U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Other Directions for Black American History

PBS has recently finished up their miniseries, “Many Rivers: The African Americans.” Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the miniseries offered an overview of Black American history from the era of slavery and colonization until Barack Obama’s election in 2008.  It was an interesting look at a fascinating aspect of American history, and featured plenty of historians both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. With the series wrapping up, however, I find myself asking questions about the present and future of Black American history. This isn’t to say that the series didn’t do a good job. On the contrary, I found it to be both an excellent analysis of Black American history and a showcase of where most of the (popular, at least) scholarship is at this moment. But I do find myself wondering where the field of Black American history can go from here, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

            In particular, the final episode of the series, from 1968 until the present, seemed to me to need just a tad more. While it gave a good analysis of the Black Power movement, and also addressed the issues of Black Americans in the inner cities in the 1970s and 1980s, something felt a bit…off about it. It would be more accurate to say that something felt missing. I suppose I’ve felt a bit of concern about the direction of post-civil rights Black American history, tinged with plenty of hope for the future of the discipline.

            As some of you are probably aware, there’s been quite the turn in Black Power historiography in the last decade, spearheaded by historians such as Peniel Joseph (Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour), Devin Fergus (Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980), Komozi Woodard (Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics), among others. The main theme of these and other works is that historians and the public alike must get away from associating Black Power with just male bravado, brash talk, and caches of weaponry. While they’ve gone a long way towards making clear that Black Power was a multifaceted movement with plenty of links to both the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements, it remains to be seen how Black American historiography will deal with the late 1970s and the 1980s. This period marked the collapse of the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition and the rise of an energized New Right-led Republican Party. But for Black Americans, it also marked an ideological crossroads which, examining the field, is just starting to be given serious consideration.

            That’s not to say it’s invisible in the scholarship and forbidden among historians until now. Next to my laptop is the third (and sadly final) edition of Manning Marable’s Race, Reform, and Rebellion, which covers from 1945 until 2006. His chapters on the post-Black Power era (that is, after 1975) discuss Black America’s relationship to a conservative nation supportive of President Ronald Reagan’s policies on a variety of fronts.[1] Cedric Robinson’s Revolutionaries to Race Leaders also examines some of this time period, reviewing what happened when Black Power activists decided to involve themselves with Black political leaders. Nonetheless, this historiography needs a bit more fleshing out. It’s especially imperative we as historians do this because, otherwise, the seemingly abrupt end to Black Power in the middle of the 1970s doesn’t make much sense. It’s one thing to ask questions about what happened to the major players among the Black Panthers, US organization, and cultural nationalists. It’s another question entirely to ask, “What were the ideological currents in Black American thought at this time?”

            In this vein it’s worth examining the other Black leaders in the Civil Rights movement who, by the late 1960s, are almost forgotten about to get to the excitement of Black Power. Bayard Rustin’s known for this 1965 essay “From Protest to Politics” in Commentary magazine, but he still provides plenty of insight into post-1965 Black intellectual currents. And I suspect there’s a great deal more waiting to be written about Black conservatives in this era too, notably Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell. I stress that they must be taken seriously because Black Americans were searching for a  variety of methods that could be used to further help the Black community adjust to an era of austerity in the 1970s, and new economic and tax policies under President Reagan in the 1980s.

            All of this is a roundabout way of saying, “I wish “Many Rivers” examined these thorny issues more.” Again, they did an excellent job talking about the rise of Black politicians in the 1970s, and briefly discussed the search for a Black Agenda during that same era (something which made me too excited and led to a fascinating Twitter exchange with Michigan political science professor Robert Mickey). Furthermore, I fear that too much is being written about Black Power. Next week I’ll devote more time to some recent (and upcoming) books and articles that deal with Black ideology beyond Black Power from 1965 until 1975, but for now I’m just trying to gather my thoughts on what, I feel, is my responsibility to push intellectual history, and Black American history, beyond the Civil Rights/Black Power paradigm of the 1960s and 1970s.

[1] I acknowledge I’m simplifying a great deal of 1980s political, cultural, and intellectual history here, but it’s only for the sake of convenience and space.

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Another excellent historiographical exploration, Robert.

    To me, Black Power was both a radical advance over civil rights and a recognition of the limits of racial equality in a society riven by class inequality. Its innovative critique of institutional forms of racism that extended beyond Jim Crow, and beyond the civil rights movement designed to abolish Jim Crow, had a profound effect on how we–and by we I mostly mean academics–think about race and racism in the US. It made us profoundly more pessimistic about the prospects of racial equality, and perhaps for good reason.

