The Place of the Humanities

“The Place of the Humanities in Social Movements, Class, and the Black Public: An Incomplete Representation”

By Clarence Lang

No humanities scholar arrives at a research agenda in a void.  To some extent, the work of the humanities – which seek to document human experience, analyze the human condition, and illuminate beauty – is autobiographical.  That is not to say that such scholarship emerges “naturally” from personal experiences, fully formed and inevitable.  Certainly, the route I took toward my interests in the history of class relations among African Americans, twentieth-century black social movements, and the urban Midwest was a circuitous one.  Nonetheless, I can vividly recall, as a child growing up in Chicago, trying to make sense of the realities of race and class long before I had the means to characterize and interpret them.  Ultimately, my engagement with the humanities (and more importantly, my efforts to actually test and concretize their insights) gave me the language, methodologies and conceptual frameworks to apprehend the conditions of social stratification I had witnessed and experienced, as well as the belief that I could somehow affect them.  This, far more than any desire for a credential as abstract then as a Ph.D., led me to pursue a career in the humanities. In this essay I hope to make a case for the transformative potential of the humanities by drawing from the experiences of my upbringing, education, introduction to Black Studies, and political engagement.  All of it shaped what I now do for a living, my topics of research, and how I approach the world.

My upbringing was in an apartment building in a declining commercial district of Chicago’s South Loop, an area sandwiched between the central business district and the South Side.  Many of the people who constituted this high-rise community were, similar to my mother, strivers barely removed from public housing who worked downtown and sought greater mobility, self-improvement, and “respectability.”  I was present as she climbed the lower occupational rungs of the telephone company where, like many working-class black women of her generation who graduated high school, she took advantage of the new employment opportunities generated by postwar black freedom struggles and institutionalized by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  She was, and still is, an avid reader, and often took evening classes at the city college.  Some of my earliest memories are of rummaging through the closets where she kept her books and “reading” the cover images to imagine what was unfolding inside the pages.  I ran across many of her reading assignments – The Autobiography of Malcolm X, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and All God’s Dangers, an account of the life of black Alabama tenant farmer and labor activist Ned Cobb.  I encountered these works again much later on my own, but seeing my mother’s example of the life of the mind offered by the humanities left an impression.

Stateway Gardens, part of the now demolished State Street Corridor of public housing projects

I saw other things from the window of our twenty-sixth floor apartment.  I could gaze at the State Street corridor of public housing developments, just a few blocks to the south and west, where my parents, aunts, uncles, and close family friends had grown up, and where many family members and school classmates still lived.  Likewise, during frequent visits with grandparents in the Dearborn Homes, I would look out the hallway windows at the lush downtown skyline; it was a short bus ride but an entire world away.  What did these spatial distances mean socially, in terms of how my existence differed from those in the “projects,” as well as how our collective existence diverged from the lives experienced on the other side of those skyscrapers?  What had prevented my mother from moving us to one of the swanker Lake Shore Drive or Hyde Park addresses that I often spied on the way to an outing at the zoo, the movies, or a museum?  How were those inhabitants’ lives different – better? – than mine?

Chicago’s downtown skyline

Indeed, my mother’s career was a good one, but it did not save her from frequent worries about paying our bills and saving money.  And although we were far from destitute, seeing the homeless who in those days were a regular presence in the South Loop confronted me, at a very young age, with the precarious quality of my own lifestyle.  Why were black people mainly the ones I saw occupying public housing, and lining up in front of the Pacific Garden Mission downtown for shelter and meals?   Why did they largely people the dilapidated neighborhoods where the streetlights didn’t work and the snow sat unplowed in the winter – in stark contrast to what I saw north of Randolph Street?  Why did we take certain precautions when entering and leaving the Dearborn Homes at certain hours, especially late at night?  And why was the wait for the Chicago Transit Authority buses shorter when we were traveling north than when we were heading south?

Chicago’s South Side, circa late 1970s

I knew neither “race” nor “class,” but I understood them, and not simply negatively.  I loved nothing more than leafing through the copies of Ebony and Jet that seemed to be on everyone’s coffee table, and listening to Tom Joyner on local radio station WJPC – which, like Ebony and Jet, was owned by the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company.  I enjoyed the cadences of my uncles’ speech, the humorous and spellbinding stories they told, the manner in which they walked and wore their hats and sung songs to themselves, their insistence on being well-dressed and “clean,” and the music that always seemed to be playing in the mornings and on weekends – notably, the Whispers, the Manhattans, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O’Jays, Earth, Wind & Fire, Slave, Minnie Riperton, Magnum Force, Michael Henderson, Funkadelic, and Rufus featuring Chaka Khan.  To be sure, I was aware of the existence of the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, alcoholism, drug abuse, jailhouses, and people being robbed at gunpoint; but the DuSable Museum, Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, Harold’s Chicken, Timbuktu Bookstore, the Chicago Defender, the Black National Anthem, and hide-and-go-seek were also part of my consciousness.

