The Laggards of Academe

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time:

Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession [Brown v. Board of Education] would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters.

It took about four decades, but academic scholarship did finally catch up.


  1. a dog September 8, 2015 at 6:42 pm | #

    Maybe the next question is, How many more excellent but forgotten arguments about American history are hiding in plain site within the black literary or black radical canon? Most historians of slavery and emancipation have been mining Du Bois’s details and offhanded remarks since Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (1988) — and many more did the same well before that. A very worthwhile idea for just about everybody in the field.

    • Corey Robin September 8, 2015 at 7:50 pm | #

      Yes! This is precisely where I was going with this post.

  2. dtr September 8, 2015 at 8:49 pm | #

    Until a few years ago, output of VOA and other propaganda outlets like Radio Free Europe could not be legally shown in US although, I remember coming across this documentary made for foreign consumption at a movie festival about 10 years ago:

    The Voice of America translated the speeches and rebroadcast them in 36 languages. The United States Information Agency organized a press conference for the benefit of foreign journalists, and also created a documentary film of the event for distribution to embassies abroad. Commented Michael Thelwell of SNCC: “So it happened that Negro students from the South, some of whom still had unhealed bruises from the electric cattle prods which Southern police used to break up demonstrations, were recorded for the screens of the world portraying ‘American Democracy at Work.'”

  3. Bob Vitalis September 9, 2015 at 9:17 am | #

    From my forthcoming book, White World Order, Black Power Politics

    … We can trace writings in both sober and apocalyptical registers through the 1950s and 1960s. St Clair Drake, a sociologist at Roosevelt University, said it was the structural position and global ambition of the United States at the time of the Korean War that explained the repudiation of racism, similar to colonial powers conscious of the less than secure hold on their dependencies, and in marked contrast to South Africa, which had no global position to defend. Drake also recognized the possibility for reversals if the world crisis sharpened. “Whether or not espousal of “civil rights for Negroes” becomes separated, in the popular mind, from “Communist agitation” may be a decisive factor.” [11] Conflating the two was in fact a basic part of the South’s defense of the status quo for the rest of the decade.

    Fifteen years later, and in the wake of the brutality unleashed on demonstrators in Selma and Birmingham, C Eric Lincoln returned to the international system’s effects on the fortunes of the civil rights movement in “The Race Problem and International Relations.” He traces the impact of World War II and the Cold War on the transformation of what had been a common international system of exploitation of non white peoples (“we were all members of the same club”) into a major foreign policy problem for the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Certainly, Lincoln suggested, a civil rights movement itself can’t explain recent policy changes because African Americans had never ceased struggling for liberation since Plessy v Ferguson. Lincoln also underscored the limitations of reforms pursued on strategic rather than ethical (“justice”) grounds, as expressed in the Truman administration’s civil rights commission report, To Secure These Rights, that nonetheless were intended to win over the hearts and minds of “the peoples of the world.” Such efforts fueled the cynicism about U.S. foreign policy pronouncements in an era of support for the white minority regimes in Southern Africa and of war in Southeast Asia. [14]

    11 Drake, “International Implications of Race and Race Relations.” E Franklin Frazier developed the same line of analysis while a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). See his “Memorandum Submitted to the Division of the Social Sciences of UNESCO on The Influence of the Negro on the Foreign Policy of the United States, 1951,” Box 54, Folder 23, Frazier Papers. For similar accounts by whites see the southern historian C Van Woodward’s lectures published as The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and Isaacs, “World Affairs and U.S. Race Relations.

    14 Lincoln, “Race Problem and International Relations.” James Baldwin made the same point toward the end of a famous New Yorker essay, “Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession [the 1954 Supreme Court decision] would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters.”(“Letter From a Region In My Mind,” November 17, 1962, 59-144: 130.) A new generation of historians with access to declassified government records revived the tradition in 1980s and early 1990s. Begin with Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” and idem., “Cold War Civil Rights.”

  4. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant September 9, 2015 at 3:16 pm | #

    Speaking of mining the works of the past authors…..

    I have been inclined to consider our present rightist hangover to derive from the convulsions one would find in an addict suddenly robbed of his drug. Less metaphorically, I mean to suggest that the models for so much (if not most, and certainly not all) of the kinds of oppressions that we see today being visited upon America’s marginalized are to be found in many of the past, and in some cases continuing, crimes against Blacks.

    Following Corey’s direction in this post, I am inclined to predict that if any future scholar were to look at the era of the post Civil Rights Era up to the present moment, what she will find is the lack of imagination in the various flavors of rightist attacks on the hated other. For policies in pursuit of the subordination of the hated, agents of rightist politics will look to many of the anti-Black policies of yore (and not so yore) and repackage them, maybe buff down some of their edges and then redeploy them. Thus for the disgruntled bigot, the United States remains a target-rich environment: immigrants/refugees, women, and during the last couple of decades most visibly the LGBTQ community up to this moment (recent constitutional successes notwithstanding), Muslims, the poor, the homeless, and of course – Negroes!

    So while laggard scholars mine the groundbreaking works of the past to inform their knowledge productions in the present, the “yargle-blargle” rightists will undertake their own parallel project aimed at the rediscovery of past reactionary efforts, in order to replicate them for their own present productions. One may be sure that these rightists will be far less slothful in accessing the modalities of repressions past, although for reasons of aesthetics, law, and public opinion, some of those modalities will be off the table, merely to be pined at, wistfully, from afar. Witness, dear reader, the saga of county clerk Kim Davis’s attempt to practice a version of “interposition-and-nullification” on gay couples in their effort to obtain marriage licenses, only to spend a few (probably eye-opening) days behind bars as recompense for her efforts. No, Christian America, Ms. Davis ain’t your Rosa Parks. Rather, she is your stand-in for the bus driver who tried to get Rosa Parks out of her seat and off the bus.

    Because American Blacks remain the testing ground for many updated reactionary policies, it also serves as a kind of default setting when considering what policies to pursue when other out-groups dare to undertake democratic and politically participatory projects – or, even such projects that merely expand the realm of private, interpersonal, and legitimate joys to marginalized groups, especially since all such joys do require some measure of public sanction to effectuate (or, merely allow unimpeded) their actualization. Like getting married, for instance.

    Eric Foner in his “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” was grateful for Du Bois’ “Black Reconstruction” (while at NYU I used both authors’ books, including Foner’s very short and condensed paperback version of his hardback work to open paper I wrote on the Griffith film “The Birth of A Nation”). Given their own purposes, I am less sure that reactionaries looking for someone to push around will just as gratefully credit past authors of yesterday’s abuses for current inspiration.

    Let us read our current Du Boises even if academe is currently laggard in recognizing them. If the future is anything like the past, methinks we’re gonna need to.

  5. Frank September 10, 2015 at 4:45 pm | #

    How many American works of political thought are merely plagiarism of Karl Marx without mention of Marx?

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