U.S. Intellectual History Blog

New Direction for my book

I’m excited. I’ve decided to take my book in a new direction, which will have a stronger argumentative hook and utilize more of the research I’ve done (demanding less further research, though it still requires extensive editing).

For a long time, my book has been titled “A Spirit of Compromise and Protest” but the subtitle has been “The Internationalism of African American Women in the Interwar Period.” This book focused on four sorority sisters from New York, who were all abroad in 1928–Yolande Du Bois-Cullen in Paris on her “honeymoon”, Mabel Byrd in Geneva, Juliette Derricotte in Mysore, India, and Eslanda Robeson in London (and later, the USSR and Africa). This was a wonderful topic–it gave me almost the whole world and allowed me to investigate four different types of internationalism, tourism, communism, Christianity, and Pan-Africanism. But I didn’t have a thesis. I just had a topic. And I needed to write the chapters on Robeson and Du Bois-Cullen (I’ve done much of the research on their chapters, and some pre-writing, but the writing has been elusive).

Juliette Derricotte

So I’m going to drop Robeson and Du Bois-Cullen and instead focus on Byrd and Derricotte women who articulated a gendered understanding of the protest/accommodation dichotomy (or in T.J. Jackson Lear’s formulation in No Place of Grace–the dialectic between these two). That way, I will include more of their lives than just their international journeys, including their time at Fisk, where they came into conflict over protesting against or compromising with the white president, Thomas Elsa Jones. This story made up my recent article. I will argue that Derricotte’s understanding of compromise was qualitatively different (though in the same family) as Washington’s idea of accommodation.

This will also be more explicitly an intellectual history because I will need to chart the evolution of the protest/accommodation divide both within black thought and within the historiography. A quick attempt to update me on the literature shows that this divide is in a lot of standard/reference sources (and so a “given” in current society?), but not necessarily in recent historiography. I know Robert Norrill in his 2009 book Up from History reconsiders Washington’s role as an accommodationist, but I’m curious as to how other works have stretched interpretations of the divide. In addition to the Du Bois/Washington conflict, Gunnar Myrdal used the two categories to describe all black leaders.

My work will both challenge the dichotomy as over-simplified, particularly within individual people’s lives, while also recognizing it as a trend within black thought. A quick search in Project Muse suggests that Pauline Hopkins inhabited protest in response to Washington’s accommodation. But searching for just “protest accommodation” leads to myriad sources not actually on the topic itself.

I’m curious if you’ve read anything recently in black history or intellectual history that updates the historiography on protest/accommodation? Or genders the idea? [another recent article suggests that a white woman politician was an accommodationist]

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is fascinating turn. looking forward to the end result. I am not particularly familiar with African American intellectual history, but this issue does pop up in relation to Afro-Caribbean intellectuals such as Aimé Césaire. Gary Wilder has written a wonderful article examining Césaire’s supposedly accommodationist politics (his stance against independence). Looking ato other contexts where peoples of African origin negotiated between these two poles might be a good idea. There’s of course the continuing debate surrounding the MLK/Malcolm divide and the rise of Black radicalism in the 60s, there surely has to be interesting work going on re issues related to accomomodationism vs. protest in this context.

  2. Just ran across this, which is mighty interesting:
    217: “Cornel West concludes the first chapter of Prophesy Deliverance (1982), his still indispensable contribution to post-segregation African American political theory, with the striking proclamation that ‘the postmodern period (218) has rendered the framework of the Du Bois-Washington debate obsolete, but presently there is little theory or praxis to fill the void.’ According to West, Du Bois and Washington both argued for “Afro-American inclusion in American society,’ agreeing on the form of inclusion (nonviolent reform) but disagreeing on the content (for Washington, ‘self help initiatives’; for Du Bois, ‘social mobility in the social and political spheres’). ‘The Du Bois-Washington debate set the framework for inclusionary African practices in the United States in this century’ (not-withstanding some ‘minor attempts’ to ‘step outside [its] confines’), West argues, but that framework is now outmoded.
    “West gives two arguments for the claim that the framework of the Du Bois-Washington debate cannot speak to postmodern concerns. One is that both parties to the debate presupposed that American society is a modern, industrial social order, which it has ceased to be with the advent of postmodernity. The second is that the dispersive, postmodern ‘differentiation’ of African American experience has disrupted the unity of that experience, thus undercutting Du Bois’s and Washington’s assumption that, because African American experience is without significant internal differentiation, black politics can justifiably aim at the ‘collective enhancement of Afro-Americans’ –at what Reed terms ‘generic racial advancement’—while ignoring conflicts and differences internal to African American life.
    “In the next section, I question West’s first line of argument, arguing that much fo the postmodern discussion of the postindustrial black underclass has tended to recycle the terms of the Du Bois-Washignton debate and, more specifically, terms of Du Bois’s analysis of the Negro problem. Here, however, I emphasize West’s recognition that post-segregation, postmodern African American political thought must come to grips with the differentiation of African American experience.”


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