University of Virginia Press’s “Rotunda” ads the papers of Booker T. Washington to its digital collection

Here is Emily Grandstaff at UVA Today:

This digital edition is based on the landmark 14-volume print series of Washington’s papers, originally published by the University of Illinois Press between 1970 to 1989. It is considered one of the great documentary editions in American scholarship – “a major enterprise in Black historiography,” according to the Times Literary Supplement.

The online archive, expected to be available in spring 2021, will collect the complete contents of the print edition; it will be fully searchable and interoperable with other titles in Rotunda’s American History Collection.

Read the entire piece here.

Episode 76: Howard Thurman: Theologian, Mystic, Activist

Howard Thurman was a mid-20th century theologian, writer, activist, and mystic who had a profound influence on the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Thurman’s writings–especially his 1949 work Jesus and the Disinherited–provided an intellectual and spiritual guide to those trying to make sense of an era of racial and social unrest. Our guest in this episode is historian Paul Harvey, the author of Howard Thurman & The Disinherited: A Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2020).

Listen at:

Apple Podcasts

Stitcher

iHeartRadio

Spotify

Podbean

Podchaser

And other podcatchers!

If you like what you hear, or perhaps you are new to the work of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog, please consider supporting our work.

Click here to become a patron.

We have some big changes in the works for 2021. I can’t say anything yet, but it’s going to be huuuuge!  Stay tuned.

If all goes well, we will drop an episode every Sunday until mid-January 2021. We have some incredible guests lined-up!

And yes, mugs and signed books are still available for patrons!

Did I mention you can click here to become a patron?

And for our loyal patrons: THANK YOU for your ongoing support!

The worst moment of Election Day violence in American history

It happened 100 years ago today in Ocoee, Florida. Here is Gillian Brockell at The Washington Post:

There are at least 129 accounts of what happened that day in Ocoee, and they vary wildly.

Some said the attack was a spur-of-the-moment reaction to a Black man trying to vote. Others said it had been carefully planned by White residents for weeks. Only a few Black folks were killed that day; or, dozens of bodies were piled into a mass grave. Every Black resident who survived fled the day after; or, survivors were harassed, threatened and cheated out of land for the next seven years until they all left.

This is what is certain: 100 years ago, on Nov. 2, 1920 — the same day women voted nationally for the first time — the worst instance of Election Day violence in American history unfolded in a small Florida town west of Orlando.

And the perpetrators got away with what they did for the rest of their lives. There are no roadside markers in Ocoee as you might find in Selma, Ala., no excavation projects to locate the purported mass grave as in Tulsa. Until recently, many descendants of survivors had no idea they were descendants of survivors or that they had been robbed of a valuable inheritance long before they were born.

Now, after years of research, a new exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando has unearthed a crime long buried.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Libra Hilde

Libra Hilde is Professor of History at San Jose State University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: In one of my undergraduate courses, I ask my students to write a paper comparing the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. The idea for Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty emerged from repeatedly confronting the disjuncture between these two authors’ experiences. Despite being quite young when her enslaved father passed away, Jacobs attributed her sense of humanity and will to achieve liberty to his influence. Douglass could only guess at the identity of an unknown white father who never acknowledged or took responsibility for his enslaved child. I found this contrast fascinating and set out to explore how enslaved people conceived of and negotiated paternal duty within the constraints of slavery and Jim Crow.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Denied the ability to directly provide for and protect loved ones, enslaved men often found alternative ways to care for and support their children, exerting their influence through advice, ideas, and religious counsel, immaterial means over which slaveholders had less control. This book counters persistent stereotypes of African American families and absent, irresponsible Black fathers, showing that because enslaved and then freed men did not have access to open patriarchal authority, much of their care-taking behavior has remained hidden.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Recent events and the racial reckoning we face in this country have underscored the destructive impact of misconceptions about Black masculinity and the African American family that are an ongoing legacy of slavery. In order to appreciate the variability and adaptability of the enslaved family, we need to look beyond household structure and normative definitions of family and fatherhood and instead look at how kin units actually functioned. It is also important to understand the public/private and hierarchical nature of Southern masculinity and how such assumptions continue to shape American attitudes. While only white men in the Old South had access to public definitions and the display of manhood, enslaved men were frequently allowed to exhibit attributes of masculinity within the confines of the plantation, especially when this arrangement profited the slaveholder. Enslaved men faced painful, intractable dilemmas and yet many endeavored to uphold the vision of paternal honor idealized by African American communities.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LH: I started college as a mechanical engineering major with the unrealistic goal of becoming a mission payload specialist and astronaut. In my first semester, I took an 800-person American History survey course with the late Leon F Litwack, and it changed my life. I switched my major to history and never looked back. In graduate school, I narrowed my focus to the Civil War era based on interest and a desire to work with the late William E. Gienapp. Great teachers and mentors have provided inspiration at every stage of my career development.

JF: What is your next project?

LH: My next project examines the consequences of Civil War mortality, comparing Southern counties with relatively light losses to those with heavy losses. The South lost a significant percentage of its white male population between the ages of 14 and 55, and local organization of regiments meant that deaths were unevenly spread across the landscape. I am using a combination of quantitative data and qualitative sources to explore the effects of wartime mortality on household formation, marriage patterns, local politics, regional migration, gender roles, and post-war race relations, with a particular focus on widows.

JF: Thanks, Libra!

