- An American Studies Meant for Interruption
In his presidential address "Of Teachable Moments and Specters of Race," Kevin Gaines raises two noble figures as icons of our critical and intellectual possibilities—John Hope Franklin and Emory Elliot. Franklin and Elliot rightly remind us of our necessary commitments to antiracism, public education, and freedom in the broadest possible sense. Alongside them, Gaines places President Barack Obama, whose victory, according to Gaines, "was a triumph of the black freedom movement, particularly the vision of community organizing employed by Robert Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and John Lewis, and inspired by their fundi (Swahili for 'teacher'), Ella Baker."1 For Gaines, these three men—Franklin, Elliot, and Obama—also remind us of the precariousness of the principles to which we are committed.
As outlined in the address, this "moment of Obama" is characterized not only by startling gains but by old and crusty troubles as well—racism in the media and national politics, labor discrimination, and attacks on public colleges and universities. It exists in the midst of classic exclusions and disfranchisements, a context that bespeaks a primary contradiction between a president who presumably represents a progressive vision and the 1980s-inspired conservative formations intent on doing that vision harm. But the contradictions of the moment arise not simply from the fact of a black president and the persistence of Reagan-era conservativism. We are in a time of unprecedented contradiction for the United States, which has become a racial state we have never seen before, one that does not enunciate itself primarily through abstract universalism but that articulates itself through minority difference. This is the largely unconsidered "newness" of our present time.
Interrogating this moment's newness does not mean that old forms of racial and class exclusion have retired. It means, rather, that we must examine an unevenness that almost defies description. In an attempt to name that unevenness, the organizers of this year's ASA meeting—"Crisis, Chains, and Change: American Studies for the 21st Century"—have written: "Ever since 20 January 2009, the U.S. has had one African American man serving a term in the White House and more than a million serving a term in the Big House."2 Getting at [End Page 215] that unevenness means turning to "the dynamic interrelations, at every point in the process, of historically varied and variable elements."3 Although the racial formations of the Reagan era are still powerfully operative, they are running with, and sometimes against, racial formations from other periods as well.
One such formation is the history of the black bourgeoisie. "The black intelligentsias of the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa," writes Cedric Robinson in "W. E. B. Du Bois and Black Sovereignty,"
were captive of a dialectic: on the one hand, their continued development was structurally implicated in the continued domination of their societies by the Atlantic metropoles; on the other, the historic destiny of the class was linked to nationalism. Put bluntly, the future of the black middle class was embedded in the contradictions of imperialism.4
As Robinson implies, these contradictions meant that the black bourgeois and intellectual classes would embody an unevenness as they existed both within and outside of Western modernity. Following Robinson, Gaines has argued in his own brilliant text Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century that such contradictions would shape the intellectual, cultural, and political agendas of black elites:
Against the post-Reconstruction assault on black citizenship and humanity, black ministers, intellectuals, journalists, and reformers sought to refute the views that African Americans were biologically inferior and unassimilable by incorporating 'the race' into ostensibly universal but deeply racialized ideological categories of Western progress and civilization.5
This historic contradiction shaped African American intellectual formations so powerfully that, by the 1960s, it would produce no fewer than two civil rights movements embodied in two very different Martin Luther Kings. "There is the King," writes Nikhil Pal Singh, "who has become part of a mythic nationalist discourse that claims his anti-racist imperatives as its own, even as it obscures his significantly more complex, worldly, and radical politics."6 Next to this...