This week I’m going to take a bit of a break from the series on Black intellectual history and the year 1967. I’ll allow a bit more time for my thoughts to marinate on the book Black Power and answer some fantastic questions Tim Lacy has left for me (trust me I haven’t forgotten about them!). But I’m also fascinated by the last week of blog posts that have largely focused on the conversations that took place at this year’s US Intellectual History conference. I wasn’t able to attend, but what I’ve read about the event has definitely intrigued me. The posts and twitter discussions, especially those about American Studies, have especially caught my eye.
Recent months have, for a variety of reasons, forced me to think about the present and future of African American Studies. While I’m pursuing a degree in History with a focus on 20th century American History, I’ve made sure to also work closely with the Department of African American Studies while here at USC. It’s a wonderful resource filled with professors who are in a variety of fields within the humanities and social sciences, but are all united by a desire to teach students about aspects of the African American experience. Yet I’m also aware of how African American Studies, and its start as Black Studies, is filled with a rocky of history of agitation and intense debates, both within and outside the academy.
Then there’s Southern Studies, another major center here at USC (not surprisingly). We were fortunate to have William Ferris, one of the important early scholars of Southern Studies, talk on campus about his relationships with a wide variety of Southern writers and artists, ranging from Robert Penn Warren and Alex Haley to Alice Walker and Lillian Smith. I can’t help but think about the fact that both programs are linked heavily to the future of American Studies. In many ways, the three need each other.
As discussed in Ray Haberski’s fascinating discussion of American Studies, for years now many American Studies scholars have made the argument that “America” is socially constructed. Such a debate has an older brother in Southern Studies’ “What is the South?” and its even older sister, “Is the South exceptional?” Both of these questions have been asked for decades, but today the contours of the debates themselves have changed. Studies of the South are now, as many of you know, now looking at the South in a larger context. The American South has always been in contact with non-American entities, whether it be Native American tribes, European empires, or entrepreneurs from a variety of other lands. Black, or more recently African American Studies, often ask questions about Blackness and the importance of African Americans to the development of American culture and society. These two fields really can’t be seen in separate contexts, so I’ll provide an example for how we can think of them both as fields united spatially and thematically, and how they can provide further fuel for American Studies.
Take the city of Atlanta. Two of the most important events in its history, the 1895 Cotton States Exposition and the 1996 Summer Olympics, were chances for the American South to showcase itself on a global stage. The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, one of the worst in American history, was also written about in a global context, with stories about it running all across Europe. Of course Atlanta also produced one of the great Americans ever to live, Martin Luther King, Jr. But in an intellectual history context, Atlanta is also quite fascinating. It not only produced King, but was home to W.E.B. Du Bois for many years, was an intellectual center for many African Americans in the Jim Crow era, and in the 1970s was the base of operations for the Institute of the Black World.
Let’s look at those last two paragraphs again. In those, you have the traditional elements of Southern Studies, African American Studies, and, I’d argue, American Studies as well. So many African American intellectuals came from the South, or had to confront the South and what it meant in the American (and African American) mind. Likewise, white Southern intellectuals did much the same thing, either defending the idea of the South or trying to change it (often in exile, such as C. Vann Woodward). The point here is that, while we put these various intellectuals into categories of “Black”, or “Southern”, we can’t lose sight of them as American thinkers, thinking in an American context. And don’t forget that many of the finest intellectuals produced out of the African American community, or the American South, often had contact with intellectuals from other nations. Those connections both helped shaped American intellectual history, and changed the mindset for intellectuals of other nations in terms of what was possible.
I don’t know if I added anything to the discussion about American Studies. But it’s important that these three fields be seen as programs under a broader umbrella of fields that can speak to a uniquely American experience. In some sense, these two fields have asked as many questions deconstructing “America” as American Studies has. What is means to be Black, what it means to be Southern, both feed into the greater question of what it means to be American—and to be a scholar of American Studies.