The Black 1980s: Politics, Culture, and New Historiographies

AHA Session 265
Monday, January 5, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Gramercy Suite A (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Peniel Joseph, Tufts University
Black Ivy Rage and Reform: Activism on the 1980s Harvard Campus
Afrah Richmond, University of Bridgeport
Black Politics and School Reform in Harold Washington’s Chicago
Elizabeth Todd-Breland, University of Illinois at Chicago
Black America, Black France: The 1980s, Hip Hop, and Colorblindness across the Atlantic
Samir Meghelli, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Martha Biondi, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

Historians are only beginning to reckon with the 1980s, and the historiography thus far has sought to understand this decade primarily through the lens of the Reagan presidency. This panel, on the contrary, argues for the centrality of the black experience for comprehending the contours and shape of the 1980s, and proposes to do so by examining cases from a broad spectrum of black life in this era: from the street corners and prison cells of Los Angeles to the hallowed halls of Harvard University, from public education reform battles in Chicago to Afro-French youth breakdancing in the streets of Paris. This group of papers explores a range of social, political, and cultural phenomena that shaped the end of the twentieth century, both domestically and internationally, and suggests some key questions for historians to consider in future scholarship on this era.

Elizabeth Hinton's paper, "The Policing of Black Youth and the Rise of Urban Violence During the Reagan Era," examines the conditions that fostered the unprecedented expansion of so-called urban street gangs in the 1980s. By centering on the relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) squad and paramilitary street gangs like the Crips that the unit was charged with containing, Hinton demonstrates how national policies unfolded at the local level and paradoxically intensified the problems policymakers and law enforcement officials aimed to prevent.

Afrah Richmond's paper, "Black Ivy Rage and Reform: Activism on the 1980s Harvard Campus," carries us across the country to the elite Northeast, where "Affirmative Action babies" fought for racial reform in the university context using radicalized rhetoric and confrontational tactics. While the demands made by students in the 1980s both mirrored and built upon those of the seething '60s, Richmond argues that the Harvard black student struggle of this decade continued to be defined by an unresolved tension between radicalism and institutional incorporation.

Elizabeth Todd-Breland's paper, "Black Politics and School Reform in Harold Washington’s Chicago," examines the education battles that occurred in the context of the coalition politics that elected Harold Washington as the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983, which relied on an unprecedented unified base of African American electoral support buttressed by significant Latino and white liberal supporters. Todd-Breland argues that African Americans’ increased representation as Board of Education employees, and the changing roles of black teachers within the schools and teachers union, transformed black communities and black political power in Chicago.

And lastly, Samir Meghelli's paper, "Black America, Black France: The 1980s, Hip Hop, and Colorblindness Across the Atlantic," explores the implications of postcolonial France becoming both the second largest market for the production and consumption of Hip Hop in the world and home to the largest African-descended population in Europe. Meghelli argues that in the face of prevailing, assimilationist conceptions of Frenchness, the first large wave of French citizens of African descent mobilized the (African)American cultural form of Hip Hop to articulate their own local, racialized subjectivities in an otherwise emphatically "colorblind" national context.

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