This year, Black History Month carries a special significance, because America is marking not just the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, but also the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. It was propelled into reality through the heroic witness of non-violent demonstrations in Selma, Alabama and across the nation.
But the freedom dreams of enslaved Africans, southern sharecroppers and northern militants too often remain muted in the popular imagination of our own times. Black political radicalism fueled America's democratic imagination, even as institutions of white supremacy, Jim Crow, and racial and economic exploitation remained determined to extinguish the flames of black liberation and rebellion.
Several recent history books help illuminate the historical contradictions that Black History Month exemplifies, namely, how a nation founded on racial slavery became both a beacon for radical hope and a defender of racial segregation and economic injustice.
Craig Wilder's essential Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America's Universities sheds important new light on the peculiar institution's ties to the Ivy League and higher education in America. In meticulous, startling detail, Wilder documents the ways universities benefited from the slave trade, ranging from securing land to building up endowments — and then, in the 19th century, how they helped to legitimize scientific racism that classified blacks as more a species of property than human beings.
Ed Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism offers an at times horrifyingly personal view of the brutal violence deployed against enslaved Africans. Digging into the large repository of oral histories from former slaves documented during the Great Depression, the book offers a moving account of suffering and resilience. Baptist's larger argument, that racial slavery is not an aberration in American history but a fundamental part of industrial capitalism and national identity, builds on important works by black scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, and C.L.R. James.
Slavery's relationship to capitalism, while certainly explored by Wilder and Baptist, take central stage in Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom and Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Johnson's work helps to untangle slavery's economic circuits, explaining how British credit helped Mississippi planters purchase black bodies capable of producing enough cotton to satisfy a burgeoning and global industry that benefited all but those who labored. Beckert's macro global history argues that an Empire of Cotton, one whose economic impact reached all continents and still reverberates today, came of age in America in the 19th century through a system of racial slavery that became the literal fuel for an emerging global capitalism.
In the age of Obama and Ferguson, these works on the history of slavery and capitalism have special resonance, since they provide context for the generational poverty, segregation, and oppression that contour black life today. The #BlackLivesMatter protests that riveted the world's attention last year have their immediate roots in the civil rights and Black Power era.
On this score, perhaps no figure is as important or understudied as Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), the young Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee organizer who unleashed the term "Black Power" into the national imagination on June 16, 1966.
My biography, Stokely: A Life, argued that Carmichael represents a bridge between civil rights and Black Power activists, since he participated on the front lines of both movements.
Best remembered as an organizer, Carmichael was also a gifted intellectual who co-wrote the seminal Black Power (with political scientist Charles Hamilton) and Stokely Speaks: From Black Power Back To Pan Africanism. Both works deal with slavery's aftermath through a meditation on its afterlife in America's social, political, and economic institutions. In a very real sense, Carmichael's intellectual works served as a radical critique of American democracy, linking Jim Crow to a deeper history of racial conquest, slavery, and subjugation.
The common denominator coursing through the collective veins of these works is the importance of radical black political self-determination in the face of state violence and institutional racism. Crucially, they all go against the grain of contemporary discussions of race and democracy by illustrating how what we've charitably described as "contradictions" — slavery, racism, Jim Crow, racial inequality — are in fact some of the central building blocks of American democracy.
Importantly, and hopefully, they remind us of the way in which black-led social justice movements — from anti-slavery to civil rights — offer a powerful alternative vision of American society, one free of bondage, racial and economic injustice, and institutional exploitation. This emancipatory vision adds substance to the symbolism attached to Black History by illustrating exactly how and why black lives have always mattered in America's past, present, and future.
Peniel E. Joseph is a professor of history at Tufts University and the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. You can follow him on Twitter @PenielJoseph.