The Best Black History Books of 2018

Jones BlackAs picked by the editors of Black Perspectives.

Authors include Martha Jones, Julius Scott, David Blight, Lillian Barger, Daina Ramey Berry, Keisha Berry, Gerald Horne, and Imani Perry.

Subjects include: slavery in antebellum America, the Haitian Revolution, Frederick Douglass, liberation theology, the slave trade, black nationalism, African Americans in the military, Black Lives Matter, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

See the list here.

W.E.B Du Bois Forum at *Black Perspectives*

Du Bois

This week, for the anniversary of Du Bois‘s death on August 27, 1963, the editors of the online magazine Black Perspectives have republished an online forum on Du Bois that originally appeared in February.  The forum includes short pieces from Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Edward Carson, Roopika Risam, Lavelle Porter, and Philip Luke Sinitiere.

Here is a taste of Carson’s piece, “Race, Religion and Radicalism: King and Du Bois“:

King is largely remembered for having a dream. And while his “I Have a Dream” speech and other rhetorical flourishes stand at the pinnacle of what Americans know about him, his objectives remain unrealized. King articulated a radical socialist message, still unheard and often disputed, due to his anti-poverty, anti-materialism, and anti-war convictions, perspectives shaped within the framework of challenging American capitalism. Like Socrates, King’s teachings threatened the ruling class and the pervasive comfort of liberals. Today’s proclamation of King, witnessed recently in the appropriation of his words for a Super Bowl LII commercial, presents a revisionary tale. Months before King’s assassination, his assault on capitalism earned him a rebuke by many Black folks, who did not care for his evolving vision in challenging the economic inequalities promulgated by capitalism, and still more white folks, who expressed a disdain toward him.

Du Bois, on the other hand, was a global intellectual within a radical leftist framework; he fought for the liberation of peoples in the darker lands, as well as those occupied by the oppressive forces of capitalism. Du Bois persistently juxtaposed the American race problem with the endemic forces of global imperialism and capitalism. “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”: a recasting of that sentence’s inaugural iteration—most famously published in The Souls of Black Folk, but also the concluding sentence of the “To the Nations of the World,” collectively constructed by those attending the Pan-African Congress of 1900. We must also recognize that Du Bois’s radical evolution started with the Russian Revolution (1917). In seeking a solution to Black oppression, he became aware of his inner Bolshevism when and proclaimed, “I am a Bolshevik” after a 1926 visit to the Soviet Union. One must not attempt to recount Du Bois’s life and legacy just as a Pan-Africanist or civil rights activist, which society has done to King, but measure Du Bois and his internal struggles and maturation as an evolving radical and eventual member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). While King and Du Bois shared much in working for a reconfiguration of society, only Du Bois proclaimed in a pronounced fashion his full radicalness, leaving questions about King up for interpretation. Yet, both men had a dream and that dream was a society removed from capitalism’s despair.

Read the rest here.

Strivings In Their Souls

Du BoisCheck out historian Ibram X. Kendi‘s recent piece at The Paris Review on the cultural context in which W.E.B. Du Bois’s wrote his famous work The Souls of Black Folk (1903).  Kendi situates the work in the context of the Sam Hose lynching of 1899.

No lie circulated as far and wide over space and time as the original racist one that prefigured the Negro a beast. “No other news goes out to the world save that which stamps us as a race of cut-throats, robbers, and lustful wild beasts,” Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 antilynching manifesto, “Southern Horrors.”

Beasts, most agreed, did not have souls.

A beast could be traded and enslaved. A beast should be segregated and lynched. A beast cannot stop raping and killing. A beast could be subdued by only a mob or a jail cell. A beast so brutal even trained police officers fear for their lives. The Negro a beast.

“They lived like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings,” wrote Gomes Eanes de Zurara in his 1453 cradle of racist ideas, defending Portugal’s pioneering slave trading of Africans. A century later, pioneering British slave trader John Lok described Africans as “people of beastly living.” In 1899, the Wilmington Messenger reprinted an 1898 speech of Georgia’s Rebecca Felton, who in 1922 would become the nation’s first female U.S. senator. If “it requires lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch a thousand a week.” In 1900, the best seller of segregationist demagogues was the Mississippi professor Charles Carroll’s Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast. Thomas Dixon brought this thesis to life in his best-selling 1902 novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, the first step in the march toward D. W. Griffith’s fanciful film The Birth of a Nation.