    The debates about race in the 70s, 80s, and 90s were about coming to terms with the fact that the civil rights movement did not usher in racial equality. Some thinkers took Black Power thought to even more radical ends–I’m thinking here of Critical Race Theory. Plenty of others, including black thinkers like Shelby Steele, and I would argue William Julius Wilson, turned their lenses inwards to focus on the weaknesses of the so-called black community or culture. They were joined by a whole host of white Daniel Patrick Moynihan wannabes. In fact, one of the great myths of post-sixites intellectual history is that the negative reaction to the Moynihan Report inhibited a serious or honest analysis of the black family or the supposedly pathological qualities of black culture. This is complete nonsense. This type of thinking was everywhere. People who make such a dumb claim must never have heard of Charles Murray.

    In short, the most exciting avenues for future historical exploration are in how people responded to a post-civil rights America where racial inequality persisted. Black Power was the first systematic political and intellectual attempt to come to terms with this dilemma (and I would say its most powerful legacy is in the realm of intellectual history not political history). And everyone thinking about these issues have had to reckon with Black Power in some fashion, even if only to reject its central claims.

    • “They were joined by a whole host of white Daniel Patrick Moynihan wannabes. In fact, one of the great myths of post-sixites intellectual history is that the negative reaction to the Moynihan Report inhibited a serious or honest analysis of the black family or the supposedly pathological qualities of black culture. This is complete nonsense. This type of thinking was everywhere. People who make such a dumb claim must never have heard of Charles Murray.”

      Someone has either been reading my dissertation or will be pleased when they do so!

      And “Daniel Patrick Moynihan wannabes” is one of the best phrases ever. I am sure I will steal it at some point.

      • Robin Marie: Ha! There is a great deal of overlap between your dissertation and one of my chapters in the culture wars book. (But not to worry: your analysis of all this is much more fleshed out and, thus, very necessary). Cheers.
        P.S. Steal away!

  2. Good stuff here Robert, particularly your back and forth between the academic historiography and the public history.

    However, this write-up has left me with a question — if we’re talking about post-1975 Black politics, in what way should we be discussing/interpreting Jesse Jackson? In my own work, he figures prominently in the rise of neoliberalism within the Democratic Party as Jackson became a foil of sorts through which Democratically-aligned neoliberal think tanks could articulate their own politics. However, when I went to the academic literature to see who had discussed Jackson and his politics, I found very little. So, here are some questions I have for you:

    1) Am I right about him being largely absent from the relevant historiographies? If so, why do you think this is? If not, whose work am I missing?

    2) How did “Many Rivers” deal with Jackson (if at all)?

    3) How, if at all, does Jackson relate to the “fall of Black Power”? The fall of New Deal liberalism? The rise of conservatism? Obviously, I’m trying to grapple with all of these questions myself, but I’m interested to hear your take.

    Sorry to ask so many questions, but I’m doing so in part because I’m working on this chapter in my book right now and could use the help.

  3. As always, excellent comments here at the blog! Let me address Jason first:

    1. I think you’re right in that Jackson isn’t dealt with that much in the historiography. He comes up (far too briefly I think) in Wilentz’s “Age of Reagan” as the foil you mention. What is interesting about that, however, is that Jackson himself was all over the map ideologically in the 1970s. He came out against abortion rights in 1973, for instance, and I know that he spoke to the American Enterprise Institute at some point in the 1970s about the need to develop Black capitalism (what’s funny here is that Black Power came to be used by Pres. Nixon in reference to Black capitalism and Black free enterprise).

    2. Many Rivers, if memory serves, deals with him briefly. But he’s not given much attention in it, which the more I think about it, surprises me. Most of the attention he gets is in the 1984 and 1988 presidential runs.

    3. Jackson, I think, has the most to do with liberalism during the Reagan years. I wrote a paper last semester (which I will revise and send out as a potential article during winter break) which was about race and the 1980s, and one of the main sections was Jackson’s 1984 run for president. The paper compared and contrasted how he was portrayed in “The Progressive” and “The National Review”. It was especially intriguing to see how “The Progressive” dealt with the “Hymietown” incident, but in doing current work on a paper about the anti-Apartheid movement and American liberalism, I realize I need to look at his 1988 run too. What I’ll say about Jackson is this: he was, to some extent, the bastion of 1980s liberalism fighting against the DLC, as you pointed out. I think, though, he also becomes a symbol for conservatives in the 1980s on the issue of race. He’s a very, VERY easy target, esp. after the Hymietown comment and letting Louis Farrakhan into his entourage, but for both conservatives and moderate Democrats (who are desperate to push the Democratic Party back to the center in the 1980s) he comes to represent the excesses of racial politics.

