To round off Black History Month, Princeton Professor Imani Perry—a prolific scholar of African American Studies whose biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Looking For Lorraine, has just won the 2019 PEN Biography Prize—recommends five books she considers essential to an understanding of the history of black life in America.
A New York Times notable biography of the first black woman to write a Broadway play, a book on the politics and poetics of hip-hop, a schema of post-intentional racism, and a history of the black national anthem are four of your wide-ranging, recent contributions to the understanding of African American history. What call are you answering with your work?
As both a legal historian and a cultural historian, I am interested in how racial inequality and injustice has functioned in the United States. For example, in May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, I tell the history of institutional rituals and practices that provided the foundation for what would become the mid-twentieth century Freedom Movement.
Exposing the legacy of patriarchy and white supremacy is the undergirding impulse of my work. I move across fields quite a bit, writing about music, literature and case law, but my belief in finding the roots of a more just society persists.
Are African American historians affected by unique conceptual and methodological concerns, or burdens?
When writing the history of any people who have been marginalized or oppressed, official archives are often unyielding, and so creative methodologies are called for. Every book I write offers its own methodological challenges. For instance, in May We Forever Stand, I used black newspapers, which were only recently digitized, a great deal. There was a lot of material about the anthem’s presence at organizational ceremonies and debates about the use of the anthem that hadn’t been drawn from before.
“Exposing the legacy of patriarchy and white supremacy is the undergirding impulse of my work”
Many of the methodological concerns are about omissions in the archives, but even the existing body of archival material presents challenges. Ideas about black inferiority and non-normativity impair archival documents, which often obscure the lives of black people.
There are political implications to the work. We still live in a racist society and world. Academics often keep up the pretense that we’re dispassionate, but all research is political. Bringing to light the long hidden suffering of human beings or their agency in earning freedom is a matter of urgency for me. I became a historian because I wanted to flesh all that out.
Turning to the five books you selected, let’s begin with an author for whom history was clearly political: the first African American awarded a doctorate in history by Harvard, W.E.B. Du Bois. His book Black Reconstruction in America is your first choice.
W.E.B. Du Bois was the father of American sociology and one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century. His classic text, The Souls of Black Folk, was published in 1903. Black Reconstruction in America came thirty years later.
Black Reconstruction in America is important for a number of reasons. One, it sets the stage for the field of reconstruction studies. Prior to its publication, the failure of post-Civil War reconstruction was cast as the inevitable result of the inadequacy of black people. Du Bois’s diligent scholarship and his political, economic and social analyses proved that image was wrong. He showed that freed people, together with Radical Republicans, created transformative political solutions to post-Civil War problems. He showed the promise of reconstruction ended ingloriously because government abandoned the cause of freed people.
It’s a dense book, but it’s filled with compelling narratives and analyses of the motivations, frustrations and aspirations of participants in the process of Reconstruction. He explores why disaffection exists between poor and working-class white Americans, how race is deployed to destroy the potential for class solidarity and the stark reality of antebellum black life in the South. It was a groundbreaking text, which remains widely influential to this day.
Du Bois was not just a scholar, he was also amongst the most important political organizers of black Americans. He was one of the founders of the NAACP. All of his intellectual commitments, as writer, scholar, mentor and organizer, were geared towards addressing these problems.
Next, you recommend Exodus: Religion, Race and Nation in Early Nineteenth Century Black America by your colleague at Princeton, Eddie Glaude.
Glaude is a groundbreaking scholar who writes beautifully. Exodus is an incredibly sophisticated, highly readable work. It’s a nice entry point to early nineteenth-century black life in the United States.
Exodus was widely acclaimed when first published in both literary circles and among academics, and by historians and those who study religion. Glaude provides us a narrative of the earliest stages of black freed people as they are imagining their political future. He does that through the document trail of the period’s intellectuals and the institutional documents of black religious organization. So, it’s an intellectual history, a political history and a religious history, beautifully written and filled with engaging figures from this period.
Glaude highlights the early nineteenth-century roots of black nationalism. Why is that important to understanding African American history?
It’s important not to see black nationalism as a late civil rights movement reaction. Often, black nationalism is imagined as emerging in the late 1960s. But in the early nineteenth century, with the exception of Haiti, black people were not citizens anywhere. Enslaved people are not citizens; colonized people are not citizens. So, in the early nineteenth century there was a fervor for creating a state that black people could be a part of—not just in America but in many parts of the world. By reading Glaude, we can apprehend that black nationalism is a recurring current that flows throughout the history of black politics, black religious life, and the entire course of US history.
Turning to the twentieth century, your next choice Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression by UCLA historian Robin Kelly.
The history of the black left is often a missing piece in the histories of how the civil rights movement grew. This is a foundational text for understanding the deep roots of the black left in the deep South, the lingering plantation economy and early southern industry. Many of the figures that Kelly treats in the book were early twentieth-century organizers who became mentors and teachers of civil rights leaders. Kelly shows the activists at work generations before the 1960s Civil Rights Revolution.
