New Books in African American Studies
Summary: Discussions with Scholars of African Americans about their New Books
Neil RobertsView on AmazonWhat does it mean to be free? How can paying attention to the relationship between freedom and slavery help construct a concept and practice of freedom that is "perpetual, unfinished, and rooted in acts of flight" (181)? In his book Freedom as Marronage (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Neil Roberts (Africana Studies, Religion, and Political Science, Williams College) explores this and many other questions. Proceeding from and working with the concept and practice of marronage – modes of escape from slavery emerging from the Caribbean – Roberts articulates a theory of freedom that is historically specific while having trans-historical reverberations, and that is attentive to lived experiences of freedom and slavery. In doing so, he engages histories of the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, diaspora, the Haitian Revolution, and American slavery. Arguing for the need to creolize political theory and philosophy, Roberts also takes up the thought and practice of W.E.B. DuBois, Hannah Arendt, Philip Petit, Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Edouard Glissant, Rastafari, and much more.
Daniel GearyView on AmazonDaniel Geary is the Mark Pigott Associate Professor in U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin. His book Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) is a detail and illuminating analysis of the reception of Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Geary argues that the report was neither a conservative or a liberal document but rather a conflicted one whose internal contradictions reflected the breakup of the liberal consensus and its legacy. The ambiguities of the report allowed multiple interpretations, from both the left and the right, and marked the emergence of neoconservatism. Conservatives used the report to rally against the liberal welfare state and promote African Americans self-help. Liberals saw in the document the need to go beyond legal equality to aggressive economic intervention through training programs, job creation and the family wage. The extensive and long debate over the report involved the issues of family structure, the source of "social pathology" and the "culture of poverty." African American civil rights leader split over the report. The Black Power representatives attacked its white sociological perspective that failed to take into account how black people saw the situation. Black feminists protested the portrayal of black women as domineering matriarchs and the male breadwinner model. By the time of the Nixon administration, fatigue over the debates had Moynihan arguing for "benign neglect" rather than national action, believing in an unfolding of progress evident in the black middle-classes. After fifty years, the reverberation from the Moynihan report continues as Americans wrestle with the relationship between race and economic inequality and the unfinished business of social equality that moves beyond civil rights.
Debra MajeedView on AmazonIn her wonderful new book Polygyny: What it Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands (University Press of Florida, 2015), Debra Majeed, Professor of Religious Studies at Beloit College, provides an analytically robust and moving account of the aspirations, paradoxes, and problems attached to polygyny in the African American Muslim community. By combining ethnography, history, and performance studies, Majeed seamlessly weaves together the theological, legal, and sociological dynamics of living polygyny. Readers of this book are treated to a riveting and incredibly lucid portrayal of a complicated phenomenon that brings together intimate individual stories and the broader historical and societal conditions that generate those stories in a remarkably effective fashion. In our conversation, we talked about the idea of Muslim Womanism, the methodology of dialogical performance, the Qur'an and polygyny, the paradoxes of polygyny, Imam W.D Mohammed's teachings on polygyny, and the emotional and psychological impact of polygyny n children and women. This is among those rare books that are at once methodologically exciting and complex and yet astonishingly accessible and well written. Polygyny should also make an excellent reading in courses on gender and Islam, Islamic law, American Islam, and American Religion more broadly.
Sonja D. WilliamsView on AmazonSonja D. Williams' book Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom (University of Illinois Press, 2015) connects its subject to some of the most important events and social movements of his time, including what we now call the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration. Durham's life path, like that of many other African Americans born in the early part of the 20th century, goes from the Jim Crow South, to Chicago, where his family builds a solid middle-class existence founded on educational attainment and hard work. Durham's writing career included poetry, newspapers, radio, television, and a celebrated biography of Muhammad Ali. Durham also played a significant role in the election of the first black mayor of Chicago, his high school friend, Harold Washington. In this engaging interview, Sonja Williams sheds important light on an unassuming man who was most comfortable quietly but forcefully serving the causes he believed in from behind the scenes.
Leonard CassutoView on AmazonThe discontented graduate student is something of a cultural fixture in the U.S. Indeed theirs is a sorry lot. They work very hard, earn very little, and have very poor prospects. Nearly all of them want to become professors, but most of them won't. Indeed a disturbingly large minority of them won't even finish their degrees. It's little wonder graduate students are, as a group, somewhat depressed. In his thought-provoking book The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It (Harvard University Press, 2015), Leonard Cassuto tries to figure out why graduate education in the U.S. is in such a sad state. More importantly, he offers a host of fascinating proposals to "fix" American graduate schools. Listen in.
