U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Magazines, Black Memory, and Black History

In the last few weeks, I’ve devoted my blog space to talking about Lerone Bennett’s contributions to both 1960s Reconstruction historiography and the memory of African American concerning that time period. Today I’ll finish up this series on Bennett with a brief meditation on his later work for Ebony magazine. Furthermore, I will say just a bit on Ebony’s personal impact on my choice of career as a historian. Ultimately, what I’ve come to realize is that the magazine’s push of African American history in the late 1960s and early 1970s had a profound impact on me as a young boy in the 1990s.

Bennett’s position as editor at Ebony allowed him the opportunity to write about a wide variety of issues facing the Black American community during the late 1960s. At the same time, his training as a historian and as a writer allowed him to use the pages of that magazine to bring to light historical parallels that would have been easy to forget for most people. Again, his use of the Reconstruction era was, while about history, also about the rise of Black (political) Power in the late 1960s. Indeed, his use of such a public forum as Ebony is a reminder of the vitality of debates among Black Americans about the course of the nation’s history during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras.

At moments like this, I’d like to recommend a book. In this case I’m referring to Lerone Bennett’s The Challenge of Blackness. Published by Johnson Publishing Company, the same group that published Ebony, Jet, and the intellectual journal Negro Digest/Black World, The Challenge of Blackness was a collection of previously published and new essays by Bennett dealing with the plight of African Americans in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. If this title seems familiar in any way, it should even if you’re not quite familiar with the intricacies of early 1970s Black print culture: The Challenge of Blackness is also the title of the history of the Institute of the Black World, written by Derrick White in 2011. The IBW included Bennett in its initial governing council formed in 1969, along with other intellectuals such as St. Clair Drake, John Henrik Clarke, and Horace Mann Bond.

I don’t want to re-open the debate over public intellectuals that has raged for roughly two months now (and is part of a longer tradition arguing over who is and isn’t an intellectual, and the place of intellectual in American society). With that said, however, I think it’s interesting to think about Bennett’s place in both African American and American public life. Bennett’s activities have kept him in the public light for decades, and his books such as Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America and his late 1990s work, Forced Into Glory on Abraham Lincoln and the ending of slavery, are memorable for their insights into both historical issues and what they said about Bennett’s thoughts on modern-day issues.

Perhaps what has brought about this brief series on Bennett is two, very related issues. First is a question I’ve always asked myself: just what is the place of African American intellectuals within American intellectual history? The question of race has, of course, always been central to what Black intellectuals have argued over for centuries. I’d also argue that a precarious place within American intellectual life is important to understanding Black intellectuals. For most of America’s history, Black intellectuals published a variety of works that, often times, went ignored by most Americans (including white intellectuals). By the time of Bennett’s series on Reconstruction in the late 1960s, however, more Americans were slowly beginning to pay attention to what Black intellectuals were saying—albeit, once again, it was what they were saying on the issue of race. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just recommend two books published in the last year (that, elsewhere, I’ve written about) that get at the heart of this issue: Jonathan Holloway’s Jim Crow Wisdom (which includes sections about Black intellectuals lamenting the fact that they needed to devote so much time to talking about race when many would have been comfortable talking about other issues) and Daniel Matlin’s On The Corner (which talks about the rise of a particular type of Black intellectual, one who was well-versed in the urban crisis of the 60s). Both of these books not only talk about African Americans as intellectuals, but also detail how they come to occupy that particular space in American life.