It is difficult to comprehend how daring it was for W. E. B. Du Bois to publish the most acclaimed book of his career in the face of this avalanche of beastly labels rushing down onto the Negro. Du Bois stared into the grisly faces of the racist past and present and decreed that blacks were not soulless beasts. “Ain’t I a human?” he seemed to be asking, just as fifty years earlier the legendary black feminist Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”

In publishing The Souls of Black Folk, on April 18, 1903, Du Bois argued, implicitly, that the world needs to know the humanity of black folk by listening carefully to the “strivings” in their souls….

Read the entire piece here.

A Short Survey of Reconstruction Historiography

Recon

Do you need a quick primer on the historiography of Reconstruction?  If so, check out Allen Guelzo‘s short piece at History News Network: “The History of Reconstruction’s Third Phase.”  Here is a taste:

Understanding Reconstruction as a bourgeois revolution – in fact, according to Barrington Moore, the last bourgeois revolution – creates an opportunity for a third re-visioning of Reconstruction, and without the Eurocentric necessity to make it conform to the New Reconstructionists’ Marxism or the Progressive racism that fueled the Dunningites. We are already beginning to see a galaxy of new questions about Reconstruction take shape, and to find in work like Mark Wahlgren Summers’s The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (2014) an understanding of what Reconstruction actually did accomplish, in Gregory P. Downs’s After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (2015) the chronic unwillingness of Americans to fund post-conflict regime changes, and through Forrest A. Nabors’s From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (2017) an appreciation of the hitherto-ignored role played by Northern Democrats in league with their quondam Southern allies in paralyzing Reconstruction efforts.

These new movements may not be enough to get us a Museum of Reconstruction, and I have to confess a certain shrinkage at the prospect of what a Reconstruction re-enactment might look like (that will depend on who writes the script). But why not a Society for Historians of Reconstruction? It is time to bring Reconstruction home to us all, not as a Southern event or even the shadow of a European one, but as a uniquely American one, on an American landscape.

Read the entire piece here.

Eric Foner: Robert E. Lee’s “Legend” Needs to be “Retired”

211ba-lee-sitting

Yesterday’s New York Times is running a piece by Columbia University historian Eric Foner on the legacy of Robert E. Lee.  Foner’s focus is on how Lee became a “legend” in the minds of the post-Civil War South and how his “legend” became wound-up with the so-called Dunning School of Reconstruction.  This is classic Foner.

Here is a taste:

Historians in the first decades of the 20th century offered scholarly legitimacy to this interpretation of the past, which justified the abrogation of the constitutional rights of Southern black citizens. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning and his students portrayed the granting of black suffrage during Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. The Progressive historians — Charles Beard and his disciples — taught that politics reflected the clash of class interests, not ideological differences. The Civil War, Beard wrote, should be understood as a transfer of national power from an agricultural ruling class in the South to the industrial bourgeoisie of the North; he could tell the entire story without mentioning slavery except in a footnote. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of mostly Southern historians known as the revisionists went further, insisting that slavery was a benign institution that would have died out peacefully. A “blundering generation” of politicians had stumbled into a needless war. But the true villains, as in Lee’s 1856 letter, were the abolitionists, whose reckless agitation poisoned sectional relations. This interpretation dominated teaching throughout the country, and reached a mass audience through films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic depiction of slavery. The South, observers quipped, had lost the war but won the battle over its history.

As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

That same year, however, W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction in America,” a powerful challenge to the mythologies about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that historians had been purveying. Du Bois identified slavery as the fundamental cause of the war and emancipation as its most profound outcome. He portrayed the abolitionists as idealistic precursors of the 20th-century struggle for racial justice, and Reconstruction as a remarkable democratic experiment — the tragedy was not that it was attempted but that it failed. Most of all, Du Bois made clear that blacks were active participants in the era’s history, not simply a problem confronting white society. Ignored at the time by mainstream scholars, “Black Reconstruction” pointed the way to an enormous change in historical interpretation, rooted in the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and underpinned by the documentary record of the black experience ignored by earlier scholars. Today, Du Bois’s insights are taken for granted by most historians, although they have not fully penetrated the national culture.