View on AmazonMia Bay is a professor of history at Rutgers University, and Director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity. She is co-editor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina, 2015). Bay and her co-authors have brought together a strikingly good collection of fifteen essays that presents us with a sampling of a neglected field of thought. All focus on black women of the diaspora in North America, the Caribbean and Africa as subjects of critical thought and articulators of ideas on a wide variety of subjects. The authors demonstrate how black women lived and thought at the intersection of both race and gender. As a distinct field, the growth of black women's intellectual history has suffered from several handicaps including resistance within the field of intellectual history. As Black men are often the focus as defenders of their race, black women are often portrayed as activists; doers rather than thinkers. The informal nature of much of black women's thought, the lack of formal education and the use of religious language makes them appear as inarticulate in matters of racial and gender politics. The scarcity of written texts, particularly for the eighteen-century and much of the nineteenth, renders constructing a history of black women's thought a project akin to archeology; a limitation the writers readily take up as a challenge. The authors appeal to social history influencing the wider acceptance of non-elite thought, and feminist scholarship as bringing attention to the field as worthy of study. The fifteen essays cover a range of topics including religion, challenges to race science, the meaning of black women's bodies, respectability, political theory, and feminism. The entire collection is an excellent source and a promising movement toward constructing a transnational history of black women's thought.
David George SurdhamView on AmazonDavid George Surdham is the author of The Big Leagues Go to Washington: Congress and Sports Antitrust, 1951-1989 (University of Illinois Press, 2015). Surdham is Associate Professor of Economics at Northern Iowa University. Just back from the Major League Baseball All-Star break, Surdham has written a book for sports lovers. Why do major league sports receive such preferential treatment from Congress? And what does this have to do with labor and economic development policy? Surdham examines Congressional hearings held over decades to figure out how Washington's role in professional sports has changed over since the 1950s.
Carlos K. BlantonView on AmazonAlthough the designation now applies to American citizens of Mexican ethnicity writ large, the term Mexican American (hyphenated or not) also refers to the rising generation of ethnic Mexicans born and raised in the U.S. that came into adulthood during the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War years. In a new biography, George I. Sánchez: The Long Fight for Mexican American Integration (Yale University Press, 2015) Professor of History at Texas A&M University Carlos Kevin Blanton provides the first in-depth study of one of the Mexican American generation's most prolific intellectuals and activists. Born into humble circumstances in rural New Mexico in 1906, George I. Sánchez became a tireless and tremendously influential academic, policy advisor, and activist who devoted his career to battling poverty and discrimination against Mexican Americans throughout the Southwest. Whether engaged in teaching as a professor of education at the University of Texas, a researcher for numerous governmental and non-profit foundations, or as a leader and collaborator of civil rights organizations like LULAC, AGIF, ACLU, and the NAACP, Sánchez was a racial integrationist ahead of his time. In this thorough and empathetic portrait of one of the mid-twentieth century's most innovative educators and activists, Professor Blanton challenges previous interpretations of the Mexican American Generation's sense of identity, as well as their contributions to civil rights reform and Cold War liberalism.
Julian E. ZelizerView on AmazonJulian E. Zelizer is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (Penguin Press, 2015). Zelizer is the Malcom Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a fellow at New America. In the Fierce Urgency of Now, Zelizer focuses on the heated period of 1963-1966, and President Lyndon Johnson's effort to pass a civil rights bill. Johnson has been credited as the chief architect of the passage of the ultimate bill, but Zelizer shifts focus to Congress and the variety of interest groups lobbying for and against the bill. In doing so, Zelizer argues that credit for the civil rights acts must be more widely shared.
Kevin VallierView on AmazonIn a liberal democracy, citizens share political power as equals. This means that they must decide laws and policies collectively. Yet they disagree about fundamental questions regarding the value, purpose, and meaning of life. What role should their convictions concerning these matters play in their public activity as citizens? According to familiar answers, citizens must bracket or constrain the role that their religious convictions plays in their public lives. But many religious citizens find this unacceptable. Some of these hold that their religious views should determine law and policy. But that, too, looks unacceptable. In Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation (Routledge, 2014), Kevin Vallier develops a novel view of the role of religious conviction and reasoning in liberal democracy. On his view, religious citizens will rarely need to constrain the role that their religious convictions play in their public activities. However, Vallier also contends that public officials and institutions cannot determine public policy solely on the basis of religious reasons.
