Review of Daniel Matlin, On the Corner

Today’s guest post was written by Hettie Williams, a lecturer of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. She is the author or editor of four books, including Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union (University Press of Mississippi, 2014) and Converging Identities: Blackness in the Modern African Diaspora (Carolina Academic Press, 2013).

Daniel Matlin, On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013, Pp. 368. Cloth: $39.95.

On the Corner by Daniel Matlin, a Lecturer in U.S. History at King’s College London, is a historical analysis on three black intellectuals of the 1960s: Kenneth B. Clark, Amiri Baraka, and Romare Bearden. On the Corner is a title derived from a 1972 Miles Davis album signifying that these three intellectuals in particular were “down on the corner” of black urban America, and that they were “uniquely positioned to convey to white audiences the physical, social, and emotional realities” of this space (8). Matlin draws upon a wide variety of sources, including novels, academic monographs, newspapers articles, poems, theater productions, and illustrations in the visuals arts to construct this narrative. The text includes an “Introduction,” three chapters, with one chapter devoted to each intellectual, and an “Epilogue.”

The background to Matlin’s story rests on the prominence of Harlem the epicenter of black intellectual and cultural life, even as it became plagued by urban decay and rebellion. The Harlem Riot of 1964 was a pivotal moment in shaping the development of the black freedom struggle, the evolution of black intellectual life, and shifting ideas about race. More broadly, Matlin notes, urban rebellions in cities throughout the North “disrupted” the southern Civil Rights Movement, with civil rights leaders, policy makers, publishers, museum curators, and newspaper editors seeking to make sense of an “urban crisis,” defined by issues such as “high unemployment, poverty, segregation, and dilapidated housing.” The indigenous interpreters of such a crisis hailed largely from the centers of urban decay, especially Harlem. These indigenous interpreters subsequently became confined by their status as “interpreters” of the black experience (and as intellectuals), as terms such as “ghetto” and “urban” became more synonymous with the concept of blackness. The central thrust of Matlin’s argument is that the ghetto was as limiting, constricting, and confining a place as black intellectual life was for the indigenous interpreter who sought to “diagnose” the urban crisis.

The main purpose of the book is threefold: (1) to analyze the role of the indigenous interpreter and how this position was envisioned and experienced, (2) to map the often contentious debates among black intellectuals regarding the nature of black urban life, and “the means and consequences of its representation,” while seeking to (3) “achieve a more balanced understanding of the debate between pathologists and their opponents.” In many respects, the text stands as an exemplar on how to do intellectual history. Matlin adroitly analyzes the varied external and internal forces at play in the lives of three distinct black intellectuals to articulate his argument by illustrating the congruence that existed “between their respective conceptions of black intellectual life, on the one hand, and their representations of black urban life, on the other” (33).

Matlin’s begins by looking at the cultural pathology debate, critics of pathology, and the counter charges of the pathologists in the social sciences, literary productions, and in the visual arts. Chapter One, “Ghettos of the Mind: Kenneth B. Clark and the Psychology of the Urban Crisis,” details the life of Clark as an intellectual, public policy maker, and advocate of the cultural pathology argument as an indigenous interpreter of the urban black experience. The second chapter, “Be Even Blacker: Amiri Baraka’s Names and Places,” examines Baraka’s role as a poet, writer, and playwright, as well as a cultural nationalist among many who embraced the pathology argument to interpret black urban life, which they saw as a “morass of social, psychological, and moral pathologies” (16). The third and final chapter, “Harlem Without Walls: Romare Bearden’s Realism,” analyzes Bearden’s attempt to capture “the multiplicity of black life” beyond notions of pathology by emphasizing the universality of the human experience in his images of black life in Harlem.

Matlin is at his best when considering the many forces that shaped black intellectual life, especially the backdrop of civil unrest and the personal histories of his three primary actors. His discussion of the counter narratives produced by Clark and Baraka, juxtaposed with the critics of the pathology argument, is an important intervention in the scholarly literature regarding the pathology argument more generally. This text is also many things at once. It is a history of the idea of race, black intellectuals in the social sciences, black literary production, and visual arts in the mid-1960s.

Perhaps the main limitation of the book is its dismissal of black women as intellectuals. In noting early on that “black women were scarcely accorded the status of indigenous interpreter through the 1960s,” Matlin overlooks some of the more important black women intellectuals of the Black Arts Era (10). He does mention Lorraine Hansberry, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Angela Davis in the “Introduction,” but he argues that none of these women acquired the status of a major indigenous interpreter of black urban life in the 1960s. This approach overlooks the vital intellectual and artistic contributions of women such Nikki Giovanni, Barbara Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, and Barbara Ann Teer. These women were prominent interpreters of the urban crisis and their role in the Black Arts Movement warrants greater attention in a study on black intellectuals in the 1960s. Teer, for instance, was a writer, producer, teacher and actress who founded the National Black Theatre (NBT) in Harlem in 1968, the first revenue generating black theater arts complex in U.S. history. In this role, Teer certainly became a major indigenous interpreter of black life.

Despite this flaw in the work, there are few books that rival On the Corner’s treatment black intellectuals in the 1960s. Matlin’s correctly argues that black thinkers such as Clark and Baraka became confined in their roles as indigenous interpreters of the urban crisis, while Bearden was among the few who was able to synthesize and ultimately transcend the major claims of both the pathologists and anti-pathologists. And in analyzing how the Black Arts Movement expanded into nearly every arena of black cultural production, including photography and dance, Matlin is able to cover a broad swath of black intellectual life. This work will thus be useful in courses on the history of the Black Power Era, the history of social science, and the history of black cultural production more generally.

Hettie V. Williams

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.