Read the entire piece here.

W.E.B. Du Bois on Robert E. Lee

Du Bois EssaysThanks to Kevin Levin for posting this on his excellent blog Civil War Memory.  DuBois’s thoughts on Lee were published in 1928.

Here is the entire short essay:

Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: “of course, he never fought for slavery.” Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.

Today we can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits not by falsifying his moral debacle, but by explaining it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. it is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.

New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition

DuBoisThis looks like a great conference.  Here is a taste:

The upcoming year promises to be an exciting one for the African American Intellectual History Society. Not only is the organization undergoing a period of tremendous growth, it is also hosting its first conference, New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition, at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. A two-day event taking place on March 10th and 11th, 2016, the conference will feature sessions on all aspects of the black intellectual tradition. The program includes panels foregrounding new perspectives on slavery, emancipation, and civil rights, as well as new directions for intellectual history in the age of social media.

The conference will kick off on Thursday March 10th with a session on “Performance, Space, and Movement in Africa and the Diaspora” featuring bloggers Greg Childs and Jessica Marie Johnson and another panel on nineteenth century black political and social thought. Those who have been following the latest campus demonstrations and the #Mizzousyllabus will find the session on black youth and campus activism informative. Later that day, participants will hear from AAIHS bloggers, and new and established scholars, on several central themes including racial identity, historical preservation, and black intellectual leadership. Other panels will include papers on transnational blackness, Pan-Africanism, and liberated spaces.

Participants interested in black feminism and black internationalism will enjoy the Thursday afternoon screening of Audre Lorde- The Berlin Years, 1984-1992. Chronicling an untold chapter of Lorde’s life, the film reveals her influence on local culture and politics and highlights her influence on German ideas of racism, homophobia, and classism.

The day will end with a keynote address from Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. The Executive Committee welcomes conference participants to attend a reception immediately following Dr. Neal’s talk.

On Friday March 11th, participants will hear from new and emerging scholars on secularism and black intellectual life and African Americans and print culture in the Civil War era. AAIHS blogger Keisha Blain will join Adam Ewing,Robert Trent Vinson, and Frances Peace Sullivan on a panel about Global Garveyism and the black intellectual tradition. In the afternoon, presenters will speak about the theory and praxis of African American education, black women and internationalism, and race, performance, and cultural production. Conference participants will also have an opportunity to attend a roundtable on #Blktwitterstorians, an online community of historians, students, and fans of African and African American history. This panel will feature the creators of the hashtag–Joshua Crutchfield and Aleia Brown–as well as historians Stephen G. Hall and Robert Greene II–two scholars who have been active in the monthly #Blktwitterstorians’ chat. The panel will also offer the opportunity to speak about the relationship between black intellectual history and social media.

Check out the program here.

The Author’s Corner with Gary Dorrien

Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The New Abolition?

GD: I wrote The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel because we have long needed a book on the black social gospel tradition in which Martin Luther King Jr. was steeped and shaped, and that he epitomized.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The New Abolition?

GD: The tradition of black social gospel Christianity arose in the late 19th century as an attempt to determine what a new abolition(ism) would require. The founding generation had four ideological parties; there were more black social gospel founders than previously estimated; they fought to establish a place for progressive theology and social justice politics in black churches; the crucial founders allied with W. E. B. Du Bois; and they founded a tradition of black social gospel progressivism that led to King’s role models, King’s movement associates, and King himself.

JF: Why do we need to read The New Abolition?

GD: Martin Luther King Jr. is incomprehensible and impossible without the founders and the succeeding generation of black social gospel leaders, notably Benjamin E. Mays, J. Pius Barbour, George Kelsey, Vernon Johns, and Howard Thurman. But the black social gospel tradition itself has almost no literature. The New Abolition describes the founders, and a succeeding book to be titled Breaking White Supremacy will deal with King’s mentors and the King generation.

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

GD: Most of my work operates on one of two tracks–philosophy of religion and historical theology, or social ethics and political thought. But both tracks have a strong intellectual history bent.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: In addition to the book noted above, titled Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, I am writing an essay collection on modern theology and a capstone book on economic democracy.

JF: Thanks, Gary!