View on AmazonJennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox are the authors of Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned off to Politics (Oxford UP, 2015). Lawless is a Professor of Government and the Director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. Fox is a Professor of Political Science at Loyola Marymount University. The two conducted surveys of over 4,000 younger Americans. What they find is that their young Americans rarely think, talk or consider politics. While many seem to care about the world, this infrequently translates to running for office or aspirations to work in politics. They find: Just 11 percent of respondents said that they had thought about running office "many times" while 61 percent said they "never" considered it. Asked if various jobs paid the same, they find just 13 percent of respondents said they would want to be a member of Congress, versus 37 percent who chose business executive and 27 percent school principal; only 19 percent indicated that a future goal was to become a political leader. And less than 10% of respondents said that their parents would want them to pursue a job as a member of Congress, compared to around 50 percent for owning a business.
Ted A. SmithView on AmazonPeople living in the modern west generally have no problem criticizing religiously-justified violence. It's therefore always interesting when I discuss John Brown, a man who legitimized anti-slavery violence Biblically. My most recent batch of students sought to resolve this tension by declaring John Brown to be "crazy but right." In his new book Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford University Press, 2014), Ted A. Smith unravels the tensions that led to my students' ambiguous conclusion. By providing a profound ethical meditation on Brown and his fellow raiders to challenge how people, particularly Americans, think about morality; the relationship between religion, the state, and violence; and to the possibilities of judgment and redemption, Smith illustrates how an ethical and philosophical reading of history can help us to better understand the world we live in, what we should do, and of the importance of going beyond just what we ought to do.
View on AmazonPhilip A. Wallach is the author of To The Edge: Legality, Legitimacy, and the Responses to the 2008 Financial Crisis (Brookings Institution Press, 2015). Wallach is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. There has been a lot written about the financial crisis of the late 2000s, but little with the attention to important concepts from political science. Wallach investigates the various federal strategies to address the meltdown of the financial sector from the perspective of legitimacy, seeking to understand what we can learn about this idea from the unprecedented expansion of federal power. From efforts to save the failing investment banks, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, to the passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), federal officials applied a largely ad-hoc approach that Wallach deems "adhocracy" often substituting expedience for legal authority. While this worked in the short-term, Wallach probes where this leaves the country and speculates about what will come in the future.
Andrew HartmanView on AmazonAndrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University. His book A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2015) provides a whirlwind tour through the most salient debates of what became known as the culture wars of the late twentieth century. As a set of debates and political tussles the culture wars reflected America's struggle to deal with the vast changes left by 1960s and more complex than a simple left/right, secular/religious binary that characterized public discussion. Beginning with the normative Americanism fragmenting under the influence of the New Left, Hartman shows us how the watershed decade set the terms for the cultural wars. Public intellectuals such as Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills to rock stars such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and the comedy duo the Smothers Brothers marked the changes. Seemingly everything about American life from sexual mores to national history was up for renegotiation. Hartman places the genesis of the debate for the American future in the struggle between the New Left and their chief ideological opponents, and former liberals, neoconservatives. Soon this initial intellectual battle fueled a popular war for the social, religious, and economic future drawing in the newly formed Christian Right, self-identified ethnic groups, feminist and others. The struggles over school curriculum, the rewriting of history, cultural power, the family, religion, and the nature of truth, was the process of coming to terms with a new reality – a situation of a permanent culture revolution and the loss of a normative shared culture. With the heat of the battle significantly cooled, we are left with what Hartman calls an "antiauthoritarian individualism" under intransigent capitalism weakening the hope for social democracy.
Rory CarrollView on AmazonHistorically, Venezuela is known as one of the most stable Latin American nations of the twentieth century. The subsequent discovery of oil transformed Venezuela into a petrostate. Yet wealth inequality dramatically increased. Against this economic and social disparity, Hugo Chavez rose to power, becoming one of a number of dynamic Latin American politicians. But what legacy did Chavez leave behind after his death in 2013, and how has his successor, Nicholas Madruo, fared in continuing the Bolivarian Revolution? Rory Carroll is a journalist with The Guardian and spent a number of years in Venezuela. His book, Comandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela (Penguin Books, 2013), recounts his time in Latin America. Speaking to Venezuelans on both side of the political spectrum, from farmers to ex-politicians and government insiders, Carroll discovers that opinions of Chavez's presidency are sharply divided. However, many agree that Hugo fundamentally changed the destiny and vision of Venezuela.