumulation. And we recognize a neoliberal variant of racial capitalism that involves dismantling the welfare state; promoting capital flight; privatizing public schools, hospitals, housing, transit, and other public resources; and the massive growth of police and prisons. These policies have produced scarcity, poverty, alternative (illegal) economies regulated through violence, and environmental and health hazards.
Cedric revealed exactly how racial capitalism “creates the difference between classes” and why antiracism is fundamental to “combat the difference.” He begins by dismissing the myth that capitalism was the great modernizer giving birth to the proletariat as a “universal class.” “Instead,” he writes, “the dialectic of proletarianization disciplined the working classes to the importance of distinctions: between ethnics and nationalities; between skilled and unskilled workers; and . . . between races. The persistence and creation of such oppositions within the working classes were a critical aspect of the triumph of capitalism in the nineteenth century.” Just as the Irish were products of very different popular traditions borne and bred under colonialism, the “English” working class was formed by Anglo Saxon chauvinism, a racial ideology shared across class lines that allowed the English bourgeoisie to rationalize low wages and mistreatment for the Irish.
Building on the work of the Black radical sociologist Oliver Cox, Robinson challenges the Marxist idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism. Instead, he argues, capitalism emerged within the feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism. Robinson does not argue that the modern racism originating in the seventeenth century was the same thing; rather, he argues that hierarchies based on constructed “racialized” difference were already in place prior to the emergence of capitalism. Capitalism was “racial” not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or to justify slavery and dispossession but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. The first European proletarians were racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma, Slavs, etc.), and they were victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery within Europe. Indeed, Robinson suggests that racialization within Europe was very much a colonial process involving invasion, settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy. Insisting that modern European nationalism was completely bound up with racialist myths, he reminds us that the ideology of Herrenvolk (governance by an ethnic majority) that drove German colonization of central Europe and “Slavic” territories “explained the inevitability and the naturalness of the domination of some Europeans by other Europeans.” To acknowledge this is not to diminish anti-Black racism or African slavery but rather to recognize that capitalism was not the great modernizer giving birth to the European proletariat as a universal subject, and the “tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones.”
Robin D. G. Kelly is an American historian and academic, who is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA. He is the author of many books, including Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression.
Cedric J. Robinson (1940-2016) was professor of Black studies and political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include The Terms of Order, An Anthropology of Marxism, and Forgeries of Memory and Meaning.
Guest post (unrolled from a thread that appeared originally on Twitter) by Edward E. Curtis IV, author of Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975
The history of the Nation of Islam helps to explain why some U.S. African Americans do not want a foreign substance injected in their arms. As COVID Black and others have revealed, the horrible impact of COVID19 has had on Black people is due to the health care system’s anti-Black racism as well as social and economic racism.
Any “cultural explanation” that blames Black people for vaccine hesitancy repeats racism. The assault on Black people’s bodies is a pillar of U.S. culture. And since forever, Black people have developed cultural, social, political, and economic strategies—from root work to community organizing—to protect the Black body. I see vaccine hesitancy as one of many attempts to resist racist abuses of Black people’s health. My view is influenced by my work on how protecting, caring for, dignifying, and strengthening the body were among of the Nation of Islam’s most popular activities.
Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam had a complete program that included a holy diet, beautiful clothes, physical training, sexual proscriptions, mental exercises, time management, and business to heal the body and mind from internalized oppression.
Much of the program featured on the gender of members, and the Nation of Islam offered its Islamic version of middle-class Black respectability and what Ula Taylor called the promise of patriarchy. In addition to a Black Muslim ethics of the body, the Nation of Islam’s leaders preached a terrifying mythology that identified white-dominated science, medicine, and health care, including eugenics, as a primary abuser of Black people.
The horrors of twentieth-century medical science—forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and Nazi experiments—began in primordial time when the big-headed, mad scientist Yakub engineered the white man. This was “stigmatized knowledge” (Barkun) hidden from Black people: Yakub recruited ‘‘doctors, ministers, nurses and a cremator,” he “ordered the nurses to kill all black babies . . . by pricking the brains with a sharp needle as soon as the black child’s head is out of the mother.’’ If the mother was watching, then the nurse was to lie to the mother and claim that the baby was an ‘‘angel child’’ that must be taken to heaven. The child would then be fed to ‘‘wild beasts,’’ or if none was available, ‘‘Yakub told the nurses to give it to the cremator to burn.’’ The message that the white medical establishment and its medical technologies and therapies could harm Black people had staying power.
Wu-Tang Clan’s Gravel Pit samples lines from a movie: “You, Yakub, are the bearer of 9,999 diseases, evil, corrupt, porkchop-eatin’ brain!”
The case of the Nation of Islam’s approach to white medicine is just an illustrative example, one branch of a larger tree that explains how grassroots medical knowledge is a rational and also aesthetic, affective, imaginative, world-remaking response to racism. Please add to it.
Edward E. Curtis IV is Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts in Indianapolis. He is the author of The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora and Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975, among other books.
Guest post by James Smethurst, author of the forthcoming Behold the Land: The Black Arts Movement in the South.
