#AAIHS2018: Reflecting on the Past’s Presence 3.0

Keynote address by Barbara Ransby (Photo: Timothy Stewart-Winter)

I’m grateful to continue the tradition of offering an AAIHS conference summary again this year, as I did in 2016 and 2017. And like the previous two years, I doubled up conference travel with a research trip prior to the meeting at Brandeis. With this post I offer one narrative perspective on the conference. Twitter captured a broad array of experiences and thoughts using #AAIHS2018.

This year my archival visits added to my ongoing research on W.E.B. Du Bois. In Harlem, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture I had a chance to make my way through a few boxes of the Lorraine Hansberry Papers. I was able to pour over some of her poetry files along with materials that detailed some of her educational, activist, and journalistic work that intersected with W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois. Through Hansberry’s archive I was able to further understand the nature and depth of how Black radicals networked politically, and sustained each other’s work through vicious mid-century anti-black, anticommunist repression. Letters of encouragement, poetic reflections, and financial assistance for defense committees, for example, assisted in the day-to-day strivings of Black radicals, their allies, and their families.

On the point of Du Bois’s intellectual legacy, I had a chance to work through a few boxes of the Gerald Horne Papers, another of the Schomburg’s amazing collections. Research files on his W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois publications offer unique vantage points from which to understand the backstory of these books and the kind of archival foundation upon which they were composed. In addition, I read numerous op-eds on affirmative action Horne wrote during the early 1980s, material that formed the basis of his book Reversing Discrimination: The Case for Affirmative Action. Horne was one of my professors at the University of Houston, so it was an altogether unique and fascinating experience for me to encounter a teacher and mentor’s research files. I learned a great deal from him in the classroom and of course in his many books and articles. He remains my teacher though his archive as well.

Downtown at the Brooklyn Historical Society the records of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity and its minister the Reverend William Howard Melish fostered new understanding about Du Bois’s latter decade when he and Shirley Graham resided in Brooklyn and attended Melish’s church. I learned more about the Negro History Week activities the church hosted during the 1950s, part of which Du Bois assisted with. As head of National Council of American Soviet Friendship, Melish’s politics and passion for justice aligned with those of the Du Boises. Their solidarity led to W.E.B.’s request for Reverend Melish to offer a eulogy upon his death, the text and audio files of which reside in Brooklyn.

An added benefit of visiting New York City is to fellowship with and learn from colleagues, especially if they have local knowledge of the area. On a very pleasant yet cold Saturday morning with my AAIHS comrade Lavelle Porter, I walked around Brooklyn and learned more about the area’s history. We made the pilgrimage to 31 Grace Court, where Shirley and W.E.B. once lived.

31 Grace Court Du Bois Apartment Brooklyn (Photo: Phillip Luke Sinitiere).

In Philadelphia, I met up with poet and friend Olga Dugan, whose beautiful verse captures the essence of everyday life and whose scholarship on poetics and history, especially that of Natasha Tretheway, has advanced understanding of poetry’s place in the intellectual and cultural life of the United States. I also had occasion to visit the Scribe Video Center and work in the archives of award-winning filmmaker Louis Massiah’s still relevant and impressive 1995 documentary W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices.

After completing these archival excursions, I made my way up to Boston for the conference. The intellectual vibrancy of panels, workshops, plenaries, and the keynote address continued for a third year. Common conference subjects of discussion over the AAIHS’s 3-year history have included Black internationalism, print culture and the Black press, technology and digital history, gender, sexuality, the archive, slavery, performance, Black student movements, the meaning of diaspora, film, music, Afro-Europe, Afro-Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, and Black radicalism, among other topics. Panels devoted to specific intellectuals are in regular rotation at AAIHS meetings too (e.g., Arturo Schomburg, Maria Stewart, W.E.B. Du Bois, Edward Blyden, Audre Lorde, Cedric Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr.). This year again featured the standard rigor and depth that AAIHS characteristically offers, and as usual provided accessible and relevant subjects about which there was much to discuss—all of which ultimately delivered on the conference’s theme: Black Thought Matters.