The Author’s Corner with John Marks

John Marks is Historian and Public History Administrator for the American Association for State and Local History. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas (University of South Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: The idea for this project began developing for me in graduate school. In reading widely about the history of race and slavery in the Atlantic World, I began to recognize patterns in the lived experiences of African-descended people in urban spaces that often went unmentioned. Historians of the United States almost never talked about parallels with Latin American society; Latin Americanists, for their part, often referenced older, or more abstract, examples from US histories when drawing broad comparisons. A deep engagement with current scholarship for both regions, however, revealed parallels I just couldn’t ignore: namely, the opportunity for free people of color living in cities before the end of slavery to carve out spaces of autonomy for themselves, claim a degree of distinction within their communities, and conduct themselves in ways that defied white expectation—and often the law. Recognizing major differences in law, culture, and attitudes towards racial difference across the Americas, I wanted to understand with greater precision the ways African-descended people navigated daily life in these places. As I began researching, I recognized as well that explicitly comparative history in some ways represented an unfulfilled promise of the turn to the “Atlantic World” as a perspective for analyzing the history of the United States and other American societies. Few scholars had conducted the kind of careful social history research in service of a transnational and comparative project I thought was necessary to really understand local dynamics. Once I realized such an approach could make a unique contribution to our understanding of race and slavery, there was no turning back.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: Throughout the urban Americas before the end of slavery, free people of color relentlessly pursued opportunities to improve their circumstances and provide for their families, staking claims to rights, privileges, and distinctions not typically granted to African-descended people. These efforts represented part of an international struggle for Black freedom, as free Black residents in Charleston, Cartagena, and beyond subtly challenged ideologies of white racial supremacy that linked the Americas together and undermined the foundations of white authority in the Atlantic World.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: 2020 has revealed for many Americans, especially white Americans, the degree to which racial injustice and inequality are still pervasive and pernicious features of our society. In order to fully understand the persistence of both individual racial prejudice and systemic racism, we need to understand the history of how race has operated and affected the lives of African-descended people. To fully understand that story, we need to at times look at the history of race and slavery from an international perspective.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, free people of African descent in the United States, Colombia, and throughout the Americas had to confront broadly shared notions of white supremacy among the country’s ruling classes in order to advance efforts to provide for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Today, anti-Black racism and a wide range of persistent racial inequalities are pervasive from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between. When demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence erupted this summer, they extended to places like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia, in addition to across the United States. These international demonstrations were not just in solidarity with the US, they were protests against the particular, local histories of white supremacist violence and injustice.

Linking the histories of race and slavery in these places, exploring how and when racial dynamics were the same and different, offers new perspective on the histories of the United States, Latin America, and the Atlantic World, and I hope offers some insight into how we should understand efforts to combat white supremacy in the present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JM: High school was the first time I really recognized that I had an uncommon interest in (and knack for) reading and writing about the past, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it could be a career. As an undergrad at Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg), I had the opportunity to pursue several locally-focused research projects, and I grew to enjoy the archive, the search for material, and the process of putting a puzzle together when you’re not really sure if you have all the pieces. As a New Jersey native researching race and slavery in Virginia, I also became keenly aware of regional differences in present-day racial dynamics, and I wanted to know more about how understandings of race developed over time. Moving forward through graduate school and now a career in public history, the way I think about what it means to be an American historian has certainly changed. But I’m as committed as ever to using research, writing, and engagement with the public to better understand the past and think through how it can help us solve problems in the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JM: I’ve got a couple things kicking around that I hope to be able to say more about soon. In both my scholarship and my day job (for the American Association for State and Local History), I’ve been thinking a lot about anniversaries and how historians can use them as opportunities to expand, challenge, and learn from the public’s understandings of history. 2022 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston, and 2026 represents the 250th anniversary of the United States. I know planning is underway already for both commemorations, so I’m interested in using those events to think in new ways about the history of race, slavery, and freedom—whether for books, articles, public history projects, or other endeavors.

JF: Thanks, John!

Editor of *The New York Times Magazines* addresses recent criticisms of the 1619 Project

You can find all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.

Here is Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine:

Most of the questions around our display language have centered on variations on a single phrase. In some cases, we referred to 1619 as the nation’s “birth year,” in others as our “birth date,” in others as “a foundational date,” in others as our “point of origin.” In one instance of digital display copy, we referred to 1619 as our “true founding.” It is this use of this last phrase, and its subsequent deletion, that was the subject of an article in the online magazine Quillette and then, more recently, that figured prominently in a column by my colleague Bret Stephens, a columnist on The Times’s Opinion page.

A few notes on this phrase, “true founding”: It was written by a digital editor and approved by me. (Hannah-Jones, as a staff writer at the magazine is not typically involved in matters of digital display language.) It does not appear in the print edition of The 1619 Project. This phrase was introduced when the project went online, in August 2019, appearing in an un-bylined 55-word passage that lived in a small box on the project’s main web page, as well as on the individual story pages, which read as follows: “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Given the space constraints, “true founding” was a way to summarize the “birth” metaphor that appeared here and there throughout the print edition — such as in a sentence in my editor’s note that read: “The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” It also carried some of the meaning of a sentence from Hannah-Jones’s essay in which she says that Black Americans, “as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’” (This summer, President Obama made a similar comparison in his eulogy for the civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, calling him a “founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”)

Nevertheless, in the months after the package went online, we began to wonder if we’d gotten it quite right. In the longer phrase from the editor’s note (“by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year”), the sense that this was a metaphor — a whole new perspective on American history that this collection of essays would give you — was explicit. The online language risked being read literally. And indeed, some readers pointed out that this word choice implied that the specific historical meaning of what took place during the founding period should be replaced by the specific historical meaning of what took place in 1619.

