By Ashley D. Farmer
“I can’t breathe.” The haunting phrase of the dying. The words that ignited a movement. The archive of moment. This kind of source lies physically and figuratively beyond of the bounds of intellectual history—its location a representation of Black thought within the field. Black people, our words, our humanity, and our ideas have never been allowed to take on our full breadth and depth within the historiography. Yet, in the present moment, as Nile Davies notes, such utterances have begun to “ignite in the collective consciousness the sense that what we [are] witnessing” is “related in some concrete way” to the field. The gaze has turned inwards, calling attention to the relationship between what is happening in the “outside world” and academia. Within the field of intellectual history, Black people’s thoughts and ideas are now looked upon with renewed interest by those seeking to understand and contextualize the current moment. Black thought as conduit through which scholars can catch their breath after witnessing the racist horrors unfolding around them.
If this current social and political moment shows us anything, it is that trying to “fit” Black intellectual history within the boundaries of the field is futile. As Felicia Denaud notes, the chants and screams of Black thought are often only found “briefly and disparagingly” in archives that were never designed to hold our ideas. To continue examining Black thought through traditional, field-defining frames is to turn the gaze away from the very people and utterances that sparked this collective rethinking in the first place. In a moment that demands a re-examination of existing structures and systems, so too must historians rethink their approach to Black intellectual history. The pieces in this forum offer dynamic and productive approaches for reconsidering evidence, knowledge production, and intellectual community. Most importantly, they breathe new life into documenting and writing about Black thought.
Lack of evidence is perhaps the most pernicious claim that suffocates the development of Black intellectual history. The scholars in this forum show that such claims are more of a reflection of assumptions about Black people’s intellectual acuity than they are an accurate assessment of the archive. In Damarius Johnson’s history of African-American museums, we see how exhibitions are spaces through which “patrons engage with Black intellectual histories” via material culture. Moreover, Johnson’s careful tracing of the evolution of African-American history museums from the DuSable to the Smithsonian reveals that the making of these museums, and the debates over what they hold and where they are located, are evidence of the Black community’s efforts to preserve Black life and a rich record of Black thought and debate.
Community, as Nile Davies and Lesa Redmond show us, is also archive. The Summer 2020 uprisings have forced many to reflect on who “belongs” to and who has been excluded from their intellectual communities. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the academy where, as Davies reminds us, it was the “summer of the mission statement” as universities “furnished” everyone “with lists and syllabi” that deemed the “intellectual labors of black scholarship” as “essential reading.” Davies’s taxonomy of the white, academic, and institutional response to Black death reveals how the archive of Black thought is positioned in the white mind and which Black ideas and authors are legible in the midst of the “violent spectacle” of Black death.
Redmond historicizes this academic community that Davies analyzes. In their examination of George Moses Horton, an enslaved man who lived, worked, and wrote at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Redmond shows us how Black intellectual history “brings slavery to the door of the academy.” Horton was an avid writer and thinker, publishing several books of poetry as the “Colored Bard of North Carolina” and even addressing UNC students in speeches that they later transcribed. So influential was Horton, that UNC now has a residence hall named in his honor. Indeed, Redmond shows us that archival paucity is not the problem. It is the continued unwillingness to view Black people like Horton as part of the academy and past and present intellectual canons.
Where some still see “skeletal archival fragments,” Denaud finds a “lush” archive. Focusing on “black gesturgency” or the “violent refusals and rebellions orchestrated by pregnant slaves,” Denaud insists that evidence of Black women’s thought will not be found in the “colonial archive” or the “novel” but in the corporal acts of enslaved Black women, their real and political infanticide, and the rebel networks they joined. Denaud calls for a new understanding of the archive—one where historians are not at the mercy of the written text. Black people’s thoughts were not and could not ever be conveyed only in written form. Denaud tells us that it is time we stop “beg[ging] the archive to yield what it never sowed.”
Rethinking the archive also means reconsidering the directionality of knowledge production. Tracing the flow of Black ideas has often meant treading the well-worn path of documenting the Black image in the white mind and Black thinkers’ rebuttal of these visions. These authors ask us to produce histories that defy this directionality of thought. Davies, for example, calls for a focus on writing about “the worlds we occupy” in order to assess structural racism and interrogate dominant conceptions of race and belonging. Johnson, on the other hand, traces the flow of ideas from Black curator to community, eschewing the need for Black thinkers to engage in white ideas of museums and material culture. Denaud asks us to re-consider intellectual lineage through reproduction; to trace knowledge production through the “cord[s] marking infant deaths” and births. Redmond reverses intellectual and institutional hierarchies as they document a slave teaching white students in the academy. These authors demand that we move beyond these strict binaries of knowledge production and follow the flow of Black ideas out of the academy, the traditional archive, and the field of intellectual history as it stands. In doing so, they offer us a chance to combat the oppressive forces that often confines the documentation of Black thought to our efforts to refute racism.
Perhaps the most provocative element of this forum is the authors’ assessments of where intellectual community is formed. In each of the essays, we see how such spaces developed in the marooned societies of Saint-Domingue, two patrons standing together at the John Hope Franklin Contemplative Court at the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture, the collective crafting of anti-racist mission statements, or in making and documenting “the other half of the intertwined histories of universities and slavery.” Even as they document intellectual production within the academy, these authors indicate that we must look beyond its walls to fully understand where Black thought thrives. They show us that neither the field nor the academy is the most important space where Black thought forms. And, that this is, in fact, by design.
Adopting unrestricted ideas of knowledge production and the archive, as these authors do, is a generative start for advancing Black intellectual history. But this effort must extend beyond the page and online forums. Many historians still tend to be scrupulous in their claims of neutrality, clinging to pronouncements about the lack of evidence as justification for the continued marginalization of Black people in the field. As this forum shows, these claims are antiquated, inaccurate, and have more to do with policing the boundaries of who gets to be a thinker, what ideas are valued, and who gets to be a historian of intellectual history. Mirroring our larger society, the field’s continual denial of its marginalized scholars and our methods undermines the very goals to which it aspires. Ultimately, we must stop thinking about how Black people fit within intellectual history frames, and instead follow the lead of historians who break out of these boundaries and old traditions in innovative ways. Black Intellectual History is at the vanguard of the field, we just need to give it space to breathe.
Dr. Ashley D. Farmer is a historian of black women’s history, intellectual history, and radical politics. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017), is the first comprehensive study of black women’s intellectual production and activism in the Black Power era. She is also the co-editor of New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (NUP Press, 2018). Farmer’s scholarship has appeared in numerous venues including The Black Scholar and The Journal of African American History. Her research has also been featured in several popular outlets including Vibe, NPR, and The Chronicle Review, and The Washington Post. Farmer earned her BA from Spelman College, an MA in History and a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University.
Featured Image: Alma Thomas, ‘White Roses Sing and Sing’, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.