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It’s an adept Marxian analysis of Alabama, and an economic and sociopolitical analysis of the region that is at the core of black life in the United States. Even though it’s no longer the case that the majority of black Americans live in the Deep South, that is where most of the roots of black life lie. Its stories are wonderful. Kelly drew from archives to deliver a strong sense of what black life was like in agricultural Alabama. It’s both a beautiful book and an instructive one.
You point out in Looking for Lorraine, your look at the first black playwright to be produced on Broadway, Raisin in the Sun writer Lorraine Hansberry, that black cultural production in the twentieth century was nurtured by the left.
It frustrated Lorraine that figures in the theatre world looked down on ‘the social dramatist.’ She saw that all art is political, whether explicitly so or not. She didn’t subscribe to the idea that there’s something strange about artists engaging in the world that they’re trying to depict or change.
The political economy has always been a central aspect of racial domination in this country, so it makes sense that people who are thinking deeply about questions of injustice are drawn to the ideas of the left. That is the political reason for the link.
“Lorraine Hansberry saw that all art is political, whether explicitly so or not”
There is also an institutional reason. All art depends on patronage. We think of patronage as an individual relationship, but patronage is usually institutional. The Communist Party had a cultural policy to nurture artists. During the New Deal, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) created institutions to employ black artists, writers and dramatists. Both institutions nurtured the blossoming of black artists and intellectuals.
Hands on the Freedom of the Plow is your next choice.
So often the voices—and the work—of the folks who were not at the front of marches are left out of history books. While many wonderful civil rights histories have emerged in the past 30 years, I love Hands on the Freedom of the Plow because it conveys the voices of the women who volunteered to do the footwork for the movement, recalling how they got involved and their years of work in it.
These women—whose names we don’t know—were integral. They were registering voters, organizing door-to-door, showing incredible courage in the face of violent resistance. It’s a multi-racial group of women from various walks of life and from different regions. You get insight into how these women were called to the struggle for a most just society. And it’s a really engaging book as well.
Sounds like Hands on the Freedom Plow is backfilling women’s stories into civil rights history. Similarly, a recent spate of scholarship highlights the leading roles of African American women in the story of American feminism. At the same time, public debate is flaring up that highlights the points of tension between women’s rights and civil rights. The question I’m getting to is: how is the history of marginalized Americans intersecting in the academy?
I address this in my book Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation. Both the gender liberation and civil rights movements were struggles to make society more open, fair and just. But both movements tended to advantage those who were already relatively advantaged within the oppressed category. So, at times, the racial justice movement advances the advantages of elite African Americans and the feminist movements prioritizes concerns of upper-class white women. That tendency is an appropriate source of tension and conflict, in academic circles and in the political world, writ large.
My work, and a body of work by feminist scholars like Zillah Eisenstein, Bonnie Thorton Dill, and Patricia Hill Collins, focuses on the underlying structures that racialize and gender power relations. So, for me, gender liberation is not just about equal pay or domestic parity, it’s also about what it means to be an incarcerated woman or an undocumented woman. The issue remains: How do we not just think in more complex ways, how do we pursue political organizing in ways that account for our complexity? We certainly haven’t mastered that yet.
Finally, you suggest Nell Irvin Painter’s Creating Black Americans.
Nell Painter is an incredibly prolific and influential scholar—and she knows how to craft a really compelling narrative history. Her prose is always clean.
This book gives you the broad picture of the history of a people in context. She looks at laws, events, and economics; she also is sensitive to cultural milestones and political organizing. When she writes about the racial politics of military during World War II, it’s rooted in what’s going on nationally and internationally.
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There’s a handful of books where you could say, if you want to know the story of black Americans, here you go. Her book is amongst the most meticulous. It’s hard to breathe life into narrative survey history; she does. She gives details, she draws you in, and she sends you off in other directions, with suggestions of other books that you should read.
Painter concluded a 2016 conference, “The Future of the African American Past,” by exhorting the gathered scholars to “do everything!” You are a central voice in the future of African American history. So my last question is, what is on the horizon?
It’s hard to think of myself as being central. I do think of myself as being part of a community of people who are seriously and creatively trying to take up the responsibility of filling in gaps in the American story and helping America understand how we got from then to now.
“Historians are always asking what parts of the past we need in order to imagine our future”
I like to think about the map as a metaphor. If you put every detail on a map, it wouldn’t be a usable instrument for navigation. For the map to be usable, cartographers must make choices about what parts of a map are necessary and what relationships they must show. Similarly, historians are always asking what parts of the past we need in order to imagine our future. African American historians are particularly focused on rethinking what we need to understand about our past. How do we build archives of information to help us make history useful?
One of the things that I like about emergent scholars is that their work is less bound by specialization. They have methodological training and rigor, but they move across disciplines and subject areas and types of research and types of writing. So I don’t think we’re “doing everything,” but we’re doing a lot of different things; we’re mixing methods. We’re inspired by people like Nell to see intellectual life as not just a scholarly endeavor, but a creative enterprise.
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