So in December, we edited this digital display text to more closely mirror what appeared in the print magazine. We did not see this as a significant alteration, let alone concession, in how we presented the project. Within the project’s essays, the argument about 1619’s being the nation’s symbolic point of origin remained.

Read the entire piece here.

Some of the descendants of James Monroe’s slaves do not want the former president’s statue removed from the College of William & Mary

The statue of Monroe on William & Mary’s campus was erected “a few years ago.” Monroe attended the William & Mary before he dropped out in 1776 to join the Continental Army.

Here is a taste of Wilford Kale’s article at The Virginia Gazette:

Cousins Jennifer L. Stacy and George R. Monroe Jr. do not want the College of William & Mary to remove President James Monroe’s name from a residence hall, nor would they support the removal of the new statue of the fourth president of the United States placed on campus a few years ago.

The family members are descendants of enslaved persons who labored for Monroe more than two centuries ago at Highland — his Albemarle County plantation now owned, maintained and interpreted by William & Mary.

Stacy and Monroe also are members of the Council of Descendant Advisors, working to tell a broader story at Monroe’s homesite.

Recently, some students and faculty at William & Mary have raised the question as to whether the names on certain buildings on campus are appropriate in light of questions regarding social and racial justice.

“Removing (Monroe’s) statue and name does a disservice,” Stacy explained. “It is not something I support, because that’s taking one part of a man’s life and ignoring the contributions he made to our country. He was a Founding Father.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Hannah-Rose Murray

Hannah-Rose Murray is Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the creator of a virtual Black Abolitionist tour of London, highlighting six important sites where African American activists made an impact on the UK landscape. This interview is based on her new book, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The book developed from my PhD project, which focused on Black abolitionism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century. When I first started my research, I collated thousands of newspaper articles about Frederick Douglass’ visit to Britain and Ireland between 1845-1847, and after reading the pioneering works of Richard Blackett and Audrey Fisch realized that there was a wealth of material and sources to search through and uncover the larger story behind this transatlantic movement. I was fascinated to learn why Douglass was so famous and I developed a framework, adaptive resistance, which explores the reason why some activists were more successful than others: broadly, it’s a triad that rests on performance, antislavery networks and exploitation of print culture. For example, one of the reasons why Douglass was so successful in 1845 was due to his oratorical skill, his connections to William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery movement and friends across Britain and Ireland, who in turn befriended newspaper editors and published pamphlets and materials to maximise support for Douglass and the abolitionist cause. Others, like Moses Roper, were maligned in the press by newspaper correspondents and by some abolitionists; he often had to make his own way around Britain without such concrete networks of support. Through excavating British newspaper articles, I could analyze their performances, their testimony and how they were received by the press and public across the nineteenth century, and how certain events–like the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the American Civil War impacted their missions. Additionally, I created a mapping project that attempts to record as many African American speaking locations as possible. So far, I’ve mapped 4,700 sites in 1,550 locations across Britain and Ireland. As well as being a handy visualization tool for my research, it also presents numerous analytical patterns: why certain activists spoke in some locations rather than others and even how some followed early railway routes for ease of transportation. This filtered into the book too.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Advocates for Freedom?

HM: I argue that by sharing their oratorical, visual, and literary testimony to transatlantic audiences, African American activists galvanised the antislavery movement and highlighted not only their death-defying escapes from bondage but also their desire to speak out against slavery and white supremacy on foreign soil. Using a framework I term adaptive resistance, I uncover the reasons why some activists were more successful than others, why they visited certain locations, how they adapted to the political and social climate, and what impact their activism had on British society.

JF: Why do we need to read Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The politicized and radical journeys undertaken by African Americans to the British Isles are crucial to understanding their testimony and future careers, but also the antislavery movement and the Black Atlantic as a whole. For the first time, my book reveals new testimony and archival discoveries surrounding the stories of Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson (to name a few) and uses digital mapping to analyze their antislavery missions as well as a theoretical framework to determine why some activists were more successful than others. In this detailed study, I examine how in Britain and Ireland, thousands of slave narratives and abolitionist pamphlets were sold, petitions were signed, hundreds of pounds were raised for societies or given directly to help purchase individuals or their family members from slavery. Thousands more attended meetings at chapels, town halls, school rooms and lecturing halls, who often queued for hours beforehand and millions of words were written in response to Black activists and their stories of slavery. These activists challenged misconceptions of slavery, advanced the cause of abolition and mobilized public opinion. Through their interventions with the press, correspondents published Black abolitionist letters, speeches and commentaries, and their message was spread often beyond their immediate reach or where they had lectured. Their tireless activism often created and sustained antislavery momentum across the transatlantic, and their international missions inspired further action as well as apoplectic rage in the United States.

