U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lauren’s Corner

My corner is at the left. That is my new office at Luther College, where I have a joint visiting assistant professorship in the Department of History and Africana Studies. Whoo-hoo, a job and an office. Does it get better? Oh yeah, space for my art and my books! (I did the collage/painting on the wall and the photo in the corner is of the Second Amenians, the folks who populated my dissertation). Haven’t schlepped my books up the hill yet. That’s right, I live a block and a hill away from my office. There will be trudging through snow this winter, I promise. This is the first small town I’ve lived in since I grew up in a small Arizona town, but so far I think the vibe will be very different from that desert locale. There have been at least four mentions of Garrison Keillor so far, so my dad’s love affair with that storyteller will serve me well.

So a few things:

1. Lien-Hang Nguyen, a friend from the University of Kentucky, wrote this op-ed at the New York Time about the false parallels between the Vietnam War and the War in Afghanistan, as well as what we learn about the Vietnam War when we actually look at it from the side of North Vietnam. Ben Alpers of S-USIH wrote on facebook that the op-ed is a “Fascinating piece on the real lessons of Vietnam that highlights both the importance of local factors and the tendency of Americans on all sides of our debates over wars to see US decisions and actions as more determinative (for better or for worse) than they often are.”

2. My article is coming out this month in Perspectives on the History of Higher Education. The title is “A Nauseating Sentiment, a Magical Device, or a Real Insight? Interracialism at Fisk University in 1930” and the abstract is

This article analyzes the concept of “interracialism” through a conflict between the president and faculty at Fisk University in 1930. Research assistant Mabel Byrd challenged President Thomas E. Jones that he was discriminating against black faculty; her friend and sorority sister, Dean of Women Juliette Derricotte sat silently during Byrd’s protest. Jones threatened to dismiss Byrd, while supporting Derricotte’s leadership. Jones represents the idea of interracialism as a “magical device,” Byrd thought it was a “nauseating sentiment” and Derricotte believed it was a “real insight.” This paper argues that all were correct in different ways. Some whites did experience a transformation so intense it seemed magical. These and other whites did use interracialism as a sentiment that belied action. And sometimes, interracialism led to real growth. This article suggests that criticizers, like Byrd, and builders, like Derricotte, were both needed to successfully develop Fisk into a strong and successful university.

 3. My brother, a philosophy professor at Arizona State, has a book coming out from Cambridge University Press and he’s going to do a guest post here sometime soon. Personally, I’m a bit skeptical about his argument (just from our conversations over the years), so it will be good to hear more from him. From our conversations, I’ve discovered that philosophers and historians tend to think quite differently. Still, I would need to read his book to confirm this. The title is The Natural Moral Law: The Good after Modernity and the description is:  

The Natural Moral Law argues that the good can be known and that therefore the moral law, which serves as a basis for human choice, can be understood. Proceeding historically through ancient, modern, and postmodern thinkers, Owen Anderson studies beliefs about the good and how it is known, and how such beliefs shape claims about the moral law. The focal challenge is whether the skepticism of postmodern thinkers can be answered in a way that preserves knowledge claims about the good. Considering the failures of modern thinkers to correctly articulate reason and the good and how postmodern thinkers are responding to these failures, Anderson argues that there are identifiable patterns of thinking about what is good, some of which lead to false dichotomies. The book concludes with a consideration of how a moral law might look if the good is correctly identified.

 4. I’m thinking about how to teach slavery to students who have all sorts of preconceptions about it. This article argues that students come to the table assuming that there are clear-cut good guys (black, Northern, abolitionists) and bad guys (white, Southern, slaveholders) and think that slavery is entirely a racial issue. The article attempts to introduce high school students to the idea that slavery was an economic system in which everyone, even abolitionists, was implicated. They struggle against students’ need to place moral schema onto the past:

“In this case, historical actors they understood to be good shared qualities with others they understood to be bad, causing them to level charges of hypocrisy rather than appreciate the moral ambiguity of having to participate in a national and global economy. perhaps students were imagining that abolitionists could easily boycott cotton products or  identify products connected to slave rather than free labor. As Seixas writes, ‘The problem of rendering judgments in history is complicated by the fact that historians–and all of us–confront not the past itself but traces and representations of the past from a position in the present.’ From our position in the early twenty-first century, not condemning the moral evil of slavery may seem to leave one open to condoning or appearing ‘neutral’ about one of the gravest human rights abuses in U.S. history.”

