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Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Thursday, June 30, 2011


Earlier today, I received an email from an old friend, Dr. Renfrew Christie, Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape, copying me in on the report of the memorial service for Kadar Asmal, former Minister of Education in Nelson Mandela's government. Kadar, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting in 1990 or 1991, shortly after he returned from exile, spent more than twenty years teaching law in Dublin. He was an important part of the struggle against apartheid, and I was saddened by his passing. This got me thinking about my own mortality, and led ineluctably to the thought that the wisdom and knowledge I have accumulated over a lifetime will simply evaporate when I die -- not soon, it is to be hoped, but not too many years in the future, inasmuch as I am already seventy-seven years old.

For reasons that I cannot quite fathom, this led me during dinner this evening to talk with Susie about my experiences as the Graduate Program Director of the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at UMass. I talked about my discovery that the bright, motivated students we enrolled in that program were woefully badly advised at the colleges where they did their undergraduate study. Many of them did not know that one could actually apply to a doctoral program without first earning a Master's degree, or that one could apply for graduate study before having the Bachelor's Degree in hand. They did not know these elementary facts about the Academy because they were so poorly advised, if indeed they were advised at all, as undergraduates. This, like so much else, was second nature to upper middle class white students, who were tapped as having potential in their Sophomore or Junior years and were then guided into successful academic careers.

I told Susie that during the time that I served as GPD, there was a program run by the Mellon Foundation for promising students of color. To apply for one one of the graduate fellowships, one had to take the Graduate Record Examination the first time it was given, in September. But the Black students were not told this, and by the time it occurred to them to apply, they were too late. I called the Mellon Foundation to ask whether they had ever thought to contact Historically Black colleges and inform people of the requirements for their fellowships. No, they replied airily, the information was readily available if anyone wanted it.

I know that I am seventy-seven, and therefore too old for anything but Medicare, but I do wish someone, somewhere, would tap my energies and knowledge one last time to do some good in this world.


[The next few paragraphs are excerpted from chapter two of Autobiography of an Ex-White Man]

Freedom is the theme of the story told by these historians surveying the American experience. Their central analytical idea is Exceptionalism, an idea first given expression by Alexis de Tocqueville. Exceptionalism has served as the guiding thread of both scholarly explications and patriotic invocations for more than a century and a half. America, it is said, is the exception to the generalizations of historians, political scientists, and sociologists, to the time-tested laws of historical evolution defining and constraining men and women and nations in the Old World. America is unique. There has never been anywhere like America, and there never will be again.

Unlike all other nations that have ever existed, according to this story, America is founded upon an idea, the Idea of Freedom. There is no Idea that Great Britain embodies, even though the British, in Magna Carta, in their Common Law, and in their Parliament, have created traditions of liberty. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité was the great war cry of the French Revolution, but France itself was not founded on these ideals. Rome, Russia, China, Italy -- none is the actual embodiment of an Idea consciously embraced by a noble band of Founding Fathers. Even ancient Greece, celebrated among Western intellectuals as the birthplace of democracy, loses its origins in the mists of legend. Only America, or so the story goes, actually embodies an Idea.

Thus, everything that happens in America is to be measured and understood in relation to that Idea. When we Americans succeed in making actual some degree of liberty, then we are fulfilling our founding Idea. When we fail for a time to accord that liberty to everyone, then we must understand ourselves as having not yet completely realized our Idea. Because an Idea lies at the heart of the American Experiment, America promises what no other nation can -- the achievement of an ideal society that can serve as a model and a hope for all humanity. It is in this vein that John Winthrop wrote in 1630, while still on the Atlantic aboard the Arabella: For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

America is the Great Exception in other ways as well, the historians tell us. Alone among all the great nations of the world, America was established in an empty land, a land without the constrictions and constraints of immemorial custom. Save for those few savages so easily displaced or eliminated, the New World stood waiting for the Colonists exactly as God had created it. For just this one time in human history, a community of men and women found themselves in a true state of nature, able to build a republic of liberty and equality that bid fair to realize their cherished ideals. Thanks to the bountifulness of Providence and the vast emptiness of the North American continent, this availability of untouched land continued to define the American experience well into the nineteenth century. First the fertile Atlantic coastline, then the forests inland, then the great Western plains, and finally the lush valleys beyond the Rocky Mountains stood waiting for brave, adventuresome settlers ready to build a nation by the sweat of their brows.

