U.S. Intellectual History Blog

William Strickland and the Problem of Modern America

In the last six months, it has become a trend among intellectuals and academics to mine the past for thinkers to whom we can look to for guidance in how to address the “Age of Trump.” Hannah Arendt and Richard Hofstadter have, not surprisingly, become the leaders in this renaissance of thinking about oppressive regimes abroad and at home. Thankfully, other scholars have critiqued this, reminding us that African American intellectuals, among many others, embody a tradition of fighting government tyranny at home. For many Americans, fear of the government, concerns about the trampling of their constitutional rights, and desperation to find hope during hopeless times, is nothing new during the Trump Administration. It is merely day to day life in America.

It is in this frame of mind that I wish to bring attention of the readers of this blog to the works of William Strickland. Bill Strickland was heavily involved in the Black Freedom movement of the 1960s, working on several projects in the South as a scholar-activist. By the 1970s, he spent a considerable amount of time working and writing for the Institute of the Black World, an African American think-tank based in Atlanta, Georgia. While there, he wrote numerous pieces for publications such as Black World, tackling the thorny subjects of Watergate and the problems of American decline during the era. Reading some of his essays in recent days makes several things clear. First, the current spate of crises is worrying, but the United States has faced similar moments of tumult. That is not a comforting thought—because it is easy to consider how things can go badly from here on out. Nor is this to say that our present moment is exactly like Watergate and the 1970s. But the mixture of domestic government crises and foreign policy headaches does seem awfully familiar.

Second, reading Strickland should push intellectual historians—especially those of post-World War II America—to look beyond the usual suspects when contemplating the past to consider the present. I mentioned earlier the need to look to Arendt and other European intellectuals, or Hofstadter and the usual suspects of American thought. But even with African American intellectuals, we tend to look towards James Baldwin to make sense of the present. That’s understandable—and intellectually good. But there are other thinkers, like Strickland, Angela Davis, Vincent Harding, and others we should also look to understand both the present moment and the past. We cannot afford to rest on examining just a few intellectuals. Many thinkers ignored or downplayed by most historians offer a great deal to think about.

Two essays jump out for me from Strickland’s Black World opus. “Watergate: It’s Meaning for Black America” from the December 1973 issue of Black World was Strickland’s way of arguing that the Watergate crisis was merely the federal government’s war against radical activism finally eating away at the system itself. “Watergate,” he argued, “is more than a symbol of the pervasive corruption of American government. It is also perhaps the least well understood example of the power of Black people and Black struggle to shape the direction of American society.”[1] Writing about programs such as COINTELPRO and the federal government’s attempts to break radical social justice movements in the 1960s and early 1970s, Strickland made it clear that such programs—not to mention the deceit surrounding American entry into Vietnam—was the proper starting point for understanding Watergate.

The problems facing America at home and abroad were tied together in Strickland’s essay. Strickland did so again two years later, in his essay “Black Intellectuals and the American Social Scene” published in 1975. The dire situation facing Americans on a variety of fronts—something written about by other intellectuals at the same time—was again at the heart of Strickland’s essay. “This breakdown in the American social order,” he wrote, “poses a particular challenge to Black intellectuals because it reveals, at the same time, a parallel breakdown of American intellectual life.”[2] In other words, America’s problems mirrored a weakening of the American “mind.” While Strickland opined that African American intellectuals, due to the unique cultural and intellectual tradition they came from, had an opportunity to change the American intellectual tradition, the problem in the 1970s was that black intellectuals were unsure of what such a change should look like.

This is meant merely as a short introduction to Strickland’s valuable work. I would urge more historians to wrestle with his works, and to consider how they inform both how we should think about the 1970s and the present-day. After all, Strickland and others knew they wrote not merely for the present, but for a United States that has, time and again, faced serious problems of how to create a more perfect union.

[1] “Watergate: It’s Meaning for Black America,” Black World, December 1973, p. 5.

[2] “Black Intellectuals and the American Social Scene,” Black World, November 1975, p. 5.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What a great post, Robert! What you bring up here also reminds me of the much-discussed Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock SNL skit, where right after the elections they mocked the white liberal / centrist reaction to Trump’s electoral victory. These are ideas that are clearly present in the popular imaginary of people of color (to a lesser extent among Latinxs, but is still there I think). I wonder how should we call this type of perception, are we talking about a historically grounded realism or even pessimism (i.e. Afropessimism)?

    • Thanks for the great comment. In regards to Afropessimism and this conversation, I confess that field of study is something I’m hoping to get deeper into this summer. I just haven’t read enough of the literature–yet–to have a solid opinion of it one way or the other. But on your broader point, that we should think about different perceptions of seemingly dramatic moments in history from the POVs of different groups of people, is one that we need to certainly take into account. And, I’d add, it’s also important when thinking about memory of the past.

  2. Thanks for this, Robert! I’m sorry it took me five days to read it. I try to read all of our new posts within a few days. You’re completely right to direct readers and intellectual history enthusiasts to other viable historical exemplars on how to thoughtfully process one’s times and travails. The only way we’ll get through our interesting times is to consult with a diverse set of historical respondents to their own crises. – TL

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