U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Next For Black American History?

Last week I gave some brief thoughts on where I thought Black American history could go next. After reviewing the wonderful comments made on that post, I’m ready today to talk further about several topics Black American history could tackle next. Since writing that post, however, I’ve also been lucky enough to come across several books that, at the very least, add some potential sources of information for Black history after the Civil Rights Movement. Above all, however, thinking about the historiography of the last thirty years (which is nothing new for the participants at this blog) helps us to put many of its events in historical context.

I’ve been driven, for at least the last eight months, by the following question: just what happened to Black intellectuals after the 1965 Voting Rights Act? To put it another way, how did they respond to a new kind of America, where voting rights and other civil rights had been secured for African Americans, yet, for so many Black citizens, something (racial pride, economic justice, etc.) just felt missing? I’ve mentioned numerous times the work by Derrick White, The Challenge of Blackness, which describes the Institute of the Black World (IBW). The IBW was a Black think tank in the 1970s, which served as a place where many Black intellectuals could congregate and pool their information. Their objective was to create some form of a Black Agenda in the 1970s, an answer to the problems many African Americans faced in a society still dealing with the aftermath of both the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Yet, I’ve come to think about this book’s portrayal of the 1970s for Black intellectuals and put it in conversation with Jefferson Cowie’s Staying Alive. Cowie argued in his book on the 1970s that most Americans weren’t quite liberal or conservative—they were simply trying to find answers when it appeared no one in Washington had any. Most Americans may have had qualms with busing, yet also supported other civil rights initiatives. They may not have been fans of “big government,” but some Americans still supported some form of government intervention in the economy, including wage and price controls. I’d argue that for the 1970s and beyond African American intellectual history is the story of a group of intellectuals that, like Americans in the 1970s, have become willing to try a wide variety of methods to diagnosis and cure the various ailments of Black society.

Now, on the surface this is nothing new. The various debates among Black intellectuals since the end of Reconstruction—accommodation versus agitation for rights, nationalism versus socialism, integration versus separatism—are proof of the diversity of thought among Black intellectuals. However, the rise of Black politicians and a Black middle class also made things more complex for Black Americans. Richard Iton’s book In Search of the Black Fantastic addresses this time period and brings up a fundamental question: why did Black culture and artists remain so important to the Black community even after the Civil Rights Movement?[1] Iton’s goal in this book is to discover how scholars can “situate popular culture in general, and black popular culture in particular, in relation to both the formally and informally political.”[2] The book is an excellent meditation on both black popular culture and black politics. Iton cautions that “black deliberative activity cannot be captured or understood by focusing only on that which happens in the arenas of formal politics and policy making.”[3] In thinking about Black intellectuals, it also becomes imperative to think about their relationship with Black popular culture. Individuals such as Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West come to mind, of course, and I’m sure that decades from now (if not sooner) the debates they’ve participated in will become fodder for understanding how Black intellectuals contemplated the Obama presidency.

While reading the book, Iton’s use of African American Studies, American Studies, and American and African American histories to inform his work easily comes through his accessible prose (a wonder I came across this book after our discussions on American Studies!).  I would also argue that, if we’re going to write and research on Black intellectual, and indeed American intellectual, history in this time period, uses of Habermas’ Public Sphere or Jeffrey Alexander’s Civil Sphere theories are also important. In fact, the Civil Sphere theory, with its use of the Civil Rights Movement as an example, is a conceptual framework that can aid in thinking about the role of Black intellectuals in this time period. Some of these intellectuals that dominated the landscape (Jesse Jackson, for instance) were far more on the “inside”, as it were, than an Adolph Reed. Nonetheless we must make sure to place all of these intellectuals in a context that recognizes just what those intellectuals knew: times had changed. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements were memories, and a new era called for new solutions.

Cedric Johnson’s Revolutionaries to Race Leaders also offers a unique look at the post-Civil Rights era.[4] Johnson’s focus is more on Black activists and intellectuals. Revolutionaries and Race Leaders is a lament by Johnson for the vibrant politics of the Black Power era, replaced by a more conservative (at least in terms of procedure and implementation) era for Black politics. Of course, thinking about the writings of Bayard Rustin, perhaps that was the whole point: move from the streets and into the corridors of power. Iton’s work, however, argues that both artistic displays and politics together explain recent Black American history.