My work is also timely: as the Black Lives Matter protests continue to take place around the world, it’s important to recognize that the activists I discuss were declaring that their Black lives mattered nearly two centuries ago. It’s well documented that the movement has strong historical roots, but my chapter on Ida B. Wells’ lynching campaign in Britain in 1893 and 1894 is particularly prescient when we consider the modern lynchings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The book highlights not only the trajectory between activists in the c19th and today, but also how far we still have to go to accomplish their anti-racist missions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HM: I have always loved learning about U.S. history since I was a teenager and was very lucky to visit America a few times when I was studying in secondary school. I started working on Frederick Douglass’ experiences in Britain ten years ago, achieved my PhD in 2018 and haven’t looked back since! My work centres around the rediscovery and amplification of African American testimony–including from Frederick Douglass–to ensure that their lives, histories and memories are no longer invisibilized. Their testimony can also shine a new light on their courageous and inspiring activism on both sides of the Atlantic and remind us that antislavery agitation had a fundamental transatlantic element. Activists like Douglass believed that their missions abroad would have very real consequences for enslavers, proslavery defenders, and racists back home.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: I envision Advocates of Freedom as part of a trilogy: this current work is quite broad and extends from the late 1830s to the early 1890s, so the project I’m working on now is a focused study between 1840-1870. I’m studying the ways in which African Americans used visual and performative testimony in the British Isles to convince the transatlantic public about slavery. For example, Moses Roper exhibited whips, chains and manacles on the Victorian stage and even demonstrated how they worked to his audiences. Henry ‘Box’ Brown, the infamous activist, lecturer and entertainer who escaped slavery by posting himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia, starred in a play based on his own life in Kent, England. Other activists like James C. Thompson wrote his own poetry and performed it to his audiences and exhibited paintings of his life in slavery. It’s fascinating to consider how activists used growing technological and visual mediums to inform audiences and entice them to their lectures.

The third book in this ‘trilogy’ (if it does get that far!) will focus on African American postbellum activism in the British Isles. Activists continued to travel to Britain and Ireland and followed in the footsteps of their forebears to raise awareness and educate transatlantic audiences on global racism. Additionally, they campaigned around the fact that, contrary to popular belief, U.S. chattel slavery had never actually died. Instead, its foul spirit had mutated and evolved into practices such as lynching and the convict lease system, which preserved the legacies of centuries of oppression. While antebellum slave narratives and speeches distinctly served the purpose of abolition, post-war testimony–particularly in oratorical form–was specifically shaped around abolition’s broken promises. They continued to denounce white supremacy, challenge Lost Cause narratives and white domestic terrorism up to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Hannah-Rose!

Kevin Young is the new director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Here is Elizabeth Blair at NPR:

The Smithsonian Institution has announced that poet Kevin Young will be the next director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. With more than 37,000 objects, the NMAAHC in Washington, D.C., is the largest center dedicated to the African American experience in the country. Young succeeds the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, who was named secretary of the Smithsonian in 2019.

Young is currently director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, where he has overseen such high profile acquisitions as the Harlem-based archives of Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Ruby Dee and Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite. Among Young’s published works are 11 books of poetry including Jelly Roll: A Blues, which was a National Book Award finalist. He is currently the poetry editor at The New Yorker.

Read the rest here.

Is the 1619 Project backing-off some of its more problematic claims about the American founding?

It sure seems that way.

Here is Tom Mackaman and David North at World Socialist Web Site:

The New York Times, without announcement or explanation, has abandoned the central claim of the 1619 Project: that 1619, the year the first slaves were brought to Colonial Virginia—and not 1776—was the “true founding” of the United States.

The initial introduction to the Project, when it was rolled out in August 2019, stated that

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

The revised text now reads:

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

A similar change was made from the print version of the 1619 Project, which has been sent out to millions of school children in all 50 states. The original version read:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.

The website version has deleted the key claim. It now reads:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.

It is not entirely clear when the Times deleted its “true founding” claim, but an examination of old cached versions of the 1619 Project text indicates that it probably took place on December 18, 2019.

These deletions are not mere wording changes. The “true founding” claim was the core element of the Project’s assertion that all of American history is rooted in and defined by white racial hatred of blacks. According to this narrative, trumpeted by Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, the American Revolution was a preemptive racial counterrevolution waged by white people in North America to defend slavery against British plans to abolish it. The fact that there is no historical evidence to support this claim did not deter the Times and Hannah-Jones from declaring that the historical identification of 1776 with the creation of a new nation is a myth, as is the claim that the Civil War was a progressive struggle aimed at the destruction of slavery. According to the New York Times and Hannah-Jones, the fight against slavery and all forms of oppression were struggles that black Americans always waged alone.

Read the rest here. For out other 1619 Project posts click here.

Who’s afraid of critical race theory?

Donald Trump has turned Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a campaign issue in the hopes of winning white evangelicals and other conservatives who fear that an academic theory that they know little about is somehow threatening American democracy. Between his attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project, he just might win back a few 2016 voters who were contemplating pulling the lever for Biden or another candidate in November.

On Friday night, September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, released a memo demanding that the Executive Branch stop teaching CRT as part of required “training” sessions for federal employees.

Vought’s memo condemns seminars that expose employees to the idea that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or “benefit from racism.” All programs that include discussions of “white privilege” or the notion that the United States is an “inherently racist or evil country,” the memo states, must immediately “cease and desist.”

Trump may have learned about CRT from a segment on Fox News. On September 2, 2020, Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chris Rufo, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank best known for its advocacy of the “intelligent design” view of creation. After studying CRT for six months, Rufo concluded the theory has become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and is being “weaponized against the American people.” He described CRT as “a cult indoctrination” and demanded that Trump bring an end to it immediately. The president was apparently listening.

So what should we make of CRT? Like all academic theories, we ought to engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups based on the color of their skin.

