Black Rage at the Organization of American Historians

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[This post also appeared at Black Perspectives]

The theme of this year’s Organization of American Historians conference in New Orleans was circulation.  For black communities beyond academia, however, circulation involves not only spatial, intellectual, and cultural exchanges but the transcendence of temporality itself.   For over four hundred years black histories have relentlessly collapsed into black presents. The two forces repeatedly commingle with a frequency commensurate with the volume of black suffering.  When Sandra Bland experiences a “wrongful death” at the hands of a Texas State Trooper, it circulates across both space and time. It reverberates both forward and backwards.  It sparks new struggles in the future even as it digs up old traumas from the past.

The shared fates and shared histories that so frequently bind black people together also demand that Bland and so many other black recipients of state violence circulate beyond even traditional Western epistemologies and historical methodologies—at times, beyond even life itself.  Bland’s death is not just a death for black communities.  It is a living specter. It abides. By insisting that #WeAreSandraBland black communities defiantly ignore the boundaries of even a Foucauldian sense of subjectivity.  Our well-worn but crude individualistic materialism is thereby augmented through the communal circulation of non-empirical black spirits.  Bland’s story is thus felt as much as it is told. Her pain is a shared pain. Black people, through feeling it, are, at least partially, disregarding an affect-free world bound by Western rationality. While police brutality may be something shocking to mainstream America, it is something very familiar to black memories. Ancestors, both living and dead, have circulated stories of state violence for centuries.  Perhaps the rest of America is finally ready to listen.

One bold group of scholars at the OAH arrived in New Orleans outraged enough to explore these visceral links between the black past and the black present. The stated aim of their panel, chaired by Chad Williams of Brandeis University, was to connect the “Race Wars of 1917” (that exploded in both East St. Louis and Houston a hundred years ago) to the Ferguson Uprising, the death of Sandra Bland, and the anti-black violence of the present. The deeper purpose, however, was in fact a much larger critique of academic epistemologies that so often curtail explorations of black pain and rage. Lesser historians might have cowered at the charge of ‘presentism.’  But these scholars had had enough.

Tyina Steptoe from the University of Arizona led the way. Steptoe recounted the brutal actions and racist language of the Houston Police Department as they drug, battered, terrorized, and publicly humiliated a nightgown-clad Sara Travers in 1917.  Black male soldiers, invoking a patriarchal language of protection, mobilized and fought back against the police. By the time the dust settled four black soldiers and at least a dozen other Houstonians had been killed.  The U.S. military would subsequently court marshal and execute sixteen black soldiers involved in the uprising and incarcerate approximately sixty more for life.  The government would have executed ten more black soldiers had it not been for the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson who commuted these ten sentences from a death at the gallows to a life behind bars.

While much of this story was previously covered in Freedom Struggles by co-panelist and discussant Adriane Lentz-Smith, Steptoe offered new evidence indicating that black women like Travers (and Bland) were neither passive recipients of black male protection nor the helpless victims of white male violence.  Just as Keisha Blain and Ashley Farmer have shown in other contexts, Steptoe found black women in Houston actively organizing against white supremacy even as black women at large were so often marginalized within the very movements that they helped initiate and sustain.   In the end, Steptoe identified the real crime that united the stories of both Bland and Travers across time—both were deemed ‘uppity’ black women by their white male captors who tried to discipline these non-conforming black women through the power of state violence.

Providing a top-down supplement to Steptoe’s thick description on the ground, Eric Yellin from the University of Richmond detailed the Wilson Administration’s reaction to the racial violence of 1917.   While the Houston unrest was more akin to a modern urban uprising (with black residents defending themselves and fighting back against racial injustice), East St. Louis was more of an old-fashion nineteenth century ‘race riot.’ White residents took up arms, terrorized, and burned black communities after years of intense black migration, labor competition, and, in this case, the mere rumor of interracial sexuality.   Observers compared the carnage in East St. Louis to the American Civil War, and, in an oft repeated connection to colonialism abroad, to the Belgian Congo.  For Yellin, Wilson’s anemic response (that involved meeting with black leaders but refusing to prosecute white perpetrators) was part of the de-racialization of the Progressive Movement at large.  All told Yellin found that the narratives silencing black pain and erasing the racist origins of the year’s violence were part of the long trend, initiated by Progressivism, towards today’s color blind racism.  While Progressives tried to be…well…progressive, as it related to race, they ended up creating a system of ignoring race and racism as a strange means of addressing it.

Adriane Lentz-Smith, in bringing the panel’s themes together, agreed that the long history of colorblind racism, as mapped by both Yellin and elsewhere by Ibram X. Kendi, is a ripe explanatory site for the modern racism pervading the #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter sentiments.  More memorably, however, Lentz-Smith offered a telling personal narrative about one of her mentors, Cornel West.  As a young academic, looking for a scholarly framework to analyze black life in America, Lentz-Smith went where all clever, aspiring young students go: office hours.  There the always irreverent philosopher West said, and I paraphrase, “Sister, you must never forget about black rage!”  While this rage may at times appear only in its most muted forms—repressed in deep storehouses beyond compare—it is nonetheless an omnipresent ingredient in black life—ready to boil over at any given moment.  While the angry black subject is certainly a racist trope designed to invalidate racism, when anger turns to rage (especially organized collective rage) the unbearable racism that pervades American life becomes impossible to deny. Thus, it is often only when anger becomes rage that racism becomes visible to mainstream American life.   The panel’s shared devotion to this line of inquiry would have made Professor West (and hopefully all of us) very proud indeed.

While many pundits seem intent on analyzing the political consequences of white working-class rage in a post-2016 America, considerably less attention has been paid to the political thought and rage of poor and working class black Americans.  It was this intersection, however, between thought and emotion (at once contradictory and connected) that I left New Orleans feeling most compelled to explore.  One of the key aims of the African American Intellectual History Society, for example, is to expand the boundaries of who counts as an intellectual and what constitutes thought itself.  I fully support this aim and consider myself part of this larger project.  Yes, black scholars, black construction workers, black toddlers, black rappers, and black strippers all think.  But black people also feel things—and feel them deeply.

In our scholarly mission to validate the widest possible span of black subjects as intellectuals we must be courageous enough to challenge Western ways of knowing when those very structures so often invalidate these black feelings as an element of black knowledge.  We need not wait for academic methodologies (like affect theory) to catch up with everyday black thought and feeling.  We must build new frameworks (similar to what the Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge is doing across the Pacific). While developing such techniques to understand black emotion is certainly a noble endeavor, the assumption that black knowledge production is somehow only valid once it can be quantified by a sociological study or situated within some Western theoretical framework at an R1 university is a dehumanizing premise to begin with.

Black people feel/know that Sandra Bland was killed by the police.  Because this knowledge comes primarily from a feeling rather than empirical evidence that might be classified as a ‘fact’ in a court of law does not diminish its truth.  It only means that black truths are much larger than the current world can contain.

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