2021 Finalists for the Pauli Murray Book Prize in Black Intellectual History

The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) is pleased to announce the finalists for the fourth annual Pauli Murray Book Prize for the best book in Black intellectual history. Named after lawyer, author, and women’s rights activist-intellectual Pauli Murray, this prize recognizes the best book concerning Black intellectual history (broadly conceived) published between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020 by a member of AAIHS. The winner of the 2021 Pauli Murray Book Prize will receive $1,000, a featured week-long roundtable on the book in Black Perspectives, and a featured interview published in Black Perspectives.  The award winner will be announced at the 2021 AAIHS Conference, which will be held virtually from March 19-20, 2021. Here are the five finalists selected by this year’s fellowship committee.


Brandon R. Byrd, The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (University of Pennsylvania Press)

In The Black Republic, Brandon R. Byrd explores the ambivalent attitudes that African American leaders in the post-Civil War era held toward Haiti, the first and only black republic in the Western Hemisphere. Following emancipation, African American leaders of all kinds—politicians, journalists, ministers, writers, educators, artists, and diplomats—identified new and urgent connections with Haiti, a nation long understood as an example of black self-determination. They celebrated not only its diplomatic recognition by the United States but also the renewed relevance of the Haitian Revolution. While a number of African American leaders defended the sovereignty of a black republic whose fate they saw as intertwined with their own, others expressed concern over Haiti’s fitness as a model black republic, scrutinizing whether the nation truly reflected the “civilized” progress of the black race. Influenced by the imperialist rhetoric of their day, many African Americans across the political spectrum espoused a politics of racial uplift, taking responsibility for the “improvement” of Haitian education, politics, culture, and society. They considered Haiti an uncertain experiment in black self-governance: it might succeed and vindicate the capabilities of African Americans demanding their own right to self-determination or it might fail and condemn the black diasporic population to second-class status for the foreseeable future. When the United States military occupied Haiti in 1915, it created a crisis for W. E. B. Du Bois and other black activists and intellectuals who had long grappled with the meaning of Haitian independence. The resulting demand for and idea of a liberated Haiti became a cornerstone of the anticapitalist, anticolonial, and antiracist radical black internationalism that flourished between World War I and World War II. Spanning the Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, and Jim Crow eras, The Black Republic recovers a crucial and overlooked chapter of African American internationalism and political thought.


Richard Kent Evans, Move: An American Religion (Oxford University Press)

What is a religion? That is the question that Richard Kent Evans attempts to answer in this book. He does so through the story of MOVE, a little-known group with a fascinating story. MOVE emerged in Philadelphia in the early 1970s. It was a small, mostly African American group devoted to the teachings of John Africa. In 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department — working in concert with federal and state law enforcement — attacked a home that “MOVE people” as they preferred to be known, shared in West Philadelphia. Hundreds of police officers and firefighters laid siege to the building using tear gas, ten thousand rounds of ammunition, and improvised explosives. Most infamously, a police officer riding in a helicopter dropped a bomb containing C-4 explosives, which he had acquired from the FBI, onto the roof of the MOVE house. The bomb started a fire, which officials allowed to spread in hopes of chasing the MOVE people out of the house. Police officers fired upon those who tried to escape the flames. Eleven MOVE people died in the attack, including John Africa. Five of those who died were children. In this book, Richard Kent Evans tells the story of MOVE — a story that has been virtually lost outside of Philadelphia. What was MOVE? Many MOVE members thought of themselves as belonging to a religion, and they sought legal recognition. But to others, including other religious groups like the Quakers and, more importantly, the courts, MOVE was anything but a religion. Evans dives deep into how we decide what constitutes a genuine religious tradition, and the enormous consequences of that decision.