In their helpful introduction to CRT, scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic identify five major themes of this theory.

First, CRT affirms that racism is an “ordinary” or “common” part of everyday life. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color, it is a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law.

Second, CRT affirms that since White people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it. Shock events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha might alert White people to racial injustice, but it is unlikely such tragedies will lead to a sustained anti-racism.

Third, CRT affirms that race is “socially constructed.” This means that the racial categories we use are not biologically determined but invented by human beings. There is nothing inherent about any race that should lead to its oppression. Racism is thus best explained by a close examination of American history to see how men and women in power “constructed” the idea of racial difference and promoted bigotry based on those differences.

Fourth, CRT affirms, to quote Delgado and Sefancic, that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” For example, I am a male, white, a product of the American working class, and a Christian. These different identities are often mutually dependent on one another and when taken together make me a whole person. CRT uses the technical term “intersectionality” to define the way these different identities overlap and intersect.

Fifth, CRT affirms that Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.” At the heart of CRT is storytelling. This is the primary way that people of color can explain the racism that they encounter daily. It also implies that people of color are more equipped to talk about the plight of the racially oppressed than White people.

Critical race theorists are often suspicious of liberalism, both the Left and Right variety. As a product of the Western intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, liberals champion universals—the things that we hold in common as human beings regardless of race. CRT celebrates what makes human beings unique and different. The appeal to the universal values of the Enlightenment, its adherents argue, always favors the White people who have defined and benefited from those values.

Much of CRT sounds a lot like some of the things I learned in college, seminary, and graduate school. Back then we studied these things under the rubric of “American history” and “Christianity.”

For example, I don’t remember reading anything about CRT while working toward my Ph.D in American history. But I did not need these high-falutin academic theorists to see how racism was embedded in the history of the republic. All I needed to do was study the documentary record with my eyes open. One cannot ignore the long history of White people oppressing Black people. White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not. To acknowledge white privilege is to be a good historian.

It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, freedom, and individual rights are still with us. Indeed, racism is “ordinary” and “common” in American life. It is not some kind of aberration practiced by a few “bad apples” who make occasional appearances in the narratives we teach about the past.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that defined Black men and women as slaves for the purpose of quelling disgruntled poor whites (former indentured servants) who had a propensity for social and political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of these marginalized White colonials.

Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other instances in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.

Trump’s decision to root-out CRT will inevitably win him points with his Fox-News-watching Christian conservative base, but is CRT something Christians should fear?

As an undergraduate and seminary student at evangelical institutions, I learned that Christians should not be surprised by injustice and evil in this world. Rather, we should expect it. The world is a fallen and broken place. My professors drilled this into my head through a reading and re-reading (occasionally in the original Hebrew language) of Genesis 3. Sin manifests itself in both individual lives and cultural systems.

Since Christians believe in human sin, we should have no problem embracing CRT’s affirmation of systemic racism. At the same time, we should always be ready to offer hope–rooted in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the promise of resurrection—as a means of healing a world that is broken. We may never overcome the damage of systemic racism on this side of eternity, but we cannot ignore our call to be agents of reconciliation.

Is it true that White people have no incentive to do anything about racial injustice because they benefit from it? American history certainly bears this out. The story of our nation is filled with White men and women who witnessed racism on a regular basis and did nothing to stop it. Some of them knew it was wrong but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Others simply did not care.

Christian critics of CRT celebrate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wilberforce, or William Lloyd Garrison, but these courageous activists were the exceptions to the rule in 19th-century America. The “heroic man” or “heroic woman” view of the history of moral reform does not account for the long record of White Christian complacency on racial injustice. In the end, any Christian who takes a deep dive into the American past will find heroes to emulate, but they will also find that most White people were complicit in sustaining a system of white supremacy.

What about the social construction of race? When Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) that Africans were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was degrading the human dignity of Black people, men and women created by God in His image. Racism entered the world when sinful human beings forged communities that privileged some and excluded others.

Christians can also agree, to an extent, with the idea of intersectionality. We all possess different social identities and there are times when we face injustice that stems from those identities—injustices that our legal system fails to address.

Our urge to downplay the identities that define us as human beings is understandable and, in many cases, good. A flourishing society will always be built upon the things we hold common as human beings. A thriving Church will always be built upon the knowledge that one day White Christians and Christians of color will share together in the new heavens and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation. A central message of the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles is summed-up best in Galatians 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all one in Christ.”

But God has also made us different. We are products of history. Our faith will always be understood and navigated through the circumstances that have shaped us and provided us with multiple identities in this world. While we all want to be one in Christ, and should always be about the work of reconciliation and unity as Jesus reminded us in John 17, we must also remember, as theologian Miroslav Volf writes, that God notes not only our “common humanity,” but also our “specific histories.”

Finally, CRT’s emphasis on storytelling is something Christians should value. The Christian tradition is full of men and women telling stories of suffering, sin, and redemption. When Black people tell their stories of encounters with racism it should provoke empathy in the hearts of White Christians. We understand the power of testimony.

Of course, stories can be manipulated for selfish or political ends. And personal experience does not always translate to expertise on a subject such as African American history or literature. But those who dwell on these matters miss an opportunity to cultivate a more just democracy through compassion and understanding. It is time to exercise some humility. This means we need to stop talking and start listening to the stories African Americans are telling us.

In the end, if critical race theorists can teach me something I don’t know about how I may have benefited from white oppression (even if I may not commit overt acts of racism) or how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to consider it?