    He relates to the end of Black Power as being, for the most part, one of the few major figures standing by 1980. Watch Pres. Carter’s concession speech in November 1980 for instance. Who’s next to him? Jesse Jackson. So he goes from being the heir to MLK (which he never quite pulls off, partly because I don’t think anyone could have) to being a player in Democratic Party politics. Lance Selfa’s “Democrats: A Critical History” goes into his battles against the DLC, and there’s also another book on the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s whose title escapes me, but I know it’s here in my apartment somewhere.

    • Robert,

      Thanks for the extensive reply. A few thoughts in response to each of your points:

      1) In some ways, it is good to hear that Jackson doesn’t show up much in the historiography. Now I know I didn’t miss something! I just couldn’t believe a few years back when I went looking how little I found.

      As to Jackson in the seventies, while I was aware of the anti-abortion position, I was not aware of his alliance with AEI on the issue of black capitalism. I knew that AEI (in concert with Nixon) had done some work on this during that period, but was unaware that they had Jackson into speak. I’m going to go looking for sources on this, but let me know if you have specific ones in mind that you know of.

      2) I’m really surprised about “Many Rivers” largely avoiding him. In the 80s and early 90s, I simply can’t think of a higher profile black politician. I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that many want to write Jackson out of American political history and African-American history. Points 1 and 2 seem to support this.

      3) I think that Jackson’s 1988 run and his battles with Clinton and the DLC in the run-up to the 1992 campaign are even more important than the 1984 run. I would definitely look into them. I just think that Jackson is so instrumental in that period in the formation of Democratic neoliberalism. Without him, it is much tougher, I think, for the DLC and Clinton to articulate their own political identity.

      • On Jackson and free enterprise, I don’t know if I’d say he had an alliance with AEI–although, to be clear, he certainly cultivated contact with the organization. But I honestly don’t think it’s been written about that much. It needs to be, because as I lay out in this post, there’s so much ideological ferment in the 1970s among Black intellectuals. In fact, I’m thinking about Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive”, which makes the case for many people criss-crossing ideological lines to make sense of the 1970s.

        “Many Rivers” could have said more about Jackson. I need to re-watch it again, but if memory serves they just gave some time to his presidential run. BUT, they did also show him at the 1972 Gary Convention giving a rousing speech. So it’s still worth a look.

        The DLC needed a foil within the Democratic Party. Jackson was certainly an easy one.

      • 3) I think that Jackson’s 1988 run and his battles with Clinton and the DLC in the run-up to the 1992 campaign are even more important than the 1984 run. I would definitely look into them. I just think that Jackson is so instrumental in that period in the formation of Democratic neoliberalism. Without him, it is much tougher, I think, for the DLC and Clinton to articulate their own political identity.

        What they did to the first black president–and his wife–was nowhere near that elegant, man.


        It was crude race politics. It had nothing to do with ideology, principle, or what might be good for black people.

        And the man once called the “first black president” remains deeply wounded by allegations that he made racially insensitive remarks during the campaign, like dismissing Obama’s South Carolina win by comparing it with Jesse Jackson’s victories there in the 1980s.

        “None of them ever really took seriously the race rap,” he told me. “They knew it was politics. I had one minister in Texas in the general election come up and put his arm around me.” This was an Obama supporter. “And he came up, threw his arm around me and said, ‘You’ve got to forgive us for that race deal.’ He said, ‘That was out of line.’ But he said, ‘You know, we wanted to win real bad.’ And I said, ‘I got no problem with that.’ I said it’s fine; it’s O.K. And we laughed about it and we went on.”

        No doubt Hillary thought it was pretty funny too.

        Could be that she’ll be our next president anyway. She’s used to swallowing betrayals. But DNC [Bill] Clintonism was far better for the greater number of black people than Jesse/Barack/Hillaryism ever was or will be. You could look it up.

  4. Now on to Andrew’s great comment: I think what you’ve stated here is a fantastic summation of why Black Power is important to so many scholars. First your comment about the debates on race in the 1970s-1990s: that’s really what I’m getting at. Black Power presented a sustained critique against structural racism that acknowledged the triumphs of civil rights protest, but then asked: “Okay, but what now?”

    And that’s why I want to see more about this era, because so many figures are trying to answer that question. King in “Where Do We Go From Here?” Rustin, of course. Various black mayors trying to work within the government system while using a strong black base (with white liberal and some moderate support). These forces are all influenced by black power in some way (whether taking their ideas and going in a different direction or rejecting black power in varying degrees).

    One of the big areas where Black Power historiography has taken off is its examination of the international context of the movement. Black Power activists inspired activists in other nations and, of course, some of them journeyed overseas (unfortunately, too many went overseas to flee the country, but it’s fascinating to think about Carmichael and Cleaver going to Africa, or Newton fleeing to Cuba. Those nations, for a variety of reasons, made sense as destinations).

