Miscast: African American Women, Radicalism, and the Production of Culture in the 20th-Century Black Freedom Movement

AHA Session 98
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Nassau West (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Françoise Hamlin, Brown University

Session Abstract

This panel explores the ways in which politically engaged production of culture in the early decades of the 20th century paved the way for the explosion of socio-political activism and cultural production of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements in the second half of the century. Often viewed as discreet moments and movements, in no small measure because many of the activists and artists of the 1960s and 1970s understood themselves as a culturally and politically unique generation, producing ideas and enacting strategies that had not been previously employed, the New Negro Renaissance and the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements are in fact interrelated on the continuum of black activism. The educational, artistic, and ideological work of the earlier years laid the foundation for the protests and actions of the later years.

This work did not fall exclusively in the domain of men. Rather women were at the vanguard of the marshaling of the production of culture – the preservation of black history, the performance of complex black identity, and the expression of black radicalism – in the service of social justice for black people. Traversing the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s this panel engages the activism and cultural production of African American women who have been, to various degrees, miscast; miscast as a-political, too restrained, or ineffective. The radicalism and legacies of Fredi Washington, Vivian Harsh, and Lorraine Hansberry have been obscured, marginalized, and misconstrued. However, these vibrant voices for African American freedom demand hearing. Exploration of their work expands our understanding of early black radicalism and cultural production and its relationship to the more easily legible radical protests of the late 20th century.

While all of these papers include elements of recovery, these projects make distinct discursive and methodological interventions. We delve into the dynamic between artistic intention and public reception; consider the cross-pollination between Chicago and New York and push against discreet spatial and temporal boundaries; and explore the ways in which work created in the early decades influenced the next generation of artists and activists as well as how and why this generational fissure occurred. What was gained and lost by later black activists by their dismissal of the work of the previous generation? In what ways did white liberalism impact that rupture? How does the cultural production of black women mediate it? What are the possibilities and limitations to the transformative potential of the production and dissemination of culture?

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