Conversations in Black Freedom Studies: An Interview

“THE 43rd ANNUAL AFRICAN-AMERICAN DAY PARADE” Harlem, New York, Sunday, September 16, 2012 ( Flickr / James Nova)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the tenth-anniversary celebration of CBFS, scheduled for March 2nd, we are featuring a conversation with the curators of the series.

Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine is a historian whose teaching and research explore Black social protest after World War II, urban and working-class radicalism, and gender. Her book The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland was published in 2016. She is co-founder of the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project and has written widely on gender and Black Power. Her writings have appeared in the Journal of Women’s History and Souls as well as The Washington PostVibe Magazine, Colorlines, and Truthout.  She has received awards for her work from the Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Association of Black Women Historians. Her latest work focuses on the intersections between the movement for Black liberation and the movement against the US war in Vietnam. In addition, she is working on a biography of Pat Murphy Robinson, a Marxist therapist whose work as a counselor and organizer transformed the Black freedom movement.

Jeanne Theoharis is the author or co-author of eleven books on the civil rights and Black Power movements and the contemporary politics of race in the United States. Her widely acclaimed biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks won a 2014 NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians and has been adapted into a young adult edition and a documentary for NBC-Peacock directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton and executive produced Soledad O’Brien.  Her book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History won the 2018 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize in Nonfiction.

Komozi Woodard is professor of history, public policy, and Africana studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Woodard was managing editor of Unity & Struggle and Black Newark newspaper and radio program in the Black Power Movement, Main Trend journal in the Black Arts Movement and Manhattan’s Children’s Express before writing and editing A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power PoliticsThe Making of the New Ark; The Black Power Movement: Amiri Baraka from Black Arts to Black RadicalismFreedom North, Groundwork, Black Power 50; and Want to Start a Revolution: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle?.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): What was the impetus for the creation of CBFS a decade ago? 

Jeanne Theoharis (JT): Komozi Woodard and I first began collaborating around our first edited collection Freedom North. Partly we were writing our books for the community more broadly, not just other academics–but how would people find out about them? We were dismayed as yet another bookstore in Harlem shuttered. We wanted to start a series where the community could come and hear the latest work in Black history, and the Schomburg Center had long been a place for that.  And so, we went to meet with Khalil Muhammad, who had just become the director of the Schomburg. All three of us came to this idea as scholar-activists, convinced that learning the history of the Black freedom struggle was crucial for understanding the history of this country and providing a map of the way forward. All three of us were concerned there were fewer places for people to engage this scholarship outside of a connection to a university–despite a broader community hunger for it.

So the idea for Conversations in Black Freedom Studies was born–3-4 scholar-writers sharing their work around a particular theme always on the first Thursday of the month. From the beginning, it was also imperative that the conversation was not just a one-way street with knowledge dispensed from the stage but instead a robust Q&A with audience members asking questions and also sharing their own experiences and knowledge of these historical events.

Komozi Woodard (KW): Ten years ago, the impetus for creating Conversations was the culmination of several conferences and symposia that Jeanne Theoharis and I organized, including an international conference on Black Power Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York and then in Trinidad.  Another conference that we organized was held at both Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College; the attendance at that conference on the role of women in the Black freedom struggle could not fit in the classrooms. Moreover, the new field of history was burgeoning just as several important New York bookstores were closing. How would the Harlem community specifically and Black America generally find out about that new knowledge?

The solution came up over a cup of coffee.

Dating back to the New Negro Renaissance in the days of Hubert Harrison and Arturo Schomburg, the Schomburg Center has been the place where the community developed conversations about Black history and culture.

CBFS: There are many series that focus on Black History. Why books? Why the Black Freedom movement? What’s at stake?

JT: Part of what’s at stake is the knowledge that is necessary for democracy. For the past ten years, in the Harlem auditorium and online, we have built a community that is learning and thinking together around critical issues in the Black struggle–from education to health care to housing to policing to sports. One of my favorite remarks from one of our first speakers was “This is the audience who I wrote my book for.”

If we understand what people have done and the shoulders we stand on, it becomes easier to see the present more clearly, to understand the barriers we face more acutely and to keep the struggle going more robustly. In her speeches during the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks talked about the earlier freedom fighters from Sojourner Truth to Mary McLeod Bethune that she was reading about that helped her keep the faith. CBFS helps us keep the faith.

Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine (RCSA): CBFS amplifies the history of Black political organizing, cultural innovation and creative, persistent and joyful resistance that defined the modern Black Freedom movement at a time where the public understanding of the breadth of Black history is limited by miseducation and propaganda.

CBFS is unique because it is mostly about 20th-century struggles to define and remake freedom led by Black people who were often marginalized, surveilled, and disfranchised. CBFS takes scholarly authors who have sought to tell these stories and activists who have lived this history and puts them in front of the people of Harlem, the very crowd that these histories should be most accountable to. Magic is made in those moments when the authority and expertise flies back and forth between audience to speaker as they both lay claim to a powerful history of ongoing dissent.

KW: Black America was born in struggle, and that struggle continues. Black Freedom Studies is a new paradigm for the examination of the Long Black Revolt. For far too long, the Cold War University excluded the Black Revolt in the Jim Crow North. Thus, one of the most important features of this new paradigm is the change in geography away from an exclusive focus on the Jim Crow South.

CBFS: What’s next for CBFS?

JT: The field of Black freedom studies has exploded over the past decade; at CBFS, we have featured more than 200 books and authors. And it shows no sign of stopping. At a time when teaching and learning Black history is being criminalized in states across the country, when we need to be fostering community spaces for learning Black history, Conversations in Black Freedom Studies is a light and a model. The Schomburg Center has long been a place for such community learning and engagement, and CBFS carries that forward to this new generation.

RCSA: The commitment of CBFS to public education and Black History is tailor-made for this moment when books are being banned, and the place of Black history in the bedrock of the American story is under threat. Yet, we have not taken the detour that Toni Morrison warned about when she stated that racism functions a distraction from “doing your work” and “keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” What’s next for CBFS is a continuance. With the ongoing support of the Schomburg library, we will continue doing the work of amplifying the newest literatures (and also those books who may have been overlooked when they were initially published) to bring to Harlem (and the world through livestream) the newest perspectives and cutting edge research on the history of Black freedom making.

CBFS will continue to carry forward the legacy of Arturo Schomburg, the bibliophile whose collections are the root of the library. Black people have always been voracious readers, despite often formidable obstacles, who also enjoy talking about, and learning through, books. This was never an elitist project but something that was carried on through a communal tradition that included everything from Saturday schools to the oral tradition.  We remain committed to putting book learning in conversation with public policy and contemporary events, understanding that synergy can transform people, institutions, and structures.

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.