One fascinating and frightening aspect of our current moment in the United States is ways that history has been brought to the fore of contemporary political conversations and policy. The heated, sweeping, and seemingly endless debates over the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission at all levels of civil society are remarkable to me , and sometimes raise more questions than answers. The Black Arts Movement (BAM) and its sense of the mythic nature of history might be able to help navigate the murky path between true versus pseudo-history, and also illuminate what feels true to an audience or community. That is to say that BAM was deeply invested in the questions of how, for whom, and to what ends history is used.
A seeming contradiction of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s is that it was deeply engaged in thinking about tradition and ancestry, but not much in history and historical art as chronicles and memorials of events. Black Arts was generally very focused on the frame for understanding history, but less preoccupied with recounting those events. (There were, of course, exceptions to this, such as the historical poems of Sam Cornish.) For the most part, when Black Arts activists did take up what we might consider to be key milestones and movements of the historical past, such as the Middle Passage, they foregrounded the mythic dimensions of those events in such a way that the Black shaping and interpretive frame was foregrounded so that Black audiences were able to connect with the artistic works on very basic levels. As Larry Neal wrote of Amiri Baraka’s play Slave Ship, “The episodes of this ‘pageant’ do not appear as strict interpretations of history. Rather, what we are digging is ritualized history. That is, history that allows emotional and religious participation on the part of the audience.”
One reason for this, perhaps, is that Black Arts participants to some degree felt relieved of the responsibility for being actual historians in the sense that many Black artists before them had been. The field of U.S. history with respect to anything to do with African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by white males who were racist, either by omission or commission, such as U.B. Phillips, the dean of historians of the antebellum South, and “Dunning School” and its presentation of Reconstruction as a time of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and easily manipulated or savagely violent Black freed men and women, needing the social discipline of Jim Crow. The mainstream historians’ organizations, notably the American Historical Association, were indifferent, when not actually hostile, to Black (and radical) scholars.
This is to say that these circumstances often inspired in Black artists a particular sense of obligation to use their craft to present a narration and interpretation of historical events (e.g., Nat Turner’s revolt, African American participation in the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era), that intervened in the telling and study of history and even historiography. At the heart of these interventions was the desire to show African Americans as historical agents whose efforts were aimed specifically toward the liberation of African Americans in particular and the expansion of U.S. democracy in general. One can see this history and historiographical imperative among Black artists as far back as the nineteenth century. Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy was as much a Black re-visioning of the proto-Bourbon accounts of the slave era, the Civil War, and Reconstruction as it was a call for African American unity in the face of the segregationist assaults on the legacy of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s turn of the twentieth century poems of the Civil War and the Black soldiers, such as “The Colored Soldiers” and “W’en Dey ‘Listed Colored Soldiers” were in much the same vein as were the African American historical pageants, notably W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1915 Star of Ethiopia, during this period.
With the rise of Black Studies in the 1960s and 70s and a new generation of Black Power/Black Arts-influenced Black historians writing and publishing accounts and narratives, Black artists shifted their foci toward historiography and the mythic shape of history. “What was the form of slavery/what was the form of jim crow/& how in the hell wd they know…” asks a late Black Arts era poem by Ntozake Shange that she included in Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo.
This notion of history as myth might give us some insight into the obsessive efforts of Donald Trump and the Republican Party to overturn, repeal, and erase policies associated with Barack Obama. Some of this obsession had do with actual practical opposition to socialized medicine, environmental initiatives, labor rights, immigrant rights, and so on. Some of it no doubt had to do with Trump’s obsessively jealous comparison of his popularity with that of Obama. However, it seems to me that what Trump and his base objected to was the meaning of Obama, which is not simply the possibility of Black citizenship, but Black power and Black self-determination, or the myth or vision of a nation state in which such power and the ability to control one’s destiny as a people is a fundamental part of the United States. As seen in the 1776 Commission, the alt right and contemporary white nationalism is at least as much a vision of history, and the telling of history (or historiography), of a “white” republic built on both a certain kind of exclusion, expulsion, and extermination, but also, as the New York Times registered in its 1619 Project, an inclusion based on Black subservience. So it strikes me sometimes that one of the greatest influences of Black Arts on our moment is not only how it has profoundly marked how everyone in the United States understands what art is, what and who art is for, and how it is supported and produced, but on the debates about what it means (and has meant) to be a citizen in the United States. The question of how we read the past, what ideological, spiritual, and emotional frames we use has everything to do with our understanding and telling of the present and future. Black Arts and Black Power not influenced how many of us approach history and historiography in a positive way, but they also exist as a negative vision, a fear drawn on by white nationalists and their enablers from the former President on down as noted and predicted by Public Enemy, a group born out of Black Arts, Black Power and Black Studies at Adelphia University, in Fear of a Black Planet:
What is pure? Who is pure?
Is it European? I ain’t sure
If the whole world was to come through peace and love
Then what would we be made of?
James Smethurst is W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American History at University of Massachusetts Amherst. His books include The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance and The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.
The University of North Carolina Press heartily congratulates William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kristen Mullen for the inaugural Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s 2021 Book Prize recognition of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. Among its countless, notable accomplishments, the ASALA are the Founders of Black History Month.
You can view the virtual presentation of the ASALH Book Prize here.
About the ASALH Book Prize: The Association for the Study of African American Life and History will award an annual prize to recognize an outstanding book in the field of African American history and culture beginning in February 2021. A call for submissions went out in Spring 2020 and the selection committee received over sixty eligible books, all of which engaged archival sources while representing many disciplinary and interdisciplinary orientations.