A scene from the annual Bud Biliken Parade, a defining event in Chicago’s black public sphere


At the Jesuit high school that I attended, I began to encounter black peers who were at once culturally familiar but curiously different – individuals who drove their own cars to school, participated in cotillions, hosted “Jack and Jill” parties, lived in exclusive black enclaves on the South Side, and hailed from socially prominent families, and disparaged as charity cases those of us African Americans who were there on scholarship.  This was to say nothing of our counterparts at other schools who derided all of us for being “stuck up.”  Still, black youth across these lines of class and status were affected in the late 1980s by the cultural resurgence of Black Nationalism, which shaped our music, clothing, and hairstyles.  Indeed, the airing of the PBS documentary series, Eyes on the Prize, was a weekly topic of discussion during homeroom and lunch, and it strongly influenced our sensibilities as black adolescents.  It introduced us to a grand narrative of Civil Rights and Black Power during the 1950s and ‘60s, led us to our own private investigations of Malcolm X and groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and attracted some of us to surviving organizations such as the Nation of Islam.  The images from the series also gave us framing symbols, rhetoric, and ideas that we eagerly sought to emulate in a period during which the crack cocaine trade, the “war on drugs,” “black-on-black violence,” the militarization of black community space, and escalating incarceration rates touched us all, however indirectly.

Clockwise from top left: W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Later, at the University of Missouri at Columbia, I became involved in the campus newspaper as a reporter and weekly columnist.  Pulled into student politics, I was frustrated to discover that while many of us black students spoke a common rhetoric of black militancy, and regarded ourselves as the successors to Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, we understood their legacies in dramatically divergent ways that put us in conflict with each other as well as with white students, staff, faculty and administrators who were hostile, or viciously indifferent, to our presence.  These internal disputes took shape in the creation of Minorities Involved in Negotiation Decisions (MIND) and Black Students for Progressive Change (BSPC), which functioned as the “moderate” and “left” wings, respectively, of the campus’s black student government, the Legion of Black Collegians (LBC).  Those of us who gravitated ideologically toward the latter wing were also likelier to participate in campus coalitions involving Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, LGBT students, and (white) women.

It was during this period that I began to recognize the power of the humanities, principally through the counterhegemony of Black Studies.  It critiqued the existing canon, exposing me to a long tradition of African American scholar-activism that included C.L.R. James, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Fannie Lou Hamer, and most significantly for me, Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America.  These courses, the instructors who taught them, the late-night conversations and debates I had in the residence halls, the education I received actually organizing and mobilizing students around the principles I was learning – as well as the large amount of reading my close friends and I did parallel to our Black Studies classes – made the humanities live and breathe.  They became catalysts for me to think more deeply and systematically about race, class, gender, the purpose and importance of social movements, and the fragmented character of a black racial unity that I had presumed existed.  Influenced by painful experiences from my campus activism, attracted to the Black Studies credo of “study and struggle,” and beckoned by the possibility of a livelihood that would allow me to read, think and write meaningfully about U.S. society, and work toward social change, I chose to stay in the academy.


While earning an M.A., and then a Ph.D., in History, however, I continued my engagement with black movement politics.  I joined a grassroots community organization in St. Louis, Missouri, whose founding members were veterans of the very struggles I had idealized.  I was constantly reminded within this community to render scholarship that would speak to the broader concerns of black communities in St. Louis, and elsewhere, that had suffered through the social and economic setbacks of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years.  I was also encouraged to approach scholarship as a means of clarifying and problem solving.  Through this same group, I became part of a national coalition of progressive black scholars and activists that formed in response to both the neoliberal evisceration of the social safety net, and as an alternative to the 1995 Million Man March.  These experiences, both locally and nationally, provided a heady environment fraught with the same confounding issues of race and class with which I had been engaged, in some latent form, since pondering the view from the windows of my childhood.

