U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking About The Three “Studies”: American, African American, and Southern

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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Much as Kahlil argued under my post from Friday, you have asked questions that get to both the identity of the scholars who study the intersection of geographies and ideologies as well as the objects of their studies–the people who use terms such as American, Southern, and African-American. I think Ben hit upon this issue nicely in his post from Monday–we are at once constrained by the terms of the historical actors and free to come up with our own analytical terms. It sounds to me like you are comfortably navigating these two influences. I am interested to hear how those you like to read and those you like to read about dealt with the issues you raise in the post. Along these lines, C Vann Woodward is always interesting as is Dan Carter.

  2. Thanks for the response! I find that these historical characters that I’m dealing with often have to make tradeoffs for the sake of contingences. But there’s a few–again, Murray and Ellison come to mind–who stuck to certain dogged definitions of what it meant to be all three categories (American, Black, Southern) during what most of us would refer to as the “Fracturing” of American society.

    I’d argue that’s one reason why those two are, in my opinion, not quite as featured as say James Baldwin or Amiri Baraka when we talk about Black culture and art after the 1960s. Granted, Ellison “only” had Invisible Man as his big novel, but he wrote many essays and reviews that laid out his vision of a unified American aesthetic. Same with Murray, whose various books, essays, and reviews also argued for the same along the lines of Ellison. It would be a mistake to separate all this, by the way, from the divisions between Old and New Left in the 1960s. Ellison was, in his youth, a fellow traveler before becoming firmly ensconced as a liberal. And he definitely clashed with Saul Bellow in the latter’s more culturally conservative years. Yet it seems to me that Ellison and Murray are close to becoming forgotten voices, only promoted by Stanley Crouch (another figure who, I’d argue, straddles some of the lines mentioned above, especially in his discussions of Jazz).

  3. Robert: No worries on my questions under your last post. I figured you’d get around to them eventually—provided my questions were worth your time.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on “boundary issues,” as you perceive them, in the areas of Southern and African American Studies—especially Southern, I think. – TL

  4. I have two main “boundary issues” with Southern Studies: one racial and one spatial. On race, as I mentioned before, there’s a plethora of African American writers and artists who dealt with the American South, yet they’re thought of as “Black” writers and artists, not (until recently) thought of as Southerners too. I can’t help but recall one of the reviews I discussed when talking about Black responses to “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” which dismissed Cruse because he failed to talk about any Black intellectuals and leaders from the American South in his work. I think Southern Studies is starting to incorporate them, however, and it’s also starting to incorporate more about the Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, and Native American presences in the South.

    Now on to spatial: I think Southern Studies is doing a good job of looking at the South as part of a “global South”, or as part of an “American Mediterranean” with the peoples and islands of the Caribbean and South America. I wonder, though, if perhaps the next frontier of Southern Studies and space is re-examining the relationship between the American South and the American North? “The Problem South” does a good job here, thinking about how federal policy towards the South affected policies laid out for possessions won by the USA during the Spanish American War (and vice versa). And there’s the South in the 20th century: we’re aware of the debate between the “Americanization of the South” and the “Southernization of America” but is it really that simple? Was the South EVER that outside the American mainstream? I don’t think we’ll ever reach a consensus on that, as the South (as an idea) has always occupied a unique position in American culture. Politically and intellectually, it has often been on the defensive, especially after the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Nonetheless, books like Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itself”, as an example, should force historians (including intellectual historians, obviously) to think deeper about the importance of the South in national affairs before the 1960s and after the 1860. Jason Morgan Ward’s “Defending White Democracy”, which posits a “long white resistance” to accompany the recent scholarship on a “long civil rights movement”, should also help in that debate.

    All three of these fields have elements that make them unique. The best scholars in each, I’d argue, do their best to incorporate elements from the other fields to give their own work a richer focus.

  5. Also, one last thing: the study of the American city and urban life also needs to become a bigger part of Southern Studies. In fact, it pretty much has because there’s no way you can discuss the South and ignore the importance of cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans, or Houston, which all represent different traditions that mark “Southern” history and culture.

  6. Thanks for the long, engaging comments. Let me think about them a bit more. On your second entry, I know that urban historians have paid some attention to those cities, but I’m not sure how much those same historians have attended—on your point—to Southern Studies.

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