In broad term, the ASALH Book Prize committee is interested in monographs that model rigorous and imaginative approaches to this field of study; books that are beautifully written; books that have clear implications for how we teach and represent specific aspects of African American history and culture; books that have the capacity to introduce important aspects of African American experiences to broad publics; books that use sharp analyses of African American history and culture to speak boldly to the contemporary moment; books that engage new and/or previously underutilized archives; and books that use particular experiences in African American history and culture to illuminate universal aspects of the human experience.
For the inaugural year, the ASALH Book Prize selection committee included five jurors: Ula Taylor, University of California-Berkeley; Gerald Horne, University of Houston; Kellie Carter-Jackson, Wellesley College; Elizabeth Todd-Breland, University of Illinois-Chicago; and Christopher Tinson, Saint Louis University. This selection committee received and read sixty-one books and chose five finalists:
- Daina Ramey Berry & Kali Gross, A Black Women’s History of the United States, Boston: Beacon Press, 2020
- William Darity, Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020
- Aston Gonzalez, Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020
- Shana Redmond, Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson, Durham: Duke University Press, 2020
- Quito Swan, Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environment Justice, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020
In light of Black History Month’s annual coinciding with Presidents Day, the following excerpt relevant to that reality is taken from The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas by Adrian Miller.
“You know, the White House is really modeled after a plantation big house.” Chef Walter Scheib startled me when he said this during our first telephone conversation on 12 October 2010. It wasn’t because of concerns over the accuracy and clarity of his statement but because he said it to someone he really didn’t know. That’s just one of the reasons why, since his tragic death, I really miss the chance to delve more deeply with him into the complicated racial history of the presidential kitchen. Just like the white paint that is periodically applied to the White House exterior to cover up the scorch marks left when the British set the building afire in late August 1814, the retelling of White House history frequently masks the stain of slavery. This is maddening stuff given how deeply the legacy of slavery permeates the building, its grounds, and the entire city. Washington, D.C., was carved out of swampland from two slaving states (Maryland and Virginia), the land was donated by planters who were enriched by tobacco slave labor, slave labor was used to construct the building, and slaveholding presidents and enslaved people lived and worked there.
Before we focus on what happened within the White House’s walls, it helps to understand what antebellum black life was like in our nation’s capital during the nineteenth century. For most African Americans, it was miserable. Washington, D.C., was a slaving city, and the incidents and badges of slavery were omnipresent: enslaved people were sold at spots throughout the city, slave coffles moved regularly about the streets, slave pens dotted the cityscape, and enslaved people busily constructed many of the city’s buildings and much of its infrastructure and did a wide range of activities associated with forced servitude. D.C. operated under its own set of “Black Codes.” Such laws constrained the liberty of both enslaved and free African Americans. For example, the city’s 1808 Black Code enforced a 10 P.M. curfew on all African Americans that, if violated, was punishable by a fine. In the 1812 iteration of that particular code, enslaved people who violated the curfew were whipped with forty lashes. Free black people were also fined and could be jailed for up to six months if fines went unpaid. During this time, no black person could step on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol unless they had documented official business.
Black Codes were designed to preserve a racial social order and, at first, were slowly enacted after enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. As the number of enslaved Africans dramatically increased in the eighteenth century, Black Codes proliferated in slaving states. The Black Codes, white racism, and white resistance to black progress combined with a cruel efficiency to constantly remind African Americans of their second-class status. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any social event in nineteenth-century Washington, D.C., that didn’t have an African American somehow involved in every aspect from start to finish. This included buying supplies at the market and preparing and serving the food and drinks. As one historian noted of the time period, “Nearly every distinguished family in Washington had colored servants, butlers and cooks and entertained lavishly. White servants and cooks came later.” Black hands—enslaved and free—wove the fabric of social life in the nation’s capital, and black people, widely considered by whites as inherently bred for servitude, were integral to cementing a white family’s social status as an elite household. Our presidential families were no exception, and this chapter delves into how slave labor powered the White House kitchen and nourished our presidents and, in one case, a future president. We’ll peer into the lives of people we can name (Hercules, James Hemings, and Mary Dines) and many whom white society didn’t feel obligated to identify by name in documented accounts of daily life at the White House.
Adrian Miller is a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge and recipient of a James Beard Foundation Book Award for Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. A consultant on Netflix’s Chef’s Table BBQ, Miller’s next UNC Press book is Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue (April 2021).
Happy Douglass Day! This year, DouglassDay.org has dedicated part of the annual recognition of Frederick Douglass’s adopted February 14th birthday date weekend celebration to recognizing the life and work of Mary Church Terrell.
Part of this celebratory weekend has included a virtual group effort to transcribe, read, and teach the papers of Terrell, a pioneering Black activist and leader, in order to enrich her archives and make them available for future generations.
A biography of Terrell, Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell by Alison M. Parker was published in December 2020 by UNC Press. The following is an excerpt taken from the book’s introduction.
