#AAIHS2017: Reflecting on the Past’s Presence 2.0

Plenary talk on Abolitionism and Black Intellectual History. Photo: Brandon Byrd/Twitter.
Plenary talk on Abolitionism and Black Intellectual History at AAIHS 2017. Photo: Brandon Byrd/Twitter.

I recently attended the second annual AAIHS meeting at Vanderbilt University. I had the good fortune to attend the inaugural conference in 2016 at UNC Chapel Hill and last year offered my reflections on Black Perspectives. In my post about the meeting, I commented that the discussion, commentary, and conversations in Chapel Hill portended a very promising future for Black intellectual history in the space that AAIHS offers. From my vantage point, the discussions remained vibrant, compelling, and altogether invigorating at #AAIHS2017. There was a palpable sense of urgency in the work this year: powerful intellectual currents circulated throughout the panels I attended, which seemed to usher an imperative to consider the multiple ways history matters today, now. One of Walter Biggins’s Saturday tweets summed it up well, I thought: “I’ve heard variations of ‘How is our work doing good in & for the world?’ more in 2 days at #AAIHS2017 than in a yr of conference-going.” The organizers, volunteers, and conference planners deserve our collective salute for assembling an excellent gathering of scholars and practitioners of Black history.

As with most conference travel, I attempted to double the trip with archival research. I arrived in Nashville early to visit the W. E. B. Du Bois Collection at Fisk University. Archivist DeLisa Minor Harris and her staff assisted in making my visit as productive as possible. The Du Bois archive at Fisk contains a substantial amount of correspondence, along with unpublished material. For example, there are extensive records devoted to his writing on the Black solider and World War I, The Black Man in the Wounded World. Manuscript materials of his published work abound: drafts of The Black Flame, In Battle for Peace, Dusk of Dawn, and Color and Democracy, for example. In addition, there is a particularly large collection of documents related to both of Du Bois’s stints at the NAACP as well as materials about The Crisis. I was interested to discover multiple drafts of Du Bois’s “What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas,” which appeared as a pamphlet in 1936.

My particular focus of this trip was to finish reviewing boxes devoted to Du Bois’s lectures. Over 300 speeches reside in Credo, the digital collection of Du Bois’s Papers at UMass; while there are some duplicates in Du Bois’s Fisk archive, many of the lectures at Fisk are unique to that collection. Du Bois’s speeches address a range of subjects that covers religion, politics, and economics, among other topics. Spending hours in the archive brought more clarity about the ways that Du Bois produced and popularized Black history, the subject of my AAIHS paper this year. The discovery of new archival materials and the excitement about new interpretive and analytical angles was a great segue to the conference, which focused on interrogating the boundaries of black intellectual history.

Special Collections, Fisk University. Photo by the author.

Memorable panels from the conference’s opening day included an early morning panel on Black intellectual life in academia. Panelists Chris Cameron, Ashley Farmer, and Kami Fletcher discussed topics related to questions of navigating the daily mechanics of the tenure track, for example, while Daina Berry Ramey considered the post-tenure professoriate as it relates to publishing, service, and responsibilities outside the university, a subject which converged with conversations about self-care and maintaining some kind of equilibrium between personal and professional life. Corey Walker’s comments considered what devotion to the life of the mind means in terms of knowledge production both within and outside the university. He also spoke eloquently about what’s at stake in mobilizing knowledge and research for future intellectual and cultural horizons, both within and outside formal academic settings.

Relatedly, a panel on W. E. B. Du Bois and the production of Black history featured new work that analyzed Du Bois’s use of social science to consider the possibilities of knowledge and the intellectual fissures of what is unknowable, or what presenter Robert Williams called Du Bois’s “nescience.” Lavelle Porter examined Du Bois’s knowledge production through his late career Black Flame trilogy and contemplated the role of Du Bois’s imagination through the practice of writing history in the creative capacity of the novel. Speaking of creative writing, a panel on poetry as intellectual history was particularly intriguing and boundary-bending. Session attendees experienced the power of poetry spoken and performed while also learning more about the historical and cultural contextualization of when, where, and how artists wrote or produced poetry. Nashville poet Tiana Clark read her forthcoming poem “Nashville,” a piece on Phillis Wheatley, and spoke on her imaginative work about Nina Simone. Isaac Ginsberg Miller presented on the popularity and political uses of Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” while Tara Betts narrated the cultural significance and meaning of Marilyn Nelson’s “historical lens” in her poems about Emmett Till and George Washington Carver, among others. Similarly, Tyrone Palmer’s analysis of another contemporary poet’s work, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, contemplated the possibilities of the lyric poem as a form of both documentation and insurgency.

I also found a panel sponsored by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH) very interesting. Andrew Hartman explored the textures of Black Marxism through reading Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction alongside C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins and Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism and how each thinker’s work contributed to the longer history of black radical thought. His paper suggested that historicizing the intellectual genealogy of Black radical thought not only documents the past, but informs contemplation about contemporary issues and how intellectual labor can impact social, cultural, economic, and political change. Robert Greene’s paper cautioned scholars not to overlook the power of southern Black radicalism between 1968 and 2008 and documented where and how black print culture, through publications such as Ebony, Black Scholar, and Freedomways, documents rural life as a space and place of intriguing intellectual activity and political work.

James Baldwin, Howard Thurman, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Visions of Black Liberation Panel. Photo by author.

A particularly important panel from the conference’s second day illustrates the power and potential of the AAIHS in simultaneously addressing the weight of history in the present political moment while imagining political and cultural possibilities of how intellectual labor might transform the future. A panel on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which panelists read alongside James Baldwin and Howard Thurman, discussed the role of religion, atheism, humanism, and the meaning and reality of Black liberation. Overall, while panelists preferred the work of Baldwin and his provocative commentary on hope and possibility to consider intellectual history’s future political inheritance, the power of Coates’s prose to communicate the fraught materiality of Black life highlighted the intellectual and ethical contours of how he has chosen to resist white supremacy as a writer and thinker. Russell Rickford’s stirring comments on the panel’s papers—deeply personal, politically powerful, and lyrically delivered—verbalized a kind of embodied insurgency into the space of the meeting room that indicted corrupt power while recognizing the multiple beauties of resistance.

The foregoing summary represents my own perspectives on the second annual AAIHS conference. I hope they reflect the meeting’s exciting substance while also speaking to the society’s work in expanding the boundaries of Black intellectual history. I look forward to the observations and insights of other attendees, as well as the ongoing digital documentation featured through the #AAIHS2017 hashtag. What I stated in 2016, I’ll repeat this year: I think I speak for many when I say that we wait with excited anticipation for the 2018 AAIHS meeting at Brandeis.

*Click here and here to read highlights from the conference on Twitter.

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Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies. In 2018-19, he is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his publications examine the American prosperity gospel, the history of evangelical Christianity, televangelism, African American religion, Black intellectual history, and the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. He has published several books, including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History with Amy Helene Kirschke (University of Missouri Press, 2014); and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). At present, he is at work on several projects related to W. E. B. Du Bois, along with a short biography of James Baldwin for Rowman & Littlefield’s Library of African American Biography series.