As a Christian, I want to see the world through the eyes of my faith. I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of CRT and reject other parts. I know very few academics—Christian or secular—who adopt theories in toto.

There is much truth in CRT, and all truth is God’s truth. We have nothing to fear.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is reopening

Friday, September 18, 2020.

Here is Graham Bowley at The New York Times:

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington will reopen to the public on Friday — one of four Smithsonian Institution museums that are involved in the latest phase of reopening, the Smithsonian announced on Monday.

For the museum, which is dedicated to telling the African-American story for all Americans, the reopening comes just a few months after a new chapter began to unfold in the nation’s history. The museum was closed in March amid by the pandemic, and since then the nation has erupted in social justice protests addressing racism and police violence after George Floyd was killed in police custody in May. The protests will give the museum a new chapter in its narrative.

“It is definitely a changed America,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Secretary of the Smithsonian who was the founding director of the museum. “Its role is still the same, which is to give the world a place where it can confront uncomfortable truths and maybe find some hope.”

Read the rest here.

How historian Martha Jones writes

Martha Jones of the Johns Hopkins University is Rachel Toor‘s latest interview in her “Scholars Talk Writing” series.

Here is a taste of Toor’s interview with Jones:

Advice about writing?

Jones: Write. Revise. Repeat. In my early career, I mistook speaking for the core of a scholar’s life. Along the way, good mentors kindly chided me for all the words sitting on my hard drive, where they benefited no one at all. My mentors emphasized that the key to changing the debate was putting pen to paper, and then publishing those ideas.

This is certainly true for humanists. I spent 2013-14 as a fellow at the National Humanities Center, where, for the first time in my career, I spent eight straight months at a desk, writing five days a week. That discipline changed me as a writer: I lost my reluctance and fear, and I’ve not looked back.

My advice? Write that which you need to say; you will always be satisfied. Publish for those who need to hear your thoughts; they will read you. Stay close to what truly matters to you; your passion will drive your prose. Honor your own voice, always.

Write. Revise. And then let it go.

Read the entire interview here.

The state of Black intellectual history

The Chronicle of Higher Education talks with Vanderbilt University historian Brandon Byrd about his recent article “The Rise of African American Intellectual History.” Here is a taste of the interview:

An old-guard intellectual historian like Perry Miller depended almost exclusively on the writings of clergymen and philosophers. But a lot of intellectual history since then has tried to reconcile a focus on the elite production of ideas with the intellectual commitments of regular people. How does that play out in African American intellectual history?

It would be a mistake to represent all African American intellectual history as being a sort of non-elite, counterhegemonic project. A lot of scholars of African American history are writing about professional thinkers. So that’s not really that far afield from what a lot of intellectual history traditionally has looked like.

Right. And you mention that Earl Thorpe, one of the heroes of your Modern Intellectual History essay — we’ll get to him later — worried that his work was compromised for that reason.

By a middle-class bias.

So that’s a risk of all intellectual history, including African American intellectual history.

Absolutely. And there’s a patriarchal bent to it, too. Privileging elite subjects, literate subjects, formally educated subjects — a lot of those are men. So in that, there has traditionally been an overlap between African American intellectual history and intellectual history writ large.

But practitioners of African American intellectual history were certainly at the vanguard of the “social turn,” of history from below. Of really thinking about what history looks like for the vast majority of the population — of workers, of laborers, of enslaved people. I’m thinking of scholars like Herbert Gutman and John Blassingame.

At the same time, some intellectual historians — white intellectual historians in Europe and the United States, primarily — felt that social history was an aggressive field challenging their dominance: Chicano history, African American history, women’s history. But the practitioners of those histories are not making that cleavage. They’re showing the synergies between social history, intellectual history, and cultural history.

The history of enslaved people, for example, is not just a social history. It’s also an intellectual history, because it’s about how enslaved people are thinking about their lived experiences.

Read the entire piece here.

What do the Virginia history standards say about African Americans?

Jefefrson slave ad

Mel Leonor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on the Virginia African American History Education Commission recent report on the Virginia state history standards. It found some serious problems. For example, the standards suggest that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.

Here is a taste of Leonor’s piece, complete with a quote from American historian Ed Ayers:

The commission’s proposed technical changes to the state’s standards suggest that language related to the Civil War is “passive, evasive and circular.”

To illustrate, one section of the current standard reads: “Sectional tensions, originating with the formation of the nation, ultimately resulted in war between the Northern and Southern States.”

The commission’s draft recommendations instead propose: “Sectional tensions over slavery … ”

The draft proposal for the U.S. history curriculum suggests a broader look at lynching, the abolitionist movement, voting laws that disenfranchised African Americans, the Great Migration and African American pop culture.

“To think about the place of African Americans in American life is to make all Americans history more comprehensible, more honest and more accurate,” said Edward Ayers, a historian and former president of the University of Richmond, who led the commission’s work on technical changes. “It is to make that history more sobering, but also more inspiring.”

It’s unclear how state education officials will respond to the proposed technical changes.

Read the entire piece here.

GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

An Indian-American historian reflects on the meaning of Kamala Harris

Harris Sinha

Manisha Sinha is back with an op-ed in The New York Times on Kamala Harris. Here is a taste:

When I arrived in the United States in 1984, an Indian graduate student wanting to study African-American history, I was an anomaly. Most of my fellow South Asians were in STEM doctoral programs.