Mary (“Mollie”) Church began her life in an era of cruelty, tumult, and hope. She was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee, some ten months after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In spite of having been born into slavery, she grew up in a privileged household. She learned to use her class privilege, education, light skin color, and cross-class and cross-race connections tactically to work on a wide range of social justice and civil rights issues. From young adulthood on, Mollie Church Terrell became an educator, journalist, public speaker, organizer, and civil rights activist. She brought her energy, leadership, and determination through to the post–World War II Civil Rights Movement. After winning a 1953 legal challenge to District of Columbia segregation in the Supreme Court, Terrell lived just long enough to see the Court issue its 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Unabashedly ambitious and passionate about social justice, Terrell claimed that she would have run for a U.S. Senate seat to pursue her civil rights agenda if not for the barriers that blocked African American women from attaining such positions of political power. In spite of such limitations, by the time of her death in 1954, Terrell had become one of the most prominent black women in the nation. One of the first African American women to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree in 1884 from Oberlin College, Mollie Church taught at Wilberforce University and then moved to Washington, D.C., to teach in the well-respected M Street Colored High School. In the 1890s, her role as an educator led to her appointment as the first black woman on the District of Columbia’s board of education. In 1896 she was elected as first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Terrell helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She became a paid speaker on the black and white lecture circuits, published newspaper articles, served as the only African American delegate to two international women’s conventions in Europe (which she addressed in fluent German and French), picketed the White House for woman suffrage, helped create the Woman Wage Earners’ Association during World War I, and was a founding member of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races. In the 1930s, she was active in the NAACP’s Washington, D.C., branch, joined with the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense on behalf of the Scottsboro Nine, worked as a clerk in Democratic New Deal agencies, and campaigned for Republican Party candidates. In the 1940s, she helped A. Philip Randolph organize the March on Washington Movement, initiated a lawsuit to integrate the American Association of University Women, and supported striking black cafeteria workers who were resisting signing anticommunist pledges. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Terrell spoke before congressional committees in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also chaired two important committees affiliated with the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a communist front organization. One committee demanded freedom for a black sharecropper, Rosa Lee Ingram, and her sons, who had struck out in self-defense but had been convicted of murdering her white male assailant. The other committee’s direct-action protests and legal challenges successfully dismantled segregation in the nation’s capital the year before Brown v. Board of Education. Over her long life, Mollie Church Terrell’s range of activism and alliances was extraordinary, and yet she has never before been the subject of a full-length scholarly biography.
Unceasing Militant tells a comprehensive life story of a woman who inhabited many worlds and whose life provides a timeline of civil rights activism from the 1890s through 1954. Flexible about her activist approaches, she moved back and forth from moral suasion to militant action on a case-by-case basis, always in service of her unflinching commitment to equal rights. In the 1890s, for example, she was likely to be organizing a meeting of an African American literary society, attending a black women’s club meeting, lobbying against lynching, and participating in a suffrage meeting. In the 1930s, she was likely to be playing bridge with friends, attending a union gathering, eating at an interfaith luncheon, still lobbying Congress for antilynching legislation, and attending an evening meeting of the NAACP. Terrell always approached the problems confronting African Americans and women from a number of angles at once, and her varied activities demonstrate her indefatigable energy as well as the value she placed on participating in multiple overlapping reform groups to achieve her goals of equality and justice for all.
Alison M. Parker is department chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware.
The following excerpt is taken from The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War by Van Gosse, now available from UNC Press.
“We are Americans. We were born in no foreign clime.…
We have not been brought up under the influence of other, strange, aristocratic, and uncongenial political relations. In this respect, we profess to be American and republican. With the nature, features and operations of our government, we have been familiarized from youth; and its democratic character is accordant with the flow of our feelings, and the current of our thoughts.…
We call upon you to return to the pure faith of your republican fathers. We lift up our voices for the restored spirit of the first days of the republic—for the great principles then maintained, and that regard for man which revered the characteristic features of his nature, as of more honor and worth than the form and color of the body in which they dwell. For no vested rights, for no peculiar privileges, for no extraordinary prerogatives, do we ask. We merely put forth our appeal for a republican birthright.”
—Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the State of New York, To Consider Their Political Disabilities, “Address to the People of the State of New York,” August 1840
One hundred thirty-four men representing thirty-three of New York’s fifty-seven counties issued this manifesto, which became the exemplary black political text of the antebellum era. Their unprecedented gathering built on a statewide drive for “equal suffrage” in the nation’s premier electoral arena. Probably authored by the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, a twenty-four-year-old fugitive and now a well-educated Presbyterian minister, their “Address” set the terms for the next generation. Aimed at white Whigs and ex-Federalists for whom Jacksonian Democracy meant mob rule, it mixed familiar patriotic tropes with nativist disdain for those “born in foreign climes” who had brought with them “strange, aristocratic” habits. The “appeal for a republican birthright” reminded New Yorkers that black men voted in the Empire State from 1777 until 1821, when most were disfranchised by a “freehold” property qualification, meaning real estate worth $250. Above all else, however, Garnet evoked a declension from “the pure faith of your republican fathers.” With supreme audacity, he claimed for black men the Revolution itself, “the first days of the republic” and “the great principles then maintained,” before modern corruption set in.
Yet this first statewide black convention, the dozens of conclaves it inspired over the next twenty years (statewide meetings from Maine to California, including ten in New York), and the movement represented at those conventions, are now largely unknown, eclipsed by stories of slave resistance and the Underground Railroad. Consider the best-known speech by a black American in this period, Frederick Douglass’s 1852 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”: “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? … I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.… The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.… This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” Douglass’s antipatriotic excoriation has been quoted dozens of times as the authentic voice of black alienation. How could it be otherwise? How could black people declare “We are Americans” as long as slavery drove the nation’s economy, laws, and politics? From that perspective, Garnet’s 1840 address seems irrelevant or deluded. What kind of “republican birthright” could a slave hope to share?