    It does remind me of the post 1877 era, when a variety of Black intellectuals were grasping for what to do with the nation moving on from the plight of Black Southerners. It’s not the same thing (far from it in many ways), but the intellectual ferment among Black Americans in, say, the 1890s isn’t too far away from that of the 1970s or 1980s. It was all about doing right by the “black community”–whatever that term meant in different eras–and making sure the nation at large was held accountable (which meant different things in the post-Reconstruction period versus the post-Civil Rights era).

    Lastly, I find myself thinking about intellectual currents among Black Americans from the 1930s until the 1970s, during the so-called “Long Civil Rights Movement” era. Again, that certainly wasn’t unified, but I think the key thread here between that era and the 1970s until present is the relationship between the Democratic Party and Black Americans. Since the New Deal it has been Black America’s most important political consideration, although Tim Thurber’s book “Republicans and Race” reminds us the GOP never formally gave up on the Black vote, at least not during the era from 1945 until 1974 (which his book covers). I think a book, or at least an article, could be written about overtures from conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s on the issue of race. I stumbled upon a National Review piece from 1987 about the GOP winning back the Black vote, for instance.

  5. Black Power was the end of black power. Its brighter lights took their payoff from the system, ensconcing themselves in Democratic Party politics and ethnic studies departments.

    And soon the generation who actually participated in The Struggle [Jesse, John Lewis] will be gone, the generation of wannabe successors lacking their moral authority.

    When Barack Obama passes from the scene, that will be the end of it. Black power will have achieved full equality–just another interest group among many, with its own roster of concerns and complaints, its particular hook into the Democrats, its own set of academics studying themselves.

    This is a good thing. This is equality.

    • I think you make some interesting points here. It’s very important to note that, yes, many of these activists went into either Democratic Party politics or academia. And your point about Clinton’s racial politics from 2008 explains, of course, the recent headlines I’ve seen about them trying to renew links with the Black community.

  6. Robert–great piece! Lots to chew on. Wonder what you think of my favorite recent work of Black Power revisionism–Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul? To me, that work really opens up some new territory in terms of bio-power/bio-politics, and the politics of the body. I think Its value–and that of Ruth Gilmore’s work, too– lies especially in the way it allows us to reopen the question: what is racism? (Colorblind types always insist this is a too-often-asked question; in fact, I think, on the contrary, we have barely begun to understand what racism is…)

    One of the frustrations with Black Power treatments in documentaries is the way “before” and “after” structure the narrative… Even the Black Power Mixtape suffers from this… I wish it did not have such a depressing ending. Doesn’t seem faithful to the project.

    It might be better for historians and documentarians to look at flashes of certain kinds of radical collectivity in moments of danger and crisis, perhaps over a much longer time-scale. “The long fetch of history,” as George Lipsitz calls it.

    • You know, I was thinking of Black Power Mixtape while writing this blog piece. I was let down by the ending, not so much for it being depressing, as much as it seemed too abrupt. I also thought more–MUCH more–could have been done to examine Sweden’s own self-serving ideology of a nation untouched by racist ideology. I was surprised that the doc didn’t point out Gunnar Myrdal as standing next to MLK in the brief footage of Dr. King receiving his Nobel Peace Prize. In many ways, Black Power ideology was a rejection (or, at the very least, a sustained and sharp critique) of the liberal project on race and the American Creed Myrdal and others pushed.

      As for Nelson’s book, I haven’t read it yet but I want to badly! I hope to get to it over winter break (this is the second time I’ve typed this tonight–I hope to remember to take an actual break, heh).

  7. Robert (and Jason) – I’m working on my Jesse Jackson chapter as well now. (He’s not the focus of the whole chapter, but ends up being much more important to its argument than I had expected.)

    I have not been able to find much secondary literature on Jackson’s campaigns — which really surprises me. But here are a couple of titles that might be useful to you, both published by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington D.C.

    C. Anthony Broh, A Horse of a Different Color: Television’s Treatment of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential Campaign (1987)

    Penn Kimball, Keep Hope Alive! Super Tuesday and Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Campaign for the Presidency (1992)

    Hope that helps.

    • LD: I’m so glad you’re doing more on Jackson in the Stanford Affair/Debate. My focus on Adler and Britannica kept me from doing too much there. I could only look at that event as a kind of preface to Gates’ (and others) criticisms of Adler and Britannica’s set a few years later. – TL

    • Thanks! This will be quite useful. Oh yes, I’m also surprised there isn’t more out there about Jackson in the secondary literature—but it seems that’s slowly changing.

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