I consider myself fortunate to have attended the first two conferences held by the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). So far, the conference—held last year at the University of North Carolina and this year at Vanderbilt University—has showcased some of the best qualities of modern-day academic gatherings. For this brief essay, I shall compare what I’ve seen at the two conferences. Also, I wish to talk about the (all too few) panels I attended, and what they say about the future of both AAIHS and African American history as a field.
Last year’s inaugural conference gave me the opportunity to serve on a panel with Joshua Crutchfield and Aleia Brown about having an online presence as an academic. The “#Blktwitterstorians and the Work of African American Intellectual History” panel gave all three of us, in a session moderated by Alcorn State professor Stephen G. Hall, the chance to talk about the monthly #Blktwitterstorians teach-in Joshua and Aleia have done so much to push for during the last two years. The session symbolized the ultra-modern take on history for which the AAIHS is known. Emphasizing both serious scholarship and concerted efforts at outreach to audiences beyond the academy, the AAIHS is a great symbol of the modern academy—dynamic, “plugged in” to the rest of the world, and working tirelessly to answer the “so what” questions of modern academic and cultural life.
This year’s AAIHS conference was no different. On a panel sponsored by the Society of U.S. Intellectual History, I gave a talk on the Black Radical tradition’s re-interpretation of the idea of “the South” in recent American history. My S-USIH colleague and one of several mentors I have, Andrew Hartman, gave a paper on Marxism and its interpretation by W. E. B. Du Bois and Cedric Robinson. Moderated by sociologist Zandria Robinson, the panel mixed academic disciplines and regional interpretations. The question and answer session afterwards also proved quite useful, with several scholars both applauding our work and raising some important questions for our future research. It is what we would desire at any panel session.
While each panel I attended offered a fascinating look at African American intellectual history, Davarian Baldwin’s keynote address will be on my mind for weeks to come. His arguments in favor of the “marketplace of ideas” giving intellectual agency to African American consumers caused me to evaluate who I consider to be an “intellectual.” Or, to be a bit more specific, it caused me and others to think about whose ideas we privilege when we study American intellectual history. This is a long-running debate in intellectual history, regardless of the nation, region, or time period on which it is focused.
If one wishes to sum up the mission of AAIHS, its aim zeroes in on recovering from history forgotten intellectuals, forgotten intellectual schools, and above all forgotten thoughts that have played such a crucial role in keeping the African American community alive during many moments of the fearsome struggle for liberation. Many of the panels on the conference program brought to light forgotten intellectuals, ignored in their day, or woefully misinterpreted by historians in the present.
On a personal note, while at the plenary session “Abolitionism and Black Intellectual History” (a fascinating discussion which placed the abolitionist fight at the center of black thought in the 19th century) I took an opportunity to look around the room. I was overwhelmed, although I struggled to make sure no one noticed. Here was a diverse group of people, of difference races, ethnicities, genders, and ages, taking in and talking about African American intellectual history with the kind of care and thoughtfulness the field deserves. It was AAIHS in a nutshell, and a reminder of why the group will serve for many years to come as an important incubator of new ideas and debates. As groups such as AAIHS and S-USIH, along with other scholarly gatherings that have grown from dedicated academic blogs, continue to work hard to make their presence felt in the “marketplace of ideas,” we should always remember to see each other as valuable allies in making academic work more accessible for the public at large.