In defiance of the notion that slavery defined African Americans, northern free men of color, led by self-emancipated slaves like Garnet and Douglass, made the claim “We are Americans” over and over. Douglass’s 1852 oration was a provocation, one of the things he did best. By then, he was an international celebrity whom even Negrophobes flocked to see. Speaking to whites in Rochester, he pressed upon them the republic’s inevitable damnation while slavery persisted. They wanted Douglass’s lash, and they got it, in high style. But his views speaking to his peers one year later conformed exactly to the terms Garnet set out in 1840. In July 1853, Douglass presided at the Colored National Convention in Syracuse, and chaired the committee that drafted its address “to the People of the United States.” This document repeated the 1840 language almost verbatim, with a dollop of aggressive Protestantism for good measure: “We are Americans, and as Americans, we would speak to Americans. We address you not as aliens or exiles … [but] as American citizens asserting their rights on their own native soil.… We ask that, speaking the same language and being of the same religion, worshipping the same God, owing our redemption to the same Savior, and learning our duties from the same Bible, we shall not be treated as barbarians.
Van Gosse is professor of history at Franklin and Marshall College.
Guest post by Waldo E. Martin, co-editor (with Patricia A. Sullivan) of the John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture
Over two decades ago, when Pat Sullivan and I began talking with editor Lew Bateman about starting a new series at UNC Press that would publish transformative and engaging work in African American History and Culture, we were wary and cautious. We were of course deeply honored to be asked to consider taking on such a huge and important task. In our “heart of hearts,” we admitted that we wanted to take on the series, but were we right for the job? Was this indeed a job that we should assume? Were we up to the task?
Acutely aware of the range and depth of the amazing body of historical scholarship in the field, especially since the groundbreaking work of the 1960s and 1970s, we spent a great deal of time thinking about the prospects and possible perils of such an undertaking. Equally important, we consulted a wide range of scholars, mostly historians, for their assessments of the need for such a series. Those consultations greatly encouraged us. Many agreed that such a series could realize the potential UNC Press had already demonstrated as a major publisher in the field of African American history (both Pat and I had published our first books with UNC). Similarly, those consultations confirmed our sense that the new series we envisioned would both tap into a rapidly expanding body of innovative historical scholarship and complement existing and comparable series in African American History.
We both looked up to John Hope Franklin as an iconic figure, a scholarly giant, a highly influential public intellectual: a world-famous American historian, one of the truly great American historians of the twentieth century. His original and insightful scholarship transformed national and global historical understanding. Fortunately for us, the John Hope that we were coming to know as a friend was kind, generous, and fun to be around. When he encouraged us not only to undertake the series, but agreed to have the series named in his honor, the deal was sealed. We will never forget the celebratory dinner Lew Bateman hosted with John Hope, Barbara Savage, one of the first authors to publish in the series, and us at the legendary Magnolia Grill in Durham to mark the official launch of the John Hope Franklin Series.
Looking back, editing the series continues to be an incredible experience. The works in the series continue to be first-rate and influential. Working behind the scenes with such an extraordinary cast of authors to help them realize their scholarly-intellectual innovations has been tremendously inspiring and fulfilling. Approaching its 25th anniversary, the more than 60 books (and counting) that comprise the John Hope Franklin Series reflect the creativity, daring, and breadth of outstanding scholarship that has established African American history as one of the most vibrant and formative fields of historical study. Drawing on a range of disciplines, the books in the JHF Series have won distinction in related fields of literary, political, intellectual, labor, popular culture, and sports, as well as women, gender and LBGTQ studies. As we look forward with hope for an even brighter future for the series, we look back with gratitude to everyone who has helped to make the series a success.
For us, the series continues to be a remarkable journey. We are privileged and honored to play a role in helping shepherd to publication this stellar collection of works, which has helped enhance historical understanding. Finally, for us personally, editing the series has been profoundly transformative: learning from new and original voices, our own scholarship has been immeasurably enriched. As my Mother would put it, “it’s a blessing.”
Waldo E. Martin is the Alexander F. & May T. Morrison Professor of American History & Citizenship at the University of California, Berkeley
Guest post by Tamika Y. Nunley, author of At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C.
I remember the day I went into the archives at Howard University where librarians generously gave me access to a lovely rendering of Alethia Browning Tanner, a formerly enslaved woman who earned enough income to purchase her own freedom. Once she became legally free, she continued to build her local enterprise selling goods in the local market in Washington, D.C. Tanner used her earnings to purchase the freedom of her sister along with her sister’s five children at a time when Black women’s income earning prospects were limited to a narrow set of options. Tanner is an important example of the degree to which women like her maximized the possibilities of enslaved and free Black women’s informal economies. After she secured the freedom of several generations of her family members, Tanner began the work of supporting the education and spiritual edification of people within her network of kin.
Tanner provided financial support for her nieces and nephews as they sought educational and broader employment opportunities. Tanner’s nephew John Cook was one such beneficiary of her generosity, and he became one of Washington’s most prominent educators. This tradition of philanthropy ran in the family. Tanner’s sister Sophia Browning purchased the freedom of her husband George Bell, who established the first school for African Americans in the District. The Browning, Bell and Cook families provided decades of support and leadership in Washington’s Black schools at a time when African Americans were excluded from the District’s public schools. Black residents not only paid taxes to support the schools they were excluded from but worked tirelessly to financially support the establishment of schools for their own.
