Monday, January 25, 2010

Amy Bass, Those About Him Remained Silent Interview, Part 2

Baldblogger (BB): If one were to visit Great Barrington today—what of Du Bois might one see

Amy Bass (AB): It depends on how well they look. There are signs, there are plaques, there is a mural, etc. [BB: see these images here.] But it is what you don't see that tells the bigger story. There is Muddy Brook Elementary School, which in 2004 had the promise of being named W.E.B. Du Bois Elementary School. There is a smal parking lot and a trail on the site of his childhood home, but not the reconstructed house or the small museum that was envisioned in 1968. And there is still the occasional venomous letter to the editor, if one picks up a local paper, that asks why such a figure is recognized at all.

BB: Discuss the book’s cover.

AB: It's a photo taken right after the site of Du Bois's childhood home was conferred a National Historic Landmark. It tells its own story: unremarkable sign, abandoned property, descending fog. Rather gothic, I thought, and I'm incredibly pleased that my publisher agreed.

BB: Readers may or may not know you are a scholar and analyst of more recent Olympic games as well. [Read about it here, here, and here.] I wonder if you might discuss this work, and what’s in store for Vancouver.

AB: Yes, I've been a research consultant for NBC since Atlanta, 1996. It obviously is a position that was attached to my dissertation project on the Mexico City Games, and then my first book. But now it is just something that I have rare expertise in, so the relationship has continued. As for Vancouver? Winter Games are quirky things -- just about anything can happen when cold, wind, ice, and snow are involved.

BB: What projects are currently in the works? What can readers expect to see from the pen of Dr. Amy Bass in the future?

AB: Oh, I have no idea. I continue to write most frequently for, which is a fantastic outlet for random thoughts. My most recent fixations there have been mostly about sports -- Tiger, Beckham, etc. And there's a few things wandering in my head right now. But with Vancouver right around the corner, most of my head is fixed on the Olympics.

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Day: A King for Our Times

I posted this two years ago on MLK day, and I now post it again. We still need a King for our times.

Around this time every year, as with many, King is on the mind. For many years the "I have a dream" mantra has dotted the airwaves and enveloped the history classroom. I sought to try to begin changing that a few years ago--at least in my classroom.

My students had already memorized a good part of the "dream" speech in their literature classes, so I introduced them first to the King who had a doctorate in theology. I then introduced a King who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 by having students read the speech. Discussions were interesting. This assignment preceded my reading of a few paragraphs of King's 1967 Vietnam War speech. The prophet was speaking, and speaking loudly and clearly, and he suffered for it.

Who is King for our times? A radical King, a prophetic King.

Harvard Sitkoff, a historian at the University of New Hampshire, just published a new biography that recollects--or resurrects--a radical and religious King who saw as part of the call to justice economic equality and antiwar activism.

And how is King remembered by some? Historian Andrew Manis published a short piece in 2005 titled "White America and the MLK Holiday." It is a penetrating article, and deserves to be read and re-read every January if not more frequently. A sampling of lines: "White America loves the colorblind King of 1963, but we studiously avoid the more radical King of 1968," and "King's birthday is a wonderful opportunity for the majority of white Americans to awake from our dreamworld."

While King's "I Have a Dream" speech is a profound and important oration, let us not forget his equally powerful and prophetic musings from the late 1960s.

It is here we may find a King for our times.

[Photo credit here.]

Friday, January 15, 2010

Of Prophets and (Black) Panthers

Tune into CSPAN's BookTV this weekend for some important and interesting interviews.

One is with historian Peniel Joseph, a scholar of the Black Power movement among other subjects. Joseph is the author of two books, and a number of essays. The other is with sociologist Jonathan Rieder, about his latest book on the rhetorical (and religious) performances of MLK.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Amy Bass, Those About Him Remained Silent Interview, Part 1

Baldblogger's next interview features yet another work on Du Bois: Amy Bass's Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W.E.B. Du Bois (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). A history professor at The College of New Rochelle, this is Dr. Bass's third book. She posted about the book at the University of Minnesota Press's weblog, in addition to a radio interview and a conversation with the The Berkshire Eagle. This is the first of two posts.

Baldblogger (BB): In short, Those About Him Remained Silent is a book about the controversy surrounding the quest to honor and memorialize W.E.B. Du Bois in his hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, following his death in August 1963. What is the short and quick version of the book's main arguments?

Amy Bass (AB): It's tough to write hundreds of pages and then condense. More directly, the book is about the debate: why did a community that so embraced Du Bois in the late 19th century come to shun him almost a century later? But in a bigger sense, it is about ideas of race and nation and citizenship in the Cold War, and in an even bigger sense, it is about civil rights as a legacy -- how we remember, what we remember, and perhaps even most important, what we forget. The idea of memory is a really important one in this piece, and thinking about it in a cultural study has really changed my perspective on history, and the art of research, writ large. While I am not exactly sure what my next project is, I think it will continue in the vein of the study of memory, as it is something that has really captured my imagination, which is kind of interesting to me, because in the initial draft of the book, it did not even exist.