And finally, because America was "started from scratch," as Bailey says, it had no hereditary rulers, no class system, no lords and peasants, no First, Second, and Third Estates. From the outset, American society has been a society of equals, free of the inherited resentments and badges of inferiority that divided the nations of the Old World. No American has been forced to bend his knee or doff his cap to the lord of the manor. Any American, no matter how modest his background or poor his beginnings, can aspire to land, to wealth, and to independence if he is willing to work hard, to save, and to seize the opportunities offered by the New World.

This celebratory self-congratulation is not merely the stuff of political speeches and Fourth of July oratory. It was, until very recently, the considered judgment of serious scholars, honored in the Academy and inscribed in the professional monographs on which generations of secondary and college textbooks drew for their account of the American story. But heart-warming as this story is, at least if you have not the misfortune to be a Native American or the descendant of a slave, it is simply not true.

Let me be clear about what I am asserting, because the truly revolutionary thrust of Afro-American Studies can be lost through misunderstanding. The traditional story is partial, to be sure, in its slighting of the doings of women, of working-class people, of Native Americans, and of people of color. But that failing can easily be rectified, if one is willing to add some pages to one's narrative. A quick look at the most recent edition of Bailey's text is suggestive. The franchise is now managed by two extremely distinguished professional historians: Lizabeth Cohen, the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard and David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford. In an effort to be unimpeachably inclusive, these authors have expanded the text to 1248 pages. The book [which surely no student is actually expected to read all the way through] begins not with the arrival of the pilgrims or even with Columbus' voyage of exploration, but with a chapter entitled "New World Beginnings: 33,000 B.C.E. - 1769 C.E." Everyone, including the mastodons now extinct, will get at least a passing mention!

If lack of inclusiveness were the central problem, then in an age more sensitive to the feelings of subaltern populations [as it has now become fashionable to say] the difficulty could be rectified by textbook chapters, courses, or entire programs devoted to the Black experience, the Native American experience, the Latino/a experience, the Woman's experience, the Asian-American experience, the LGBT experience, and even the German-American, Polish-American, Italian-American, Swedish-American, and Hmong-American experience. If budgetary constraints preclude the creation of a separate administrative unit devoted to the study of each of these fractions of the American experience, then as a compromise a Department of Ethnic Studies can be brought into existence, with care taken not to recreate in Academia the experience of ghettoization.

But the story told by our historians upon a hill is not incomplete. It is wrong, through and through. America is not exceptional. It was not founded to be the embodiment of an Idea. And it is not Liberty but a complex, dare I say dialectical, relationship between bound labor and free labor that has defined America's nature from the seventeenth century to the present day. These are provocative claims, to be sure, and they will require a good deal of explanation and defense. The mission of Afro-American Studies, since it burst upon the academic scene in the nineteen-sixties, has been to expose these myths and set the record straight. That is why, during its entire half century career, it has been a site of struggle within the Academy, in a way that Diasporic Studies, Cultural Studies, and Africana Studies have not been.

Tomorrow, we shall begin to explore these claims.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


"The American republic, which is still relatively young, was from the outset singularly favored. It started from scratch on a vast and virgin continent, which was so sparsely peopled by Indians that they could be eliminated or pushed aside. Such a magnificent opportunity for a great democratic experiment may never come again."

Thus begins The American Pageant by distinguished historian and past president of the Organization of American Historians Thomas A. Bailey. The American Pageant is one of the most successful of the many college American History texts. First published in 1956, it went through six editions before Bailey's death in 1983, but top-selling college texts take on a life of their own, and the fourteenth edition, still carrying Bailey's name, along with those of the current revisers, appeared in 2008. You can get it, deeply discounted, from for only $126.22. I have actually examined all six editions published during Bailey's lifetime, and I can report that the bitter irony of those opening lines is, so far as Bailey was concerned, completely unconscious.