Alethia Tanner not only appeared in the school records of Washington, but also in the records of the religious institutions of the city. When a group of members belonging to the racially segregated Ebenezer Church decided to establish a separate congregation, the group founded Israel Bethel Colored Methodist Church. When the church faced financial hurdles, Tanner and her brother-in-law purchased the church to address any debts owed. When Tanner’s nephew, John Cook founded Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, she served as the first woman to officially join the church and appears in records as a “Class Leader.” The fundraising committee of the church organized efforts to purchase a plot of land and they recorded Tanner as the only woman donor with the distinction of making the second highest contribution. Both Israel Bethel and Union Bethel merged to become present-day Metropolitan AME church, the oldest continuously operating church in the District of Columbia, a former haven for fugitive slaves, the church home of Elizabeth Keckly and Frederick Douglass, a place of worship for former US presidents, but significantly, a hub of spiritual edification and political activism for African Americans in the nation’s capital. The essence of philanthropy is generosity that centers the welfare of others. Black women like Alethia Browning Tanner, who confronted scarcity and limitations profoundly shaped by slavery, invested their earnings to support some of the nation’s most vibrant African American institutions and traditions.
Tamika Y. Nunley is assistant professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.
This week for our Black History Month reading list series we are featuring five biographies of groundbreaking women who challenged and altered the course of Black life in the United States, from the 20th and into the current century.
For more background on the founding and annual themes of Black History Month, check out the website of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Save 40% on all UNC Press books with discount code 01DAH40. Visit the sale page to browse more recommended titles in African American History, or view our full list of books in African American Studies.
Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life
by Troy R. Saxby
The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910–1985) was a trailblazing social activist, writer, lawyer, civil rights organizer, and campaigner for gender rights. In the 1930s and 1940s, she was active in radical left-wing political groups and helped innovate nonviolent protest strategies against segregation that would become iconic in later decades, and in the 1960s, she cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW). In addition, Murray became the first African American to receive a Yale law doctorate and the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest.
Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay
by Shanna Greene Benjamin
Nellie Y. McKay (1930–2006) was a pivotal figure in contemporary American letters. The author of several books, McKay is best known for coediting the canon-making Norton Anthology of African American Literature with Henry Louis Gates Jr., which helped secure a place for the scholarly study of Black writing that had been ignored by white academia. However, there is more to McKay’s life and legacy than her literary scholarship. After her passing, new details about McKay’s life emerged, surprising everyone who knew her.
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical
by Sherie M. Randolph
Often photographed in a cowboy hat with her middle finger held defiantly in the air, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916–2000) left a vibrant legacy as a leader of the Black Power and feminist movements. In the first biography of Kennedy, Sherie M. Randolph traces the life and political influence of this strikingly bold and controversial radical activist.
In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James & Grace Lee Boggs
by Stephen M. Ward
James Boggs (1919-1993) and Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) were two largely unsung but critically important figures in the black freedom struggle. Born and raised in Alabama, James Boggs came to Detroit during the Great Migration, becoming an automobile worker and a union activist. Grace Lee was a Chinese American scholar who studied Hegel, worked with Caribbean political theorist C. L. R. James, and moved to Detroit to work toward a new American revolution. As husband and wife, the couple was influential in the early stages of what would become the Black Power movement, laying the intellectual foundation for racial and urban struggles during one of the most active social movement periods in recent U.S. history.
Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision
by Barbara Ransby
In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Ella Baker’s long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries.
Guest blog post by Sarah B. Franklin, editor of Edna Lewis: At the Table with An American Original
Edna Lewis: At the Table with An American Original is a collection of 20 essays by chefs, food writers, and scholars that examine and celebrate the life, legacy, and boundary-breaking politics of chef and cookbook author, Edna Lewis, considered the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking, one of the progenitors of Black food writing, and an early advocate of sustainable agriculture and farm-to-table practices. Much has been written about Lewis in recent years—some excellent, some misinformed (Lewis’s legacy is, in truth, shrouded in mystery, as her papers still haven’t been made public), but there’s still much to say and a lot of fresh framework that can be applied to Lewis’s story and her relevance today.
Some thoughts for how this might fit into current cultural journalism:
Part of why I believe there’s a chance to renew interest in the book is because of its form; it’s, in effect, a conversation (its format became the basis for the Splendid Table episode on Lewis, which has become one of their most listened-to episodes of all time), which means it’s ongoing; given the chance, I could easily add another 20 essays from another 20 individuals to the book, and it could go on like that forever.
In terms of pegs to the moment, I’m particularly interested in plugging this book into conversations around 2020’s events raising awareness around the urgent need for reparations, land redistribution, and the limitations of capitalism to address systemic racism. Lewis was raised in a community that attempted to reject the cash economy as its basis of survival and, thus, its measure of self-worth. She was an early advocate for food sovereignty, an idea that, as you know, has gained a ton of traction in recent years. She is (quietly) known as a lifelong communist, who dipped in and out of official politics. Her stance on food is borne of these experiences and beliefs.
I firmly believe we’re only beginning to see the fallout of this past year’s disruptions, uprisings, and awakenings, and that this book speaks right into the radical possibilities that have long been experimented with, and cultivated by, marginalized communities who have been denied opportunities within more conventional, white-supremacist capitalist systems and structures.
