You’ll sometimes hear historians bemoaning the state of professional scholarship, saying there’s nothing interesting in the new issues of our journals and everyone’s fixated on trivia to the exclusion of important questions. And I like a good jeremiad as well as anyone. But I thought I’d begin a series of posts on journal articles that are interesting and nontrivial. (We’ll see how long it lasts.)
Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies,” Journal of African American History 92, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 265-288.
Link here, for those who can access it.
Okay, Jeremiahs will point out that I’ve begun with a bit of a cheat, because after all historiographical essays tend inherently to be a bit more interesting. But hush, Jeremiahs.
THE NONTRIVIAL QUESTIONS RAISED
What and when was the Civil Rights movement? Secondarily, does the South deserve its distinctive place in US history?
As any historian will tell you, when you look begs the question of what you’re looking at; periodization is substance. If you aren’t a professional historian and you don’t Google it, I guess you have an idea the Civil Rights Movement lasted from sometime in the middle 1950s to sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Indeed, as Cha-Jua and Lang point out here, in the earliest phase of history-writing on the Civil Rights Movement, that’s how historians described it—as roughly contemporary with the national career of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But gradually, historians came to appreciate the complexity of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). It wasn’t just King or even a national movement at all, but a collection of local movements. Nor was it limited to the narrowly legalistic goals that the phrase “civil rights” implies, nor to the tactics of nonviolent protest and moral suasion we associate with the peak of the King years. Rather, militant and even armed protest had a long history in struggles for black freedom—which, some scholars came to think, was a better phrase than “civil rights” for what you could now see as a long movement spanning, well, the whole of American history—even predating the US itself.
This matters. If the Civil Rights Movement was only about peak King, it’s about specific legal claims and entailed specific limited tactics. If not—well, history’s much more complicated and maybe less pretty.
Now, you may say, the long version of the movement sounds right—after all, African Americans have been struggling for their liberation for as long as they have been enslaved or discriminated against. Which is true, and Cha-Jua and Lang remark it: they concede the “corrective” nature of much of the historiography discussed, and they think newer historians of the movement are right to “spotlight the ideological and tactical heterogeneity of the CRM”.
Nevertheless! Once you have something that’s always and everywhere true, you have nothing. Or nothing that explains anything useful, anyway. It’s like oxygen in the atmosphere—necessary to the story, but not very interesting at any given point. (Yes, Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson both required oxygen to survive, and if either had died of suffocation, you might have an interesting point noting it. But since they didn’t, let’s move on.) This is why Cha-Jua and Lang call the idea of a “long movement” a vampire—it’s an “ahistorical” concept. They quote Adam Fairclough on historians who emphasize too much continuity: “in stressing history’s ‘seamless web,’ they turn history into a homogenized mush”.
Historians of the “long movement” also tend, Cha-Jua and Lang note, to minimize distinctions between South and North (which normally includes the West, in these discussions). After all, all regions of the country had discrimination, and often the de facto was in effect and intent awfully similar to the de jure flavor. And, where you had discrimination you had resistance. All true. But also, a point you can carry too far. (One nervous graduate student who is writing about southern history said to me, “But then X [a rising young historian at a top department] told me there isn’t any such thing as southern history! So I didn’t know what to think.” Now look. As a tenured historian talking to dissertating graduate students, you might feel tempted to make grand historical pronouncements. But you probably shouldn’t make them in a way that stops the graduate students from finishing their work.)
Perhaps more important, blurring the discrimination between South and North makes African Americans who left the South in droves look pretty strange. Or, as Cha-Jua and Lang put it,
To ignore or minimize these fundamental differences is to question the wisdom of millions of African Americans who fled or were driven out of areas like the “American Congo” for Chicago’s Bronzeville and other northern black communities…. How else does one make sense of the South’s conflicted place in the popular memory of generations of African Americans? How does one interpret the circumstances surrounding the murder of Emmett Till, without accounting for his unfamiliarity with southern racial etiquette? One may also consider the enactment of local fair employment practice laws in the 1940s and 1950s. Although they were limited and easily subverted, they nonetheless represented reforms achieved largely in the North. Expunging the differences between North and South not only disfigures the past, but also does a disservice to the activists who clearly recognized those differences. The fact that Mississippi was widely considered “the belly of the beast” of southern white racism was no figment of northern journalists’ imagination.
Which is not to say there weren’t non-racial reasons to leave the South, nor to deny racism in the North, nor to minimize the struggle to eliminate it—but these regional distinctions are not mere hair-splitting and logic chopping; just because it is hard to draw the precise boundary between North and South doesn’t mean that at some point the line hasn’t clearly been crossed. (People with eyes can see the South well before they get to Biloxi.)
Cha-Jua and Lang are perhaps most intriguing when they discuss where the “long movement” comes from—in no small part from the attempt to “critique … conservatives’ more recent effort to rewrite history, reposition themselves as supporters of the CRM, and reduce the CRM to a struggle against prejudice and for the creation of a ‘colorblind society.’” Which is the right thing to do, because the conservative version of the CRM is pretty un-historical in itself. But you can carry good intentions too far, they note.
Their conclusion is either bracingly commonsensical or frustratingly obvious: “We must move beyond asserting the obvious: that African Americans have acted in their own interests. We should instead consider how they have understood and defined their interests, as well as the historical particularities of their actions.” But whichever it is, the article is both interesting and addresses a nontrivial question.