This celebratory tone, rich in unintended irony, is echoed in the competing texts from that same period, written by teams of historians even more distinguished in the profession than Bailey. While preparing to write Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, a memoir of my experiences in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I actually engaged in what is, for me, a very rare act of scholarship. I examined multiple editions of three texts: Bailey's American Pageant; America: The Story of a Free People, by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager; and The Growth of the American Republic, by Samuel Eliot Morison and [again] Henry Steele Commager. Older readers of this blog may recognize the names Nevins, Morison, and Commager. All three were giants of the American History academic establishment, repeatedly chosen to preside over various professional associations and universally admired both for their scholarship and -- especially in the case of Commager -- for their deep devotion to the highest ideals and practices of American democracy.

The story they tell is one with which all Americans are familiar: A vast, virgin continent, populated by devout Protestants seeking freedom of religion and land from which to wrest a decent living, an exceptional country, the first in history to come into existence by a genuine social contract among all the men and women living in this new society carved from a fertile wilderness. Together, they threw off the shackles of Old World tyranny and fulfilled their promise as a "city upon a hill." Lest you imagine that I am exaggerating for comic effect, let me quote just one passage from Nevins and Commager's America: The Story of a Free People:

"America emerged out of obscurity into history only some four centuries ago. It is the newest of the great nations, yet it is in many respects the most interesting.... It is interesting because, from its earliest beginnings, its people have been conscious of a peculiar destiny, because upon it have been fastened the hopes and aspirations of the human race, and because it has not failed to fulfill that destiny or to justify those hopes. ... America [has become] the most ambitious experiment ever undertaken in the intermingling of peoples, in religious toleration, social equality, economic opportunity, and political democracy. ... [T]o a generation engaged in a mighty struggle for liberty and democracy [the book was published in 1942] there is something exhilarating in the story of the tenacious exaltation of liberty and the steady growth of democracy in the history of America."

But what of slavery, the "peculiar institution" as John C. Calhoun and others called it? Bailey, Nevins, Morison, and Commager devote so little attention to the institution of slavery, even in their discussion of the debates over the formation of the U. S. Constitution, that it must come as something of a surprise to the unwary reader to learn, many hundreds of pages later, that a civil war was fought over the matter. Their descriptions of ante-bellum slavery will strike the modern reader as parodies or satires. It is important, however, to take them seriously, for they articulate the collective historical amnesia and fantasies of White America well into the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, we are seeing today a revival of those myths in the bizarre claim by Michele Bachmann, received with rapturous applause by many millions of Americans, the Founding Fathers themselves led the fight against slavery. Listen to just a few passages on the subject, selected from these major college level history texts:

First, Commager and Morison:

"As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its 'peculiar institution.' The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy. Competent observers reported that they performed less labor than the hired man of the Northern states. Their physical wants were better supplied than those of thousands of Northern laborers, English operatives, and Irish peasants; their liberty was not much less than that enjoyed by the North of England 'hinds` or the Finnish torpare. Although brought to America by force, the incurably optimistic negro soon became attached to the country, and devoted to his 'white folks.' Slave insurrections were planned - usually by the free negroes - but invariably betrayed by some faithful darky; and trained obedience kept the slaves faithful throughout the Civil War."

When Commager joined forces with Nevins, the result was no better. Here is their description, in a chapter titled "The Sectional Struggle," of plantation slavery, based on an account given by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1854. Olmstead describes a Southern plantation he had seen on his travels, what Nevins and Commager describe as "one of the first-rate cotton plantations in Mississippi." "Every Christmas molasses, coffee, tobacco, and calico were generously distributed.... A black driver walked about among the field hands, urging them on, cracking his whip, and sometimes letting the lash fall slightly on their shoulders.... This was a typical plantation of the better sort."

Commager, recall, was famous not only as an historian but also as a fierce liberal defender of Constitutional guarantees and First Amendment rights. Morison was the very model of an upright upper class Harvard scholar and gentleman. Nevins was the star of the Columbia History Department and the author of a vast, detailed, multi-volume history of the Civil War. Collectively, they authored well over a hundred books, which were received as monuments of painstaking, scholarly, objective historiography.

This is the story these men told as they stood on the crest of the hill and surveyed the pageant spread out before them. Try if you will to imagine what it was like to be a thoughtful, intelligent Black man or woman, reading this version of one's own history, struggling -- against the overwhelming weight of professional approbation, of degrees and honors, of universal acclaim -- to raise a voice and say, "That is not the true story of America."