We see students reliance on moral frames of analysis for slavery as an example of ‘collective memory’ as opposed to ‘historical memory.’ As defined by Wineburg, collective memory, unlike its historical counterpart, relies less on historians’ inteprepreatation of evidence and mostly on ‘crystallization in the media.’…

We also believe that the discrepancy between Christy’s economic analysis for understanding slavery and students’ moral framing may have sparked ‘mock conversations’ that drew on their existing knowledge, beliefs, and values. In this sense, a text with a contradictory moral message elicited more thinking than a text, such as a typical U.S. history textbook, with no clear moral message. …

Cathy and Nancy did not want students to abandon their view of slavery as a moral wrong or human rights abuse. And even if they wanted to, the evidence from this lesson shows that such a goal would be difficult, if not impossible. … Nancy and Cathy did want students to seee beyond simplistic notions of good and bad when examining the past, however, and believe lessons like this are an important step. More nuanced  understand of moral ambiguity helps students understand slavery in the nineteenth century and, for example, continuing abuses of child labor in the twenty-first century.”

I also ran across this 2001 article from History Teacher about incorporating the way slavery changed in time and place into a college classroom. It notes that in textbooks from 1900 to the 1980s, five themes about slavery popped up, four of which justified it. Given the use of slavery to undergird the identity of Confederates and their descendants, it does seem somewhat dangerous to portray slavery as morally ambiguous. But at the same time, students tend to condemn the past without understanding how historical actors made their decisions. That latter point, and not the justification of slavery, is what the above teachers are getting at, I think.

One of the central concerns of teaching black history, as Pero Dagbovie writes in this article, is “the challenge of maintaining a delicate balance between themes of victimization and perseverance, constantly acknowledging African American agency and subtle forms of resistance without trivializing the multitude of tragedies and setbacks that African Americans have encountered for centuries.” Another concern is encouraging students to realize that black history is also “not monolithic.” As Matthew Whitaker repeated many times to my undergraduate self, discussing “The Black Community” is incorrect. (And yet, there is a long intellectual tradition, by both black and white writers, of discussing “THE black community”–it would make for an interesting intellectual history to study that usage, along with “THE Negro”).

In addition to a textbook, I am having students read two narratives for the slavery section of the course–Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs. I think the personal approach of narratives helps students understand slavery in an empathetic way. I’m also thinking about letting students lead the discussion on at least half of the class sessions. That might be a tall order for freshmen (this is a 100 level class), but at least it will get their toes wet in research (they need to do a presentation before the discussion) and will give me a chance to work with them one on one (they need to come talk to me about their leadership before the day). However, it will be more difficult to change preconceptions if students lead the discussion. I’m hoping that my directorship behind the scenes will help students to challenge their assumptions.

I’m conflicted about using a textbook (the article I quote from extensively above basically calls textbooks a detriment to critical thinking), but I think that the textbook will provide some critical context that will help us to analyze primary sources and engage in discussion during class. 

5. Reading Carol Boyce Davies’ 2009 article in Small Axe, which discusses “the Caribbean/Black Radical Intellectual Tradition” by noting that African American and Caribbean women remain “outsiders”. For example,

In this article’s particular application of outsiderness, black women have become sisters outside the black radical intellectual tradition; Caribbean women, sisters outside the Caribbean radical tradition and US African American civil rights discourse and sisters outside Pan-Africanist discourse. In other words, while there has been, for example, tremendous headway in black women writers claiming a space within the canon of African American or Caribbean letters, the same has not happened substantially in intellectual and political traditions.  …

This is the point of departure that allows a work like Left of Karl Marx to identify the ways in which Claudia Jones, an African Caribbean activist/intellectual, redefined Marxism-Leninism to meet the needs of an analysis of the position of the black working class, issues of race, and the redefinition of the Caribbean diaspora in England as products of migration. For Jones would not be definable as a “black Marxist.” Indeed, she would be left out of all of those initial analyses of Marxism, which is of course the point of my book. As I argue, Marx, located specifically in historical time, was unable to account for issues of race, gender, and various black identities manifested in the twentieth century. Marx himself spoke about the need for new generations to remake philosophy in their own contexts. On that same Marx bust in Highgate Cemetery, with its workers of all lands unite, is another sentiment: the philosophers of the world have interpreted the world, it is up to those following to change it. The limits of Marxism are many and, according to Robinson’s well-developed argument in Black Marxism, it is only with Lenin that one begins to get any discussion of the colonial question and the “negro question,” spurred on, we know, by black activists who demanded that these issues were put on the table.