During the Reagan years, I supported the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and the Democratic Socialists of America in their attempt to push the Democratic Party and the United States to the left.

Still, I could have ill imagined that one day an African-American man would become the president or that a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent would be a candidate for the vice presidency.

After graduation, I interviewed across the country for college positions teaching early American history. I was asked over and over again why, as an Indian woman, I chose to study the history of slavery and the Civil War.

Usually, I described the connections between Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha, the struggle for truth, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s version of nonviolent resistance. The one interview where no one asked me that question was for an assistant professor position in African-American Studies. I took that job.

Read the rest here.

The Kamala Harris pick in historical context

Chisolm

Over at The Conversation, University of Florida political scientist Sharon Austin puts Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate in the context of other Black women who aimed for the White House.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Kamala Harris is a registered Democrat who served as California’s attorney general and later one of the state’s U.S. senators. But, historically, most Black female presidential candidates have run as independents.

In 1968, 38-year-old Charlene Mitchell of Ohio became the first Black woman to run for president, as a communist. Like many other African Americans born in the 1930s, Mitchell joined the Communist Party because of its emphasis on racial and gender equality. Black female communists fought Jim Crow, lynchings and unfair labor practices for men and women of all races.

Mitchell’s presidential campaign, which focused on civil rights and poverty, was probably doomed from the start. In 1968, many states didn’t allow communists on the ballot. Media outlets from the Boston Globe to the Chicago Tribune also discussed Mitchell’s “unsuitability” as a candidate because she was both Black and female. Mitchell received just 1,075 votes.

Other independent Black female presidential candidates have been community organizer Margaret Wright, who ran on the People’s Party ticket in 1976; Isabell Masters, a teacher who created her own third party, called Looking Back and ran in 1984, 1992 and 2004; and teacher Monica Moorehead of the Workers World Party ticket, who ran in 1996, 2000 and 2016.

In 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president, Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. representative from Georgia, was a nominee of the Green Party. And in 2012, Peta Lindsay ran to unseat President Obama from the left, on the Party for Socialism and Liberation ticket.

Only one Black woman has ever pursued the Republican nomination: Angel Joy Charvis, a religious conservative from Florida, who wanted to use her 1999 candidacy to “to recruit a new breed of Republican.”

These Black female presidential candidates were little known. But as the first Black female member of Congress, Shirley Chisholm had years of experience in public office and a national reputation when she became the first Black American and the first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Chisholm’s campaign slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.”

Read the entire piece here.

David Blight talks with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes about Frederick Douglass

Blight

Listen or read here.

A taste:

DAVID BLIGHT:

Multiculturalism, we use it so loosely that we don’t even know what it means anymore. Well, Douglass knew what it meant. It meant the dream put into reality that people of every kind of creed, every kind of race background, ethnicity difference, even though they’re going to fight it out, they’re going to fight like hell over the sources, and meaning, and religion, and interpretation. They’re going to fight like hell, but it’s possible to create a democracy in which all of them can actually live. 

Also this:

CHRIS HAYES:

Let’s talk about your way into this man who, he’s one of these figures where… I think this is sort of the case a little bit with Hamilton and Chernow’s biography and then the musical, which is that, sure, it’s not like Alexander Hamilton is not famous. He’s famous. We know Hamilton’s a founding father, but the depth of complexity of the guy’s life, it’s like you read it. And you’re like, “Whoa, wow.” And Frederick Douglass is in a somewhat similar category in so far as like, yes, we know Fredrick Douglass. When we see his picture, we recognize him. But the sheer volume of his thought, his writing, his speaking, his political influence, his life experience. I had no idea the life this man lived.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, to go right back to your central point in your introduction. He did have a vision of a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious America in a more robust way than almost anybody of his own time. Long before an idea like multiculturalism was any form of consensus in this country. He was the prose poet, if you like, of American democracy in the 19th century. He was a creature of words. We can come back to that if you want of just how a former slave, a kid who grows up a slave spends 20 years as a slave, become such a genius with language. But he managed to find in language, written prose, autobiographical prose, political editorials, thousands of speeches, even one work of fiction. He found ways to penetrate and explain, describe and explain the experience of slavery as both physical and mental. The experiences of racism, they didn’t use that term in the 19th century. They called it racial prejudice, et cetera. And, and he found ways to explain what was happening to the American nation, the country itself, because of this issue of slavery and its aftermath, like nobody else.

Whether he belongs on a Mount Rushmore. I don’t know, on that issue, it’s worth talking about as we go through these monument wars, whether we’ve almost been too obsessed with people on monuments, and maybe we need to think more and more about memorialization, about ideas and concepts and events and processes, and so on. This obsession with heroes sometimes just gets us in trouble because everybody’s got flaws. That’s why George Washington is now in trouble, right, on the monuments.

Read more here.

The Author’s Corner with Jessica Marie Johnson

Wicked fleshJessica Marie Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. This interview is based on her new book, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: In 1999, I took my first trip to New Orleans and my research on its history began not long after that as a Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. I was immediately struck by the power of a city steeped in its own history and of a history wrapped in (seeming) contradictions. From its founding, New Orleans has been inundated with African diasporic social, cultural, and political life. New Orleans has also been an intensely racist, colonial city where deep social, cultural, and political rifts rooted in race, class, color, gender, and sexuality become fault lines residents of African descent must navigate with care and at the risk of their own lives. Hurricane Katrina made this aggressively clear; COVID-19 (New Orleans was the second most active hotspot next to New York City) demonstrated it again.

