U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Year in Race and Intellectual History

The year 2014 has provided much to talk about in terms of race and American society. From Ferguson to New York, and from various scholarly articles to popular magazines, it’s been a lively year for talking about questions of race in the United States. What follows is a short review of 2014’s writings on race, with an eye towards what might interest intellectual historians most.

Most memorable is the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates and his piece, “The Case for Reparations.” The essay caused a buzz on social media and was the focus of a roundtable on this very blog. In his piece, Coates presented an argument for reparations based not only around slavery, but also concerning the plight of African Americans across the United States from the end of the Civil War until the present day. “The Case for Reparations” is, without question, one of the more memorable writings on race and American history for 2014. From here on out debates about reparations will reference Coates’ essay.

Of course, the essay was the prompt for not only our roundtable, but for various responses from across the web. Conservatives and liberals alike found the essay worth responding to, whether in agreement with Coates or against the idea of reparations. Coates use of history in his essays is something worth considering for intellectual historians. Whether or not you agree with his arguments, Coates’ use of the work of historians is worth wrestling with as an intellectual historian. For most of us, the question of what shapes a public intellectual’s thoughts and ideology is a primary concern. With Coates, he’s often spelled it out for us—and a few of the bloggers here have written about the intellectual tradition he emerges from.

William Jelani Cobb, professor at the University of Connecticut and staff writer for the New Yorker magazine has also provided some fascinating insights into race and American democracy. His blog posts, like Coates’, have become necessary reading for understanding the African American experience in modern America.[1] Cobb has written several trenchant posts about Ferguson and President Obama. I suspect that when historians look back on 2014, they’ll look to writers such as Coates and Cobb to understand at least part of the puzzle of race in American life during our era. That’s not to say they should stop with those too—on the contrary, that would be just scratching the surface. But it will be interesting to see what those two craft in 2015.

Meanwhile, the world of books has provided us much to digest in terms of intellectual history and race. I’ve reviewed Jim Crow Wisdom for the blog, and while it’s a 2013 release, Jonathan Scott Holloway’s ruminations on race, memory, and American history still matter greatly in a year that saw the celebrations of fifty years since Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The year 2014 also saw the release of two books about Malcolm X’s visit to Oxford in Great Britain, which occurred in December 1964. Both Saladin Ambar’s work and the study by Stephen Tuck remind readers of the transatlantic links between activist movements in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1960s (echoing the abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries). The African American Intellectual History Society, meanwhile, hosted a fantastic roundtable discussion of Race Rebels, a book enjoying its 20th anniversary this year.

Other monographs are proving that the field of African Americans and American intellectual history is still a rich one, waiting for more digging by historians and other scholars. Ruben Flores’ Backroads Pragmatists is an excellent reminder that American activists looked to various examples to provide them with the intellectual fortitude to struggle for equality in the United States. Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces meanwhile is a treat for environmental and intellectual historians alike. Finney’s mission was to probe how African Americans see themselves in the environmental movement and how they perceive their relationship to concepts such as “wilderness”.

Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right has generated considerable buzz in recent months. That’s not surprising—anyone making the argument that liberals are as much responsible for the “carceral state” as conservatives are traditionally blamed for will raise plenty of eyebrows. Yet Murakawa’s argument is backed up by plenty of primary sources. What she does is raise important questions about the relationship between American liberalism and the American state during the 20th century. To say that’s a complicated relationship is, well, putting it mildly.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. And you’ve probably noticed it focuses heavily on African American history. American history continues to come to grips with the diversity of race in America’s past—and this post should not be exempt from that. I think Flores’ Backroads Pragmatists is an example of how incorporating the histories of people reaching across boundaries can provide a good way of exploring beyond the black-white binary. Not that we’re done even with that idea—far from it. Here on the blog, Tim Lacy and Andrew Seal (along with LD Burnett’s post mentioned above) have also tackled issues of race and intellectual history. No doubt about it: 2014 was a busy year in intellectual history and race.

[1] Of course, make no mistake: there’s no such thing as a singular African American experience. This is merely an allusion to the broad based idea of talking about African Americans in public discourse.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you for this recap Robert. Coates’ piece and the responses to it worked incredibly well for me this semester in a classroom debate my students did on reparations. One book on race and intellectual history I’m looking forward to reading was just released, Sean Harvey’s Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation (Harvard University Press).

