U.S. Intellectual History Blog

BLEG: Help with my book title

In the spirit of forever asking questions, I have another for you: 

I’m contemplating  the strength and implications of the proposed title of my book (and thus, supposedly, one of it’s main contributions)–“A Spirit of Cooperation and Protest: The Internationalism of African American Women, 1920-1939.”

Last winter, someone at a job talk challenged the ideas I was presenting as “basically just the old Washington/Du Bois, accommodation/protest paradigm.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I believe Juliette Derricotte‘s “Spirit of Compromise” (which is the language she uses) is genuinely different from Washington’s accommodationism. She did not shy away from directly confronting racism, but she did it in such a way that she converted large swaths of indeterminate white racists away from their racism and towards an understanding of the lives of African Americans, while encouraging black students to have pride in their race. No, she didn’t articulate a critique of institutionalized racism, but not many did in her era (1920s), when interracialism was prominent.

At the same time, I think Mabel Byrd was right when she argued that racists had to acknowledge their racism before compromise (or pacifism) would work. She said to a gathering of WILPF ladies in Prague in 1929, “it is difficult to understand how cooperation can be substituted for conflict until those whose rule is dominant are led to change their attitude toward the minority or dominated group.” Whites needed to realize
“that their conviction of superiority is false, that because they find themselves in a dominating position, is no true sign of their inherent superiority; secondly that there is no divine right for one race to rule another; and thirdly, that the disturbances made by the minority groups are the constant attempts toward a real cooperation in the body politic.” Interesting that last phrase–true cooperation arises out of protest.

This is such an important difference between these two sorority sisters, who shared so much of the same space and same networks. But what do you think? Will readers dismiss the distinction because it seems too similar to Du Bois/Washington? Or is the nuanced understanding of “compromise” something new and interesting?

Maybe the title is misleading, since a primary purpose of the book is to discuss four black women’s international excursions and the life changes they undergo through travel and engagement with other cultures. Maybe I need to find something something more relevant to their identity transformation and let the compromise/protest distinction fade into a sub-point.  Particularly as I incorporate the other two women, who’s lives don’t revolve around compromise and protest so neatly. 

Humph. Now that I’ve sent out a bazillion job applications with this title in them, maybe I need to re-title it to reflect my emphasis on black women’s internationalism.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren, thanks for opening up this discussion about your book title. I thought about this topic much differently before I published my own book.

    I haven’t read enough of your work to make a substantial suggestion, but I will tell you that few editors would be likely to use the title you suggest. It sounds too much like a dissertation. An editor would want something more like “Compromise and Protest: Black Women Intellectuals between the World Wars.” A title like that would reach a larger audience than the one you have suggested.

    One of the surprising things I learned when I published my book is that many presses devise titles (and covers) with Amazon or other websites in mind. The title needs key search terms more than it needs the kind of precision that would withstand the scrutiny of a dissertation committee. Likewise, the cover needs to look good in a one-inch square and (depending on the subject) connote action, not necessarily represent all of the facets of your argument.

    Whether or not you like this kind of marketing-driven production of academic books (I didn’t at first, but it makes sense to me now after some reflection and experience), it is a result of the new reality of selling books online. I would suggest that you take any potential titles you come up with, plug them into amazon, and see what pops up. If the books you see coming up on the screen look nothing like yours, then you may need to rethink your title. After all, the most important thing is that your book gets to the right audience.

  2. Brian–thanks for your response. I appreciate your feedback on the title. I guess I knew in some way that I wouldn’t have full control over my title once I handed the book over to publishers. My larger question is–does writing about compromise and protest seem too close to Washington/Du Bois and accommodation/protest? Or is it (could it be) an effective way of gendering that debate?

    I know that depends in part on how I write about it, but it makes me wonder how to pull out the differences more effectively.

  3. To me it sounds like a gendering of the debate, not just a rehash. I am not a specialist in this area, but I suspect that much of African American history (let alone African American intellectual history) comes down to the debate over accommodation or protest. Not just Washington and Du Bois, but MLK and Malcolm X, too, right? I think the burden of your book (if not your title) is to put this old debate in a gendered and transnational context. That sounds like a major achievement for a first monograph. Your second book (I say this only partly in jest) can be the one that jettisons the old framework and creates a new one.

  4. I think the main title works, not so much the subtitle, which could be tweaked. But I really see no problem in “rehashing” the Washington/Dubois dichotomy. It is in fact a dichotomy that we are still living in the present (i.e. the critique of Obama by Cornell West, Tavis Smiley and others in the African American left). It is actually a very productive dichotomy that you can tease out in your introduction, no?

    Anyhow,what other “illuminating” discourse can we imagine to beyond that dichotomy? In my field, literary studies, you often see people referring to negotiation as a way to try to go beyond it, but I don’t love the aesthetics of the word itself. Hm, Between Protest and Cooperation might be a more precise title, but dunno if it is what you are trying to really do.

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