2020 also brought into stark relief how critical developing local and regional food systems is as an urgent matter not only of dealing with food access in the here and now, but preparing for future disruptions in supply chains (pandemics, natural disasters, socio-political conflicts, and, of course, the steady march of climate change). The past 10 months have brought rapid and innovative responses in food distribution, and have highlighted the importance and exceptional nimbleness of smaller-scale regional food growing and distributing operations, as opposed to industrial-scale, centralized ones.
On a more personal note, I’m going to be donating 100% of proceeds to three organization that do direct-impact work around immediate and long-term food security in communities of color: Soul Fire Farm (Upstate NY), Alma Backyard Farms (Los Angeles CA), and the Black Feminist Project (Bronx NY).
Sara B. Franklin is a writer and food studies scholar teaching at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
This post was originally featured in Black Agenda Report, and has been reblogged with permission.
By Roberto Sirvent, BAR Book Forum Editor
The streets permeate dominant understandings of Blackness, and the life-and-death consequences of these perceptions are at the heart of this book.
“Even Breonna Taylor was not safe in her own home from the way the streets have shaped perceptions of Blackness and Black rights.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Yelena Bailey. Bailey is the Director of Education Policy at the State of Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board. Her book is How the Streets Were Made: Housing Segregation and Black Life in America.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Yelena Bailey: When George Floyd was murdered in my city on May 25, I was going through the final copyedits of the manuscript. While anti-Black violence at the hands of police is not new, this scale of social uprisings in response is. Six months have passed, and the media has moved on to other environmental and political disasters, but the realities and conditions that produced George Floyd’s murder persist. Floyd was racialized as violent, fraudulent, and poor because his Blackness signified to outsiders that he belonged to the streets and all the negative meanings associated with them. Even Breonna Taylor was not safe in her own home from the way the streets have shaped perceptions of Blackness and Black rights. This becomes abundantly clear when one considers the way their right to life is being attacked posthumously through anti-Black narratives that blame their deaths on involvement with drugs. The waythe streets have evolved to permeate dominant understandings of Blackness, and the life-and-death consequences of these perceptions are at the heart of this project. For over 10 years, protestors have been physically occupying the streets of cities like Ferguson and Minneapolis, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” This declaration of power over space is at the heart of my project. Black protestors are not simply proclaiming their physical right to be in certain spaces, but also their right to exist and be understood in specific ways in those spaces.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
For me, a large part of writing this book was to solidify and articulate truths I had long known experientially. I have always known that the way I am understood as a Black person, regardless of where I physically am, is shaped by the perceived connection between Blackness and the streets. I hope activists and community organizers will, like me, find clarity in the framework I provide for understanding these experiences. I also hope they will take inspiration from the long history of Black authors and artists who have used creative mediums to carve out spaces of discursive autonomy. Black art and politics are inextricably linked, so I hope the works I explore inspire activists to find new ways of resisting anti-Blackness.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I think this largely depends on who is reading the book, because some may find confirmation and analysis of what they already knew to be true through experience, while others will come face to face with a brand new way of understanding Black urban space. Regardless of which end of the spectrum a reader is on, I hope readers will un-learn the tendency to analyze public policy through purely economic or sociological lenses. While these are important, and I address them in the book, policy and power operate through culture and we must analyze the ways in which these structures intersect and collude. I also hope readers will un-learn the idea that reparations and redress are impractical. I spend a lot of time on this in the conclusion and I walk through the key points in public discourse on reparations and redress over the last 50 years. I devote a portion of my conclusion to discussing the Kerner Commission, not as a prime example of redress, but rather to illustrate that even basic reform efforts in the 1960s acknowledged the need for economic action. Of course, real redress must move beyond reform and address the social, cultural, and economic impact of geographic segregation. I hope readers will un-learn the tendency to see this as a pipe dream and embrace it as a necessary reality.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear Toni Morrison is my ultimate intellectual hero. As an author, theorist, and philosopher, no one surpasses her. More directly though, I found inspiration in Katherine McKittrick’s and George Lipsitz’s work on cultural geography. McKittrick in particular encourages readers to think about the radical resistance that takes place in and on Black geographies. I also found inspiration in James Baldwin’s work, as well as Assata Shakur’s reflections on Baldwin and her life in New York. Similarly, my book is in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Ann Petry’s works. Although writing decades apart, both of these authors theorized the streets as something more than a physical landscape.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
This is a question I really tried to wrestle with in the book. I, like many of my generation, have a tendency to identify a problem or theorize the nature of a reality – like the existence of the streets as a sociocultural entity – without really meditating on how to respond. I tried to push past this tendency by first analyzing the way Black artists themselves have responded to the reality of the streets by imagining them as sites of new, countercultural identities. For instance, in the chapter on hood genre films, I examine Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight as a reimaging of the genre that recasts the streets as a space of complex self-fulfillment. I think that the film does an excellent job of avoiding “fix it” narratives that situate urban Black life as a problem in need of a solution. Instead, it imagines a world in which tenderness and hustling are not mutually exclusive. In the conclusion of the book, I discuss the topic of redress and reparations more broadly. While my book looks at the streets through an interdisciplinary lens, I try to make it clear that the history of the streets is one of economic disenfranchisement. A new world that offers redress for decades of anti-Black policies is one that involves economic, ideological, and cultural reckoning.