Garrett Felber, Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State (University of North Carolina Press)

Challenging incarceration and policing was central to the postwar Black Freedom Movement. In this bold new political and intellectual history of the Nation of Islam, Garrett Felber centers the Nation in the Civil Rights Era and the making of the modern carceral state. In doing so, he reveals a multifaceted freedom struggle that focused as much on policing and prisons as on school desegregation and voting rights. The book examines efforts to build broad-based grassroots coalitions among liberals, radicals, and nationalists to oppose the carceral state and struggle for local Black self-determination. It captures the ambiguous place of the Nation of Islam specifically, and Black nationalist organizing more broadly, during an era which has come to be defined by nonviolent resistance, desegregation campaigns, and racial liberalism. By provocatively documenting the interplay between law enforcement and Muslim communities, Felber decisively shows how state repression and Muslim organizing laid the groundwork for the modern carceral state and the contemporary prison abolition movement which opposes it. Exhaustively researched, the book illuminates new sites and forms of political struggle as Muslims prayed under surveillance in prison yards and used courtroom political theater to put the state on trial. This history captures familiar figures in new ways–Malcolm X the courtroom lawyer and A. Philip Randolph the Harlem coalition builder–while highlighting the forgotten organizing of rank-and-file activists in prisons such as Martin Sostre. This definitive account is an urgent reminder that Islamophobia, state surveillance, and police violence have deep roots in the state repression of Black communities during the mid-20th century.


Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press)

The story of freedom and all of its ambiguities begins with intimate acts steeped in power. It is shaped by the peculiar oppressions faced by African women and women of African descent. And it pivots on the self-conscious choices black women made to retain control over their bodies and selves, their loved ones, and their futures. Slavery’s rise in the Americas was institutional, carnal, and reproductive. The intimacy of bondage whet the appetites of slaveowners, traders, and colonial officials with fantasies of domination that trickled into every social relationship—husband and wife, sovereign and subject, master and laborer. Intimacy—corporeal, carnal, quotidian—tied slaves to slaveowners, women of African descent and their children to European and African men. In Wicked Flesh, Jessica Marie Johnson explores the nature of these complicated intimate and kinship ties and how they were used by black women to construct freedom in the Atlantic world. Johnson draws on archival documents scattered in institutions across three continents, written in multiple languages and largely from the perspective of colonial officials and slave-owning men, to recreate black women’s experiences from coastal Senegal to French Saint-Domingue to Spanish Cuba to the swampy outposts of the Gulf Coast. Centering New Orleans as the quintessential site for investigating black women’s practices of freedom in the Atlantic world, Wicked Flesh argues that African women and women of African descent endowed free status with meaning through active, aggressive, and sometimes unsuccessful intimate and kinship practices. Their stories, in both their successes and their failures, outline a practice of freedom that laid the groundwork for the emancipation struggles of the nineteenth century and reshaped the New World.


Quito J. Swan, Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice (University Press of Florida)

Pauulu’s Diaspora is a sweeping story of black internationalism across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Ocean worlds, told through the life and work of twentieth-century environmental activist Pauulu Kamarakafego. Challenging U.S.-centered views of Black Power, Quito Swan offers a radically broader perspective, showing how Kamarakafego helped connect liberation efforts of the African diaspora throughout the Global South. Born in Bermuda and with formative experiences in Cuba, Kamarakafego was aware at an early age of the effects of colonialism and the international scope of racism and segregation. After pursuing graduate studies in ecological engineering, he traveled to Africa, where he was inspired by the continent’s independence struggles and contributed to various sustainable development movements. Swan explores Kamarakafego’s remarkable fusion of political agitation and scientific expertise and traces his emergence as a central coordinator of major black internationalist conferences. Despite government surveillance, Kamarakafego built a network of black organizers that reached from Kenya to the islands of Oceania and included such figures as C. L. R. James, Queen Mother Audley Moore, Kwame Nkrumah, Sonia Sanchez, Sylvia Hill, Malcolm X, Vanessa Griffen, and Stokely Carmichael. In a riveting narrative that runs through Caribbean sugarcane fields, Liberian rubber plantations, and Papua New Guinean rainforests, Pauulu’s Diaspora recognizes a global leader who has largely been absent from scholarship. In doing so, it brings to light little-known relationships among Black Power, pan-Africanism, and environmental justice.

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