  2. Great sum up. Although it would be better if it alluded to other other non-white forms of identity. A potential risk is reducing “race” to the components you mention is reproducing the white/black oppositions we seek to deconstruct. I think it’s essential to think the experiences of non-white communities jointly, without of course forgetting their differences, specific histories, etc. With Latinos–which is not a racial, but an ethnic construct–we face the complication of subjects who identify as white, brown, black, (there’s a surge of people who identify as Afro-Latino) or even none of the above. How to think race relations in the era of Ferguson, taking into consideration both the ambivalence and support shown by many in the Latino community towards the protests even as Latinos face similar repression from the police state, is a key question. Adding Latinos (and yes, Asian Americans) into the equation will help us get a clearer sense of “the question of race” in the US, and how it is very different than it was during the Civil Rights Era (a period that also saw cultural and political alliances between black and brown people, which still need to be explored).

    • Oh no I’m totally in agreement. As I mentioned in my last paragraph, I definitely don’t want to just explore the black-white binary. I’m hoping folks will recommend more works that explore race, ethnicity, and identity in an American context to help us all build a broader list.

      • I was thinking not so much about the list, but what you were discussing above and the title of the post. After all, it’s not difficult to come up with lists of scholarly books related to what you’re pointing to.

      • Oops, my message was cut off, my apologies. My reaction is in the end not so much connected to your words, but the overall public discussion about the protests and police oppression, which falls into the tendency of compartmentalizing racial identities as if they were fixed objects, that can only be viewed in “black” and “white” (no pun intended). The work of the likes of Frank Guridy–his Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow, which came out in 2010, is foundational–and the Afro-Latino Studies initiative pushed forward by the recently deceased Juan Flores, are definite points of departure for exploring the intersections and tensions between African Americans and Latinos in regards to race. Urayoán Noel’s In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam does great work at looking at the dialogues between Nuyorican poets, the Black Arts movement, and the poetry slam culture that emerged later. Noel’s work is awesome (and if you’re into experimental poetry, check out his creative writing too). Another book that looks fascinating and brings a comparative lens into inter-racial relations is Lauren Araiza’s To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers is trying to do what I was suggesting regarding the Civil Rights era. And from a Boricua perspective on that same period: Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City, by Sonia Song-Ha Lee. Oh, and I just realize that a very important book that explores similar issues just came out: Frederick Douglass Opie’s Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office. It would be interesting to read a comparative review of these three books! If I were researching the cultures of Civil Rights (and how they are memorialized), I would jump on this opportunity (wink, wink). It’s fascinating: in the last five, ten years or so have witnessed a definite turn towards comparative racial and ethnic studies. Now, it is much more difficult to tell the history of, to give an arbitrary example, hip hop culture without taking into account Latino subjects. Both inside and outside of academia, we suffer for ignoring inter-ethnic/racial work.

  3. That’s an excellent comment (not surprising coming from you) and you’re 100 percent right. Something I realized today is that my piece doesn’t even discuss the debates over immigration–for which I apologize and while try to rectify soon. And Guridy’s work is fantastic, a model of scholarship that I hope others follow (and a book worth going back to considering the new developments in US-Cuban relations).

    Now your point about memory certainly caught my eye. We’re far from done with talking about memory and civil rights. I can actually give you a personal example: here at South Carolina, we finished up celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the University of South Carolina in 1963. However, we also went further back in time to Reconstruction–most folks don’t know USC was briefly desegregated in the 1870s! And we also asked the question: well, what about Native American, Asian, and Hispanic students who first attended USC? How do we track them down? And what do their stories say about the changing idea of race in American history? For the sake of time we had to narrow our focus, but your point on memory and different communities is an important one.

    I want to dive into those books you’ve mentioned. I’m not sure when, but I’ll certainly try to. In the context of the history of the U.S. South this is all also quite important, because various groups in the Deep South had to navigate racial hierarchies. Not just blacks and whites, but also Jewish Americans, Asians (most notably the Chinese in Mississippi), and people of Latin American descent.

  4. Thank you for your mention of my book, Robert. Extending the reach of pragmatism across the continent was a chief aim of my study, as well as its influence on democratic movements and civil rights at mid-century.

  5. Robert, thank you for this great review of the past year.
    An essay from this year that I think will stay on many people’s minds for quite a long time–especially among those of us in the academy–is Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK.” I feel that this essay spoke to some of the same issues about the complexities of race (especially blackness) and the academy that you raised in your review of Holloway’s book.

    I am also really eager to read Scott Saul’s new biography of Richard Pryor, which came out just this month.

    • That was a fascinating essay, thanks so much for mentioning it here. And that bio of Pryor will be fantastic to read.

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