On day one, the first panel I attended “Poetics of Race and Rage: Black Feminism and Literary Form” featured papers about the political work that literature and journalism does in expressing both the ordinary humanity of Black people and creative, textual forms of resistance. Of particular interest for my own research was Jaimee Swift and Ashley Daniels’s work on Black women’s journalism that chronicled and named the internationalist work of writers such as Claudia Jones, whose publications spanned freedom struggles across the diaspora.

Subsequently, a panel on international connections between African American intellectual, literary, and musical culture across the changing political landscape of twentieth-century China was equally fascinating. From Yunxiang Gao, I was excited to learn more of Langston Hughes’s reception in China while Zifeng Liu’s paper covered, among others, the depiction of Robert F. Williams in the People’s Daily. Keisha A. Brown insightfully assessed musician Aubrey Pankey’s sonic presence in China through his performance of Negro spirituals.

After celebrating the work of AAIHS award winners, attendees heard Barbara Ransby eloquently connect the intellectual labors of academic work to the everyday praxis of the Black radical intellectual tradition. Drawing on insights from the lives of African-descended people across the diaspora as well as the work of local activists in her hometown of Chicago, Ransby challenged us all to think about the intertwined nature of our intellectual, political, and cultural work and how “Black thought matters” in everyday life both inside and outside of the academy. I’m looking forward to reading her fuller insights later this year when the University of California Press publishes her next book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century.

On the second day of the conference at a panel on Black thought in the Progressive Era I learned about the art of Charlotte “Lottie” Wilson from Cynthia Hawkins’s detailed presentation that biographized and historicized her work. On the same panel, Chad William’s captivating comments on Du Bois’s notions of democracy expanded upon his recent Black Perspectives essay on Du Bois and World War I.

Musician and educator Junious Lee Brickhouse’s workshop on the blues, performance art, and the creation of sonic archives reminded us about the place of aesthetics, teaching, and the global nature of hip hop in African American intellectual history. I’m still processing his astute observation about musicians as “tradition bearers,” and what that might mean for how I conceive of my own research on hip hop and aesthetics.

Whitney Battle-Baptiste presenting at AAIHS 2018 (Photo: Jaimee Swift).

It was an honor to collaborate with Lavelle Porter, Edward Carson, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Whitney Battle-Baptiste on “W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Thought at 150: History, Memory, Literature & Politics.” Lavelle deepened our understanding of the nature of Du Bois’s The Black Flame trilogy, a topic about which he’s written at Black Perspectives, while Edward wrestled with Du Bois’s complex and at times contradictory moralism in what he called the “Victorian Du Bois.” Whitney elaborated on her engaging roundtable essay, “Bringing W. E. B. Du Bois Home Again” through the ongoing mural artwork of Great Barrington’s Railroad Street Youth Project, and ended with a stirring quote from Martin Luther King’s February 1968 “Honoring Dr. Du Bois” speech. In the sesquicentennial year of his birth, all of the panelists in one way or another drove home the importance of Du Bois’s legacy.

Finally, a panel on archives and the making of archives prompted new considerations about how archives make history and how history make archives. In particular, I was intrigued to hear Kesho Scott and Amilcar Priestly recount the personal and political dimensions of assembling an archive. Similarly, Irma McClaurin’s presentation about creation of the Irma McLaurin Black Feminist Archive, and Whitney Battle-Baptist’s overview of the powerful work she’s carrying out at the W. E. B. Du Bois Center not only demonstrated the vibrant work happening at UMass, but also brought home living examples about the kinds of intersections possible between scholarship and praxis that Barbara Ransby spoke about. As I stated in 2016 and 2107, I’ll re-state this year: I appreciate the sponsors, salute the efforts of conference organizers, and eagerly anticipate the 2019 AAIHS meeting at the University of Michigan.

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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.

Comments on “#AAIHS2018: Reflecting on the Past’s Presence 3.0

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    I should also say something about the conference’s book exhibit. It gets bigger and better every year, while it also provides plenty of space and time for authors and potential authors to have conversations with editors. To my recollection, the University of Pennsylvania Press, the University Press of Florida, and the University of Georgia Press have been at all 3 AAIHS meetings so far. Also present over the years: representatives and editors from Beacon, the University of Massachusetts Press, Vanderbilt University Press, the University Press of Mississippi, the University Press of Kentucky, and Haymarket.

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