By then, I had decided to focus my work on the study of African Americans, class and social movements, and the history of their relationship.  As an historian, one necessarily assesses events that have occurred in the past; yet, those events are never fixed.  The past is never settled.  Consequently, my scholarly work has been animated by a desire to better understand the political ramifications of the growth of a “post-Civil Rights” class of black middle-class professionals, on the one hand, and the concomitant expansion of the so-called black “underclass.”  I contend that from the 1930s to the late 1960s and early 1970s, working-class African Americans formed the nucleus of local black freedom struggles for fair and full employment, expanded social wages in the form of health care and education, a racially democratic labor movement, meaningful political participation and representation, and equitable urban development policies.  These battles generated both cooperation and conflict between African American working-class and middle-class activists.  Ultimately, it was the everyday working people who succeeded in defining the movement’s main political and economic agendas during this period.  However, as a result of automation, deindustrialization, the resulting decline in urban tax bases, and the repression of the movement’s most progressive black freedom organizations, the strength of this black working-class politics deteriorated.  It was supplanted by emphases reflecting the emergence of a tenuous post-1960s black middle class rooted in the professions, business enterprise, and elected officialdom.  Spokespersons and leaders from these strata, I argue, have not always advocated in the interests of the black working majority.  A team of sociologists led by Hayward Derrick Horton published an article in American Sociological Review in 2000 asserting that the African American working class comprises “the largest, more enduring, and most important social class category for blacks in the United States,” but it has been “lost in the storm.”  This more generally corresponds to the legacies of the early Cold War, which, stemming from the anticommunist hysteria of the late 1940s, have continued to muddy and suppress the discussions of class more broadly.

Why is this line of argument significant?  In standard narratives of the modern Civil Rights Movement, scholars have highlighted the role of middle-class African Americans in giving leadership and meaning to these heroic struggles.  I suggest, to the contrary, that black working people were historically the central actors in defining and directing black communal interests, albeit in creative tension with their professional-class counterparts.  To be sure, given the formative role of racism in shaping black experiences, African Americans have long perceived their fate as linked, and the work of scholars such as Michael C. Dawson, Mary Pattillo, and Tommie Shelby suggests that this remains the case.  Still, the ways in which black people have understood their linked fate, defined their collective black interests, and acted on those interests, have reflected internal fissures.  “Black unity,” in short, has been a façade behind which have existed, among other dynamics, class politics.

In November 2007, for instance, the Pew Research Center released a study revealing that African Americans perceive “a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks.”  Social scientists, and even journalists such as Eugene Robinson (author of the new book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America), acknowledge the fact that African Americans at the contemporary moment are more segmented along class lines than ever, and feel such.  Yet, this observation often proceeds from the assumption that class differences were nonexistent, or insignificant, within black communities before the 1970s.  The reality, however, is that class has long played a role in black institutional, social and political life, though that role has been a variable one across the breadth of African American history.  Here, critical engagement with the humanities serves to rescue the history of black freedom struggle from the oversimplified narrative in which, to paraphrase Julian Bond, Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up, and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson secured civil rights reform, paving the way for the national King holiday and Barack Obama’s sojourn to the White House.  In addition to obscuring who actually led and peopled the movement, the intra-movement conflicts that facilitated as well as inhibited successes, the expansive scope of the movement’s goals, and how we should periodize and locate the movement geographically, the previous master narrative obfuscates the movement’s unfinished business and reifies the thesis of American exceptionalism and inevitable progress toward national unity and perfection.  The movement becomes a fairy tale with a happy ending, leading many to logically conclude that contemporary social inequities are the result of individual or group cultural deficiencies rather than structural conditions.

From this standpoint, President Obama’s election was symbolic of the maturation and contradictions of post-1965 black elected officialdom, and represented a fulfillment of a key black freedom struggle aim.  Yet, this victory occurred amidst a horrific chain of events: the disfranchisement of black voters in the 2000 elections, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s upending of the Fourteenth Amendment; ongoing judicial assaults on the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts; the obscene deprivations of race and class exposed by the Hurricane Katrina crisis; and the legal cases of the “Jena Six” in Louisiana and Shaquanda Cotton in Texas, which personified the deep racial inequalities in a criminal justice system that now incarcerates millions of largely black and brown people.  This is to say nothing of the effects of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a deep recession with no apparent end in sight, a more than four-fold increase in the racial wealth gap between 1984 and 2007, an official black unemployment rate (approximately 16%) that is nearly twice that of whites, and a continuing slide in the quality of life of American workers across racial and occupational lines, as described in Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.

