U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Open Thread on African Americans, Law Enforcement, and Intellectual History

Today, I had planned on writing a piece about Frederick Douglass’ well-known “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. It’s quickly noticeable that, every July Fourth, many friends and acquaintances of mine on social media post the speech. A stirring indictment of American society’s complete complicity with slavery in 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is one of the most important speeches in laying out a moral and political critique of American society from one of the most important intellectuals in American history. It is worth noting, however, that Douglass constantly debated the meaning and purpose of America during his lengthy public career.

I worry about reducing Douglass’ legacy of thought and action to just one speech, no matter how good it is. Likewise, it’s important to read Douglass’ final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, to understand how he viewed the world after the American Civil War (his other two autobiographies were written before the Civil War and the Reconstruction era). At some point in the near future I’ll do a post on Douglass and his intellectual legacy. For now, I’d like to recommend Waldo Martin’s The Mind of Frederick Douglass, a wonderful intellectual biography of Douglass.

I also considered writing a lengthy blog post about African American intellectuals and the idea of American patriotism. This is not a clear-cut concept, after all—African Americans have had to wrestle with ideas of American patriotism and nationalism since the founding of the nation. For black intellectuals, and for black Americans in general, patriotism is a complicated emotion. Patriotism has been, of course, a weapon wielded by African American activists to press for greater civil and human rights. This was most notable during World War II and the Cold War, when the threat of Fascism and later Communism gave activists the rhetorical tools to say, “If we’re fighting for freedom abroad, where is our freedom at home?” This is also something I’d like to tackle, although there are plenty of writings and essays already out there about this subject.

Instead, though, with the tragic deaths of two African American men in the last two days at the hands of law enforcement, I find I have little intellectual energy to expound on such big, expansive topics. What I will do, however, is link to some pieces that may help you, the reader, think deeper about the questions of police brutality and African American history. Over a year and a half ago, Tim Lacy hosted an open forum on “Intellectual History and Policing,” where there were plenty of good works suggested in the comments section. The Ferguson Syllabus is definitely an important read to understand the history of police brutality, law enforcement, and American society.

There’s much more I could recommend, but here are two good starting places. If you have more suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What is there to write on a day like this? One would hope that the brute facts surrounding Alton Sterling and Philando Castile would speak their brutal truth on their own. But, of course, that isn’t happening. Layers of equivocation are already beginning to pile up. And so efforts to write feel like conversing with a moral sophist: regardless of what you say, they just smile and nod, recalling that you don’t exist. Still, we write. And we read. Maybe not to convince others of our existence, but to remind ourselves of this fact, which is brute and, yes, on a day like this, brutal.

    Two books worth reading concurrently right now:

    Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation”

    James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name”

    Also Elizabeth Hinton, “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America”

  2. These are all excellent choices. It will be interesting to see what else is produced by historians on mass incarceration (I’m also thinking of Naomi Murakawa’s “The First Civil Right” as well) in the near future.

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