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. 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.
 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.