Yelena Bailey is director of education policy at the State of Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics , where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project .
Guest post by David A. Varel, author of The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power
The Trump era has made painfully clear how much the United States needs to revitalize its democracy. There is no better guide to doing so than African Americans, who have labored ceaselessly to make American founding ideals of freedom, justice, and equality real in practice.
As I show in my new biography of Lawrence Reddick (1910-1995), a close understanding of one little-known but consequential Black scholar-activist—placed against the evolving backdrop of the modern civil rights movement—goes a long way toward clarifying the radically democratic nature of the Black freedom struggle. We need the wisdom and inspiration from this struggle now more than ever.
Why This History Matters
Most Americans don’t know much about their nation’s history, much less the experience of marginalized groups within it. As a result, journalists, politicians, and media pundits play an outsized role in framing how they understand race in America.
This is a problem, because even the best journalism is no replacement for broad-based historical understanding. Last year’s protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd are a case in point. They speak both to the accomplishments of history education so far and to its still untapped potential.
Specifically, the protests for Black lives have been larger and more multicultural than ever, underlining how historical knowledge about marginalized groups has helped young Americans see all that remains to be done to create a just society.
Yet the dramatic protests that unfolded across the nation and the world also scared many other Americans, especially when Republicans predictably exploited the relatively rare instances of looting and violence (often among outside groups) to frame the whole movement as hateful and dangerous. Public support for Black Lives Matter ebbed after reaching unprecedentedly high levels earlier last summer, and preliminary survey results from the election suggest that the protests influenced the decision of many conservatives to vote for Trump.
As President Biden works to build a coalition to confront racial injustice, a longer and deeper view of the Black freedom struggle is needed. This is where history must step in.
Lawrence Reddick, Pioneering Black Scholar and Activist
Reddick was an activist who both participated in and helped organize some of the most dramatic protests of the civil rights era, including the 1963 March on Washington. As one of the founders and longtime board members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Reddick mentored Martin Luther King Jr. throughout his entire public life, helped craft his speeches, wrote the first biography of King (Crusader without Violence, 1958), travelled with him to India, Oslo, and Africa, and helped spearhead the mass protests that made SCLC famous. He was never far from the most memorable figures and events that Americans continue to associate most with the civil rights movement.
Yet by foregrounding Reddick and his generally behind-the-scenes intellectual work over decades rather than only the most dramatic protests and speeches of the 1950s and 1960s, we gain a better sense of what the freedom struggle was and is really about.
For one thing, Reddick illustrates the righteous but also tedious and painstaking work that underpins Black activism. The arguing over strategy, the crafting of language for speeches and press releases, the documenting and archiving of protest activities, the fundraising, and the quiet building of relationships with ordinary people on the ground are the lifeblood of any movement. The dramatic moments and violent clashes with segregationists (like today’s clashes with police and white supremacists), may be useful in awakening some white Americans to the oppression experienced by African Americans, but they are in many ways an afterthought to the real work of building a more democratic society from the ground up and pushing the country to live up to its founding principles.
Similarly, Reddick’s long career helps us see how the emphasis on charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. leads to a truncated view of the struggle. Black activists at the time and since have understood this. That’s why Ella Baker left SCLC early on and helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which adopted a group-centered style of leadership meant to empower each individual to act. This is the same style as today’s Movement for Black Lives, which is why the movement is so diffuse, diverse, and vibrant.
The Long Black Freedom Struggle
Although Reddick very much committed to the King-centered style of charismatic leadership in the Sixties (seeing in him a rare opportunity to cast the always controversial movement in an utterly respectable light), a focus on Reddick himself rather than King is instructive. For instance, Reddick was part of an older generation of activists who proved invaluable to King’s generation. We still tend to view King as this exceptional figure whose moral principles transcended time and place, but it is more productive to see him as a person whose ideas and methods were historically specific and molded by his elders.
Reddick was one of those elders. As a historian by training, he offered King a longer view of the Black freedom struggle. And as part of the Double Victory campaign against fascism at home and abroad during World War II, the Pan-African and decolonization movements during the Cold War, and as a friend and Phi Beta Sigma fraternity brother of Kwame Nkrumah (the first president of Ghana) and Nnamdi Azikiwe (the first president of Nigeria), Reddick helped King and the other young ministers of SCLC understand their movement as only one part of a global struggle for human rights and self-determination. Today’s activists have not forgotten this.
Reddick himself came to his broader view by becoming an integral part of the Depression-era Black history movement led by Carter G. Woodson, who institutionalized the study of African-descended peoples through his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Journal of Negro History, and Negro History Week (later Month). Here Reddick did such thankless work as microfilming Black historical newspapers and collecting the testimony of former slaves and Black servicemen. These quiet efforts were in fact essential components of the civil rights struggle. They recovered Black perspectives throughout history and allowed African Americans to better understand who they were, what obstacles lay in front of them, and how they could push closer to that ever-elusive goal of true equality.
In pursuit of that same goal, today’s Black Lives Matter activists are embodying the spirit that moved Reddick to act so productively throughout his indelibly twentieth-century life. Like his, their work is best understood as a radical investment in a better future—for all of us.
Once we step away from the headlines and open up our history books, we can’t miss that.
David A. Varel is a historian and author of two books: The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); and The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).