Second, I’ve thought about the impact of Ebony on my own development as a historian, and more broadly as a scholar of the humanities. I grew up reading the magazine. My family would always get the newest issue, every month, for years (in fact my parents still get every issue, every month). And, of course, I’ve also read plenty a Jet magazine while waiting for a haircut at a barber shop. But more than that, it was the Pictorial History of Black America three volume series that I’ve always considered my introduction to history. As a five year old, I’d always flip through the pages at my grandmother’s house. Once, noticing how often I read through the books (although it was more looking at the pictures, admittedly; after all, it was called a “pictorial history”) my grandmother offered the set to me. Bewildered, I said no; after all, how could I take her books away from her?[1] But she insisted, and I’ve treasured the set ever since. This set was published by Johnson Publication Company in 1971, and features Black history from the kingdoms of West Africa before the rise of the European slave trade, and ends in the early 1970s. I’ll say more about the set later, but I want to emphasize that it’s important for us, as historians, to recognize why we’ve gone into this field of study. Not surprisingly, what we’ve chosen to study has a great deal to do with that cause.  And it’s no exaggeration to say that, thanks to Bennett, Black print culture in the 1970s, and my grandmother in the early 70s deciding to buy an encyclopedia set from a traveling salesman, I’m the historian I am today.

[1] Yes, apparently even as a young boy I was already a budding bibliophile.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, another great post.

    I have found Ebony especially has offered a helpful context for looking at the African-American student activism at Stanford in the 1980s. Some polemicists and a few scholars have argued that the students were simply parroting/adopting the arguments of the “tenured radicals” at Stanford — as if there were such a thing as a radical at Stanford! But that argument presumes that students would not have already had ideas about Africanity, the influence of Egypt on Greece, etc, before coming to Stanford. These ideas, and the African American scholars who advanced them decades before Martin Bernal, received plenty of column space in Ebony. Middle-class Black kids who grew up thumbing through the magazine might well have expected to encounter this historical perspective in the Western Culture classes at Stanford. I might play hell proving that student X read article Y — but I might not have to prove that much. We’ll see how the argument takes shape.

    Anyway, thanks again for the great post, and for the personal touch. Another example of history as affirmation.

  2. Not a problem at all. Thanks for your kind words. And you’re right: thinking about what college students in the 1980s grew up reading (and, for that matter, watched on television and movies and listened to on radio) is an important way to understanding the positions students and young scholars took during that decade of the Culture Wars.

    And, I think it’s also worth considering how the very fact that many students grew up in such different media backgrounds–black students consuming some forms of media that most white students may not have been exposed to–and how that plays into these later debates over the Western canon. All very interesting stuff indeed!

  3. Robert,
    I’ll echo what L.D. said: I appreciate the personal touch at the end of your post, and the rich contextualization that preceded it.

    I’m wondering if you’ve had the chance to apply some of the material about the Johnson Publishing Company that Adam Green has recovered in Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955 to the questions you’re asking about historical memory and print culture. Johnson himself really comes alive in the book, but Green provides a broad Chicagoan canvas to really embed Ebony, Jet, and the earlier Negro Digest in Chicago.

    • I’m just starting to dive into that literature myself, and I hope to incorporate it very soon. That Chicago location is also really important. Books like Green’s go a long way towards centering Chicago in a larger African American historical narrative, giving it the space it deserves besides places like Harlem.

  4. Robert: You now have me thinking about everything I read at my grandparents’ house, as well as the homes of other family members. I recall thumbing through *National Geographic* at my maternal grandparents’ house, and an encyclopedia set (publisher unknown) there too. Hmm… I’m pretty sure my interests in history developed through school and relatively independently (inasmuch as that is possible) through an interest in the details of WWIII. But I’m going to search my memory for other familial influences. – TL

    • That sounds really interesting! And I don’t want to imply that school had nothing to do with my intellectual development. But, I suppose, what I’m getting at too is that these encyclopedias were giving me a narrative that was just starting to be included in the standard American and world histories I was exposed to as a youngster.

      It should be noted, too, that my father greatly encouraged me to investigate African American history when I was a young boy. He’d purchase for me books by and about African Americans from a Black owned bookstore in town, and I recall quite well the night he sat me down to watch “Glory” with him.

      • Interesting. My family was interested in “the past” for identity and nostalgia reasons. But they were never interested in the study of history—of its complexities, ironies, paradoxes, etc. To them one narrative told The Story, generally. – TL

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