BB: You write that it was not until graduate school that you realized you grew up within miles of Du Bois's hometown. Discuss this realization and the process of studying and researching about the place you grew up-a literal kind of local history. To what extent did your impressions and understanding of Du Bois change-and the place from which you hail?

AB: The easiest way to explain it? He became a neighbor. It's interesting, because I was obviously reading a lot of Du Bois, but I wasn't reading Souls & and I wasn't reading the autobiographies. I was reading him as a black intellectual, as a Marxist intellectual. I came upon the Great Barrington reference in Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic in a seminar I was taking with Nikhil Pal Singh. I was so shocked by it -- and in retrospect this is kind of hilarious -- that my intitial reaction to fight it, to think it wasn't true. But then as I dove into his more personal writings, not only did I grasp it as a fact, I embraced him as a different kind of figure. There was something important to me about him being local. It was astonishing, because in a very real way, there are few more global thinkers than Du Bois. It gave me a truly parallel perspective.

BB: And a related question: your first book, Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete (University of Minnesota Press, 2002) tackled a national subject-really a global subject-in the context of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Your latest book also explores the modern Civil Rights Movement-a "local" study of Du Bois in a national and global context. What have these books added to your knowledge and understanding of the CRM, both in terms of your research and how you teach it?

AB: The strangest thing for me was to realize that I'd written two books on 1968 -- it was completely without conscious intention. But it makes sense: my desire for studying civil rights is to ensure it a plurality -- this is something that I explore in the first book, and also with the study on Du Bois's legacy. It cannot be thought of as THE civil rights movement -- it has to be civil rights movements, plural, and I think both books examine why this is so. Civil rights had common goals of equity and citizenship, but it had such diverse figures, moments, strategies, organizations. It cannot be a cohesive entity, and yet we have compartmentalized it as such. My hope with both of these projects is that expands a bit as to where civil rights exists and who participates on its behalf, whether Olympic athletes or a few townsfolk who want to erect a sign where Du Bois once lived. I think it also demonstrates how strategies of civil rights did not necessarily begin as such. The movement to memorialize Du Bois in Great Barrington in the late 1960s was to be just that: an act of memory. However, as the controversy began to unfold, it -- I hope -- becomes obvious that this movement to remember civil rights turns out to be an action of civil rights itself.

BB: Discuss the evidence you used to construct your argument, both documentary and oral (and given the images of Du Bois memorials and commemorative plaques-I would say artistic or material evidence as well).

AB: The project began with a lot of conversations, the first of which were with my parents, who knew a lot of the central players. I then did a few more formal interviews with some key players who are still alive. I then went to the archives of the most prominent local newspaper, and that is where both the public debate -- editorials, letters to the editor, etc. -- and the behind-the-scenes debate, via files in the papers archives, came to light. The photos in the book are obviously also important, as is the site itself, which has changed dramatically, and for the good, since I began the research.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Spending the Holidays with Horne, Part 2: Interview with Gerald Horne

I begin 2010 with part 2--the final segment--of my interview with Gerald Horne.

Baldblogger (BB):
Your first scholarly work—Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963 (1986)—tackled Du Bois, and now over twenty years later you return to research and write another book on Du Bois (let us not forget, however, W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia (2001), co-edited with Mary Young). First, how has Du Bois historiography changed during the last quarter century, and what are some fruitful avenues of research currently under investigation? Second, how was researching and writing W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography similar and different than your first work on Du Bois?

Gerald Horne (GH): With the collapse of the USSR and the formal end of the Cold War, it is possible to be more sober and objective in understanding these phenomena today--as opposed to the 1980s when Black & Red was being evaluated. Having said that, I think we need more digging in foreign archives about Du Bois; for example, archives of German intelligence concerning his student years there; British, French and Portuguese archives concerning the 'Pan African Congresses'; Moscow archives concerning the Communists' approach to him--ditto for Beijing.

Suffice it to say that I wrote the first book on a typewriter--the second on a laptop: enough said.

BB: I thought long and hard, and could not identify another scholar who penned separate biographies of spouses. How did researching and writing about Du Bois and his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois in Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (2000), shape your understanding of the Du Boises in particular, and twentieth century history more generally? What are the difficulties and delights of working on such spousal biographies?

GH: As so often happens in marriages, one spouse influences another--so having written a biography of Shirley Du Bois aided in writing the book under discussion: and vice versa.

To be candid, I cannot think of any "delight" involved. Generally, I find research to be delightful--and writing to be hard work.

Perhaps when I was writing the book at hand, I was conscious of not being repetitive--in terms of both themes and phrases--in terms of writing earlier Du Bois books.