As humanities scholars such as Frank Donoghue (author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities) remind us, threats to working conditions and job security have particular implications for the academic profession.  This could mean the transformation of professors from “autonomous” to “managed” professionals; the steady drop in tenure-eligible faculty and greater reliance on adjunct and other part-time instructors; and what political scientist Henry Steck characterizes as the “unbundling” of teaching, “in which the preparation, presentation, and evaluation of courses are separated in a new division of labor that destroys the academic craft and subjects academic labor to central authority in the tradition of Frederick Taylor.”  How will the humanities, and the liberal arts more generally, fare in such an environment?  What, in particular, will be the fate of the Ethnic Studies programs, departments and curriculum that grew out of the struggles of the past four decades?  How will we sustain the ability to provide students educational experiences that arm them with the tools of critical inquiry, and plunge them into the world of ideas and action, as had been my ?  How, in short, do we reproduce the core values of the humanities, especially as they have evolved since the end of the Second World War?  The push for unionization, evinced by the local Campus Faculty Association, has been one response in defense of shared faculty-administrative governance, and the democratic possibilities of public universities and higher education.  It has, in the process, goaded tenure-track and tenured faculty, often uncomfortably, to rethink our selves, as well as our relationship to other forms of campus labor.


Tea Party campaigns aside, this moment may still provide political opportunities for reactivating a counter-momentum for progressive change.  Or perhaps this period may altogether suppress a transformative black grassroots politics, enshrining the idea (trumpeted in 2008 by Black Enterprise publisher Earl G. Graves, Sr., among others) that African Americans possess “No More Excuses” for failure.  Either way, the relationships between African Americans and other groups in the United States, and the relationships among black people themselves, are being profoundly affected in ways too soon yet to fathom.  The Great Depression of the 1930s structurally realigned the class structure of Black America, facilitating a working-class oriented paradigm of struggle that held sway for several decades.  The home mortgage crisis (which has had its most devastating impact on upwardly striving African Americans), the cutbacks in the public sphere (where black middle-class professionals have been largely employed), and a crippling economic crisis (which has seen a 700% leap in black joblessness) all seem to augur a similar decomposition of the “post-Civil Rights” black middle class and a new social alignment.  The humanities suggest certain historical possibilities, but they do not forecast the future.

Nonetheless, they do urge us, in the admonishment of visual culture theorist Irit Rogoff, to creatively “inhabit” the objects of our study.  For someone who studies black social movements and the working class, how does one fulfill ethical obligations to resist police violence and misconduct, respond to campus crime alerts that racially stigmatize and potentially result in heightened profiling and even vigilantism?  How does a humanities scholar interested in matters of social justice promote faculty unionization in a climate of university restructuring, support initiatives that ameliorate the effects of mass incarceration, and participate in ongoing battles for access and equity for black and brown students, as well as promotion and leadership opportunity for faculty, academic professionals and civil service employees of color?  Moreover, how does one balance these considerations against the atomization that an academic career can foster?

At the same time – and here is where I hope to continue to gain from and contribute to the critical insights of the humanities – the discourse on African Americans cannot simply be the story of “suffering and resistance.”  As scholars such as Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., and Jeffrey Ferguson have inveighed, this produces a totalizing logic that precludes other aspects of the African American experience, including beauty, an “ethics of care” and other values, social perspectives, symbols, innovations, and stylizations that have sustained black publics.  I return, for instance, to the tragicomic tales about life I heard while growing up; these stories reflected a hard-won aesthetic of experience that echo in the sharp observational humor of commentators such as Richard Pryor.  I want to know more about hard bop, soul jazz, and the elegant black working-class ballroom “steppers sets” for which Chicago, and the urban Great Lakes region of the Midwest, are known.  And, notwithstanding the dismantling of the nation’s public housing system, I want to account for the tremendous appeal of place and memory that “the projects” have had on those who grew up and lived there, bringing many of them together for annual reunions and animating other people to create institutions such as Chicago’s National Public Housing Museum.  Communities like the Dearborn Homes were not merely places of deprivation and oppression.  Revising the history of black freedom struggle, for me, has become part of a larger scholarly task of reconstructing a richer picture of black working people.

The stakes are more than historiographical.  Interested in the work that the humanities can do more broadly, I approach the subject from the standpoint of wanting to counter the “eclipse of a black public” that Glaude, Adolph Reed, Jr., Robert C. Smith, Robert Gooding-Williams and others have identified as the current state of affairs.  The mentalities and interests of the so-called “everyday people” do not only inhabit the pages of the scholarship I have read and written, or occupy the subject matter I teach in class.  They also bore and raised me, and they confront me with the challenge – consistent with the Black Studies motto of “academic excellence and social responsibility” – to keep my ideas tethered to practice.  No one in the humanities comes to his or her research in a social vacuum.  No one can sustain it there, either.

Clarence Lang is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, a Helen Corley Petit Scholar, and a former IPRH Faculty Fellow, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 (University of Michigan Press, 2009).


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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