And yet cutting across these truths is also the presence of Black women at every level and in every texture of historical and contemporary life. Black woman professors holding space for students at Tulane, Dillard, and Xavier Universities; Black women laborers work at cafes, restaurants, and bars; Black nuns and Catholic culture suffuse the calendar with occasions for feasts and penitence; Black women guide systems of belief from Spiritual Churches to Santería to vodun; Black women change the narrative as artists and culture workers. Black women in New Orleans are unapologetic in their strategies for play and pleasure. As a historian, I wanted to know more about the roots of this fiercely independent, community-accountable, and geographically rooted practice of living freedom. I wanted to consider the challenges that these practices faced in a city and region that experienced three slaveholding empires (French, Spanish, United States) and grew into an urban space during the Age of Revolution, but became the homebase of plantation empire as the U.S. moved into the nineteenth century.

It became clear very quickly in my research and thanks to foundational work by Jennifer Spear, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Paul Lachance, Virginia Meacham Gould, Daniel Usner, Tom Ingersoll, and connective work by Ira Berlin and Michael Gomez, that African history is where the story of the city begins, that the Caribbean is where the story connects, and that Black women were central to everything we think we know about New Orleans and the Atlantic world. New Orleans is a site of overlapping Atlantics, where diasporic and archipelagic flows splash and crash into each other. These flows have ramifications for all involved, but especially for African women and women of African descent. And yet, historians have not centered Black women when they tell the story of the founding of the city or the African presence in the region. I wrote this book as a way to witness Black women’s foundational work as an archive, history, and legacy.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: Wicked Flesh is a Black feminist history of the founding of the Gulf Coast. In it, I argue that over the course of the eighteenth century, the intimate and kinship strategies of African women and women of African descent reshaped the meaning of freedom in the French Atlantic, laying the groundwork for Black resistance strategies and abolitionist practices of the nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: Black women, when mentioned, are often relegated to the footnotes of histories of the early modern, early American, and Atlantic worlds. However, race, sex and gender function as more than categories of analysis for historians interested in molding records and archaic stories. Race, sex, and gender were organizing principles of the early modern world, used by historical subjects in their fight over resources (politics), their relations with each other (society), and in the meaning they made of the world around them (culture). African women and women of African descent, or those who came to be seen as Black (in all of its iterations) and woman (in all of its complications) shaped the slaveholding empires of the eighteenth century. They did so through their presence and through the symbolic labor (to draw on Jennifer Morgan) they were forced to engage in when slaveowners, colonial officials, slave ship captains, husbands, white women, and more used their bodies, their Africanness, their blackness, their assumptions about their sexuality, and the practices they engaged in for their own safety and security as reasons to enslave (partus sequitur ventrem), commodify, exploit, violate, and deny them equivalent access to rights and privileges.

But if that isn’t enough of a reason to read Wicked Flesh, there is more. Part of what I argue in this book is Black women did more than survive these attempts at control and coercion. They reshaped the nature of freedom through each challenge and affront to their survival. At each step in Wicked Flesh, year by year as the slaving process proceeded, crystallized, and evolved, African women and women of African descent refused to abide by the boundaries officials placed on or around them. Their refusal, sometimes physical, sometimes legalistic, sometimes more fugitive and maroon, changed the terms of what freedom (and slavery) meant. In other words, enslavement was a process and as a process has a history that we need to understand deeply and intricately. African women and women of African descent were key players in that history and in contesting enslavement.

None of this means Black women were always successful (and, in fact, this book queries what “success” even means in a world of slaves). In Wicked Flesh, we see how success and failure as a binary of freed (success) or enslaved (failure) are false binaries for understanding African women who were part of New Orleans’ Atlantic World–a geography that in this book stretches from coastal Senegal to the Caribbean to the shores of the Gulf Coast. Instead, exploring Black women’s lives and history offers a different vision of freedom. It offers a fuller history of Black womanhood, Black humanity, and African diasporic early modern life, but it also reshapes how we historicize empire, violence, pleasure, property, aesthetics, refusal and contestation.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you used in the writing and researching of Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: The eighteenth century generated astronomical amounts of material on Africans and people of African descent as slaves, but not always as human beings. So I also drew on contemporary Black feminist theory, Black queer/trans theory, Black women’s literature and poetry to inform my reading of the archive and the documents. Where and when I could, I centered the cultural production of Black women of New Orleans or who claim New Orleans as an ancestral site like Rae Paris, Brenda Marie Osbey, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson, Jeri Hilt and others, letting their cultural work inform my reading of the sources.

JF: What is your next project?

JMJ: Dark Codex: Blackness, History and the Digital explores the way images and texts created out of slavery’s archive resonate across digital and social media. In Dark Codex, I explore research, teaching, and theories that position Atlantic African diaspora history and histories of slavery as the unforeseen and oft-ignored heart of the digital humanities. As a digital humanities scholar, I’ve had the opportunity to explore questions of history, slavery and the digital as the as the curator of sites like African Diaspora, Ph.D. (http://africandiasporaphd.com) and Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog (http://dh.jmjafrx.com). Dark Codex continues this work by exploring the history of the study of slavery (from U.B. Phillips to the Slave Voyages Database) alongside the historical and digital practices of everyday black women and women of color.

I’m excited to be able to spend the Spring 2021 semester working on this project as a fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

JF: Thanks, Jessica!