BB: You are perhaps the world’s nimblest archive-hopper. What archives did you visit in preparing your Du Bois volume? What archives might you suggest to individuals interested in researching Du Bois and his life and times?

GH: Fortunately, Du Bois' Papers are on microfilm and, thus, easily accessible [BB: in a few years, the Du Bois Papers will be digitized and thus available for a wider audience]; some of his richest letters have been published under the aegis of Herbert Aptheker, who also prepared a comprehensive and annotated bibliography of Du Bois' work. Then there is my Du Bois Encyclopedia--all these, and other sources, were instrumental in penning this book.

As for archives, see the response above. I would particularly like to draw attention to the archives in Lisbon, Portugal, which are quite rich and which I used for my book, The Deepest South on the African Slave Trade (2007). As is well known, Lisbon not only once controlled Brazil--a 21st century superpower in the making--but, as well, Mozambique and Angola, homelands of numerous 'African-Americans'. Those interested in the struggle against apartheid would be derelict if the Lisbon archives--particularly at the Foreign Ministry--are ignored. Being a small power--today's population is only about 9 million--with a huge African 'empire', Lisbon was deathly paranoid (understandably) about anti-racism and anti-colonialism, particularly emerging from their often articulate backer: the U.S.

I would also suggest burrowing deeper into the National Archives in College Park, Md. and Washington, whose riches have yet to be fully explored; the Hoover in Palo Alto; the National Security Archive at George Washington; the Schomburg; the National Archives in London; New York University; etc.

BB: By my count you have authored around 25 books, with additional edited volumes. As you look back on a distinguished career as a scholar, activist, lawyer, and writer, what are the best things about writing? The most difficult? For those unfamiliar, what is your process for researching and writing a book or an article?

GH: The best thing about writing, I think, is creating a record for future generations to consider; then there is the creative process of conjuring up the appropriate words and images to move a reader. The most difficult? Hard to say. Having been writing a book continuously since August--which I just finished last week--I would say the most difficult thing was the time spent away from reading, from writing op-eds and commenting on the flashing issues of the moment, writing book reviews, etc.--I have felt this tremulously and tremendously.

I have just started two new books: one on the relation between Black America and Cuba before 1959, the other, a biography of the Black Communist, William Patterson. The latter will not be that difficult to research, his papers are at Howard, I visit there in a few days, I know where the 'bodies are buried', so to speak, having written about his comrades e.g. Du Bois, Ben Davis, Ferdinand Smith, The former is more involved, more complicated, requires *much* more digging. I have some themes in mind but others will emerge as I dig in; for example, yesterday I was reading an English language newspaper from Havana beginning in 1912 and what jumped out at me was the concern about Japanese encroachment in the hemisphere, so I guess that will be a theme since Tokyo simultaneously was making appeals to Black America. So, I go into this project with settled themes--solidarity between Cuba and Black America; 'racial' bonding particularly in music and sports; hysteria about radicalism on the part of their mutual antagonists; etc.--and I look for bolstering of these themes as I research; then other themes emerge--e.g. Japan-as I dig further.

BB: The cover of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography features a very courtly 1946 photograph of Du Bois with a penetrating gaze. What did you wish to communicate with this choice for the book’s cover?

GH: I confess: the publisher chose this photo.

BB: What material you have to leave out of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography? Put another way, what are certain points about Du Bois’s life you wished to have emphasized more?

GH: Perhaps I could have emphasized more his private life, his personal life--but choices must be made.

BB: What projects are currently in the works? You cite Negroes with Guns!: African-Americans and the British Empire Confront the United States before the Civil War as forthcoming in the footnotes; what can inquiring readers expect to see in the future?

GH: Reds in Paradise? Racism & Radicalism in the Making of Modern Hawaii is in press with the University of Hawaii Press. It tells the complex story of how an archipelago thousands of miles from the mainland became the 50th--and final?--state while the Communist Party and a union close to it played a leading role in these lovely isles. I have noticed that the hyper-active conservative movement in this nation already have perked up their ears at the prospect of this book, even though their ostensible target--Barack Obama--was born in 1961, two years after my narrative concludes! [BB: Regarding Barack Obama, Hawaii, and the Communist Party (among other important topics), readers may be interested to check out Horne's weighty, informative, and fantastic speech at the opening of the CPUSA (Communist Party, U.S.A.) archive in 2007, and in the previously cited interview about his recent book on US-East Africa relations.]

Negroes with Guns! is a de facto sequel to the work of Benjamin Quarles and also that of Simon Schama's Rough Crossings in that it discusses at length the unavoidable fact that the Africans in North America did not see the 1776 revolt as legitimate, saw it as a revolt against the proto-abolitionist 'Somerset's Case' and, thereafter, collaborated with London (particularly in the War of 1812 but also in contesting control of Florida, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, etc.) This conflict was resolved only with the Civil War--and abolition.