Black American history is never in a vacuum. As we consider, for instance, the role of Jesse Jackson in Black intellectual history, we also need to think about the wider political and intellectual context that these intellectuals, activists, and politicians operated in. Bradford Martin’s The Other Eighties makes this clear, discussing many of the protest movements that animated the 1980s.[5] The movements discussed in the book—gay rights, anti-Apartheid, nuclear freeze, among others—are, for Martin, a reminder of the methods activists used to make their voice felt in an otherwise conservative decade. It’s especially poignant to think about the movement against Apartheid in South Africa with the passing of Nelson Mandela. Many of the older activists in that movement (most notably Jackson and Rosa Parks) were involved in it, and a new generation of activists (including Barack Obama) also voiced support for sanctions against South Africa. Yet that movement should also be considered as a statement against racial conservatism in the 1980s, a chance for Black Americans and for liberals to gain a victory on race during the Reagan years. This is something I’ve been working on in a research paper this semester that I’ll send out for potential publication in the spring. But to bring it back to the larger point, we need to think about Black intellectuals and Black activists in a larger context of political and intellectual duels in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. This also means dealing with forces such as the Democratic Leadership Council, which was attacked by Jackson and others on the Left in the 1980s as being too conservative. This clash is very important. It’s too easy, I think, to think of the African American vote as belonging to the Democratic Party since the FDR years. Yet, while the Black vote would remain loyal in the 1980s, there was a serious debate among Black Americans, liberals, and more moderate leaders, about the direction of the Democratic Party.Winnie and Nelson Mandela with Rosa Parks

At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that all, or even most, African Americans, blindly supported Jackson due to race alone. We should view the 1984 and 1988 primary campaigns of Jackson as a dialogue between the African American community, liberals, and the Democratic Party.  All of these forces (to varying degrees) felt some form of marginalization during the conservative 1980s, and even with Congressional victories in 1986 for example, and the win on Apartheid sanctions in the same year, conservatism was still very much in control by the end of the 1980s. Still, Black intellectuals were trying to construct new, or at least revised, methods of articulating a more liberal or, for others (such as Manning Marable) more radical, American future. Al From’s recent book, The New Democrats and the Return to Power, offers an inside look at the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council. While certainly from an insider point of view, it’s still a book worth looking at if thinking about the recent history of liberalism, the Democratic Party, and Black Americans. Of course, it’s no surprise that From traces back the rise of the DLC to the 1972 presidential defeat of George McGovern. For Black intellectual history, 1972 is just as important due to the Gary Convention on Black Politics. So, it’s important to think about the intersections of Black intellectual history with the problems of American liberalism, the rise of modern conservatism, and American culture, if we’re going to create further inroads into a historiography of Black American history since the 1970s.


[1] Iton, Richard. In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

[2] Iton, 4.

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[3] Iton, 29.

[4] Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[5] Martin, Bradford. The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

One Thought on this Post

  1. What Next For Black American History?

    One could say that the ink dried on “Irish American History” with the election [or death] of John Kennedy. Certainly as a politics.

    There’s little in RG2’s essay here that indicates the ink–at least for now–isn’t dry on “Black American History”. It’s quite the postmortem. Jesse Jackson is irrelevant, Skip Gates is more an ambassador for black history and culture than a participant, and today’s “intellectual historians” are picking through the ashes of the 1960s or the walking dead of the 70s and 80s, when they’re not taking a de rigueur whack at “Daniel Moynihan wannabees” like Bill Cosby.

    Which leaves Barack Obama, who himself was not a creature of The Struggle, only a beneficiary. Soon he’ll depart the scene, and it may be decades before he can be accurately analyzed as the first black president or the last radical one–at least in many of our lifetimes.

    On the politics tip, like Bill Clinton, he’ll leave his party in worse shape than he found it; unlike Bill Clinton he’ll leave his supporters in worse economic shape than he found them. A realignment of black politics [and American politics] is not unthinkable–at the moment, his support among whites is down to ~30%, among Hispanics only near even, and it’s doubtful his Democratic successor Hillary [or whoever] will enjoy the enduring 85%+ approval–largely symbolic, I suspect–that he does.

    It wasn’t terribly long ago that The Struggle straddled partisan politics rather than be synonymous with them–Richard Nixon won 32% of the black vote in 1960. [Hell, he won 18% in 1968!]

    I was alive and I waited, waited
    I was alive and I waited for this
    Right here, right now
    There is no other place I want to be
    Right here, right now
    Watching the world wake up from history

    The song was from 1990, and it wasn’t just about the fall of Sovietism, it was also about the new opportunities, the new world that was now possible for the millions who had been under the Kremlin’s gray dominion.

    Barack Obama may be not a new, but the end of an old chapter–or perhaps of a whole book–of “history,” and the next one will be quite different.

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