I have never much liked Dennis Kucinich, even though on specific issues, he and I agree. Now I read that he is in Syria, and is parroting Assad's talking points, defending the regime against its critics. I have not the foggiest idea why he is doing this, but it is simply outrageous. What on earth has gotten into him?


Now that I am committed to what will be a lengthy and time-consuming tutorial on Afro-American Studies, I find myself less engaged in the day-to-day snarking that is, after all, the raison d'etre of blogging. Still and all, certain ephemera must be noted before they evaporate. Michele Bachmann has launched her presidential bid, to great acclaim, and is already committing faux pas, or perhaps I should say faux mots. Christian charity [of which I think I have more than she, actually] compels me to cut her some slack over her confusion of John Wayne with a serial killer. I mean, anyone who has spent some serious time with John Wayne's movies could easily confuse him with a serial killer, no? And who among us can actually remember that the Lexington and Concord of Revolutionary Era fame are in Massachusetts, and not, as Bachmann apparently thinks, in New Hampshire? [There is a Concord, New Hampshire, after all, and from the perspective of the Great Plains, they must all look pretty much the same.]

Devotees of the Hot Stove League will recall that I predicted the race would come down to Romney versus Bachmann. My secret dream is that they arrive at the convention more or less in a dead heat, and that Bachmann gets passed over by the relatively sober wing of the party because polls show her being creamed by Obama, whereupon she and her fanatic supporters bolt the convention and form an insurgent party of what the Roman Catholic Church, in a different context, calls the "invincibly ignorant." [If I am not mistaken, a Catholic prelate, in an effort to assuage Mrs. Whitehead's anxiety over her husband's agnosticism, used this phrase to describe Alfred North Whitehead. I have always been charmed by the notion of Whitehead as invincibly ignorant.]

Meanwhile, Rod Blagojevich has been found guilty, keeping alive a long Illinois tradition of sending former governors to jail, and the Navy Seals who offed Bin Laden found documentary evidence that he was considering changing his organization's name in an effort to improve its image. I confess I was somewhat depressed by that news. Brooding in his gated compound, Bin Laden seems to have appropriated the least attractive features of American popular culture. On the other hand, when your worst nightmare becomes a laughing stock, there is reason to hope.

And now, back to serious work, on Part Three of my tutorial.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Part One: The Story of America

I am a story teller, as readers of this blog will know, so I am going to tell you a story. It is actually the story of the evolution of a story -- a meta-story, as literary critics might say. It is the story of the American story, and of a challenge to that story, for Afro-American Studies was born in a struggle over who shall tell the story of America, and how that story shall go.

Let me begin with a fable.

Two thousand years ago, a Roman philosopher and poet named Lucretius wrote a long philosophical work that he called “On the Nature of Things” – De Rerum Natura. In the opening paragraph of the second part of his work, Lucretius conjured a striking image. Here is what Lucretius said:

"It is sweet ... to look upon the mighty struggles of war arrayed along the plains without sharing yourself in the danger. But nothing is more welcome than to hold the lofty and serene positions well fortified by the learning of the wise, from which you may look down upon others and see them wandering all abroad and going astray in their search for the path of life, see the contest among them of intellect, the rivalry of birth, the striving night and day with surpassing effort to struggle up to the summit of power and be masters of the world."

I would like you to imagine with me, if you will, a vast plain stretching to the horizon and beyond, on which are arrayed Americans, men, women, and children, going about the business of their lives. There are great cities on the plain, and small villages. There are factories, mines, forests, rivers, wheat farms and cattle ranges, road networks and airports, schools, office buildings, army camps, churches – all the countless sites where the daily activities of Americans take place. On the plain, also, are statehouses, courthouses, government buildings, prisons, gated communities, slums, movie theaters, football stadia, skating rinks and skid rows.

At one end of this vast plain is a high hill whose crest looks out over the plain, so that every part of it is in view. And standing on this crest, surveying the scene like the philosopher of Lucretius’ poem, is a man. We shall call him The Historian. The rest of us are gathered below the crest of the hill, on the side away from the plain, so that we can see the Historian, and hear him should he talk to us, but cannot ourselves see what is happening on the plain below. “Tell us what you see,” we say to him, and he agrees to give us an account of the events spread out before his eyes.

He tells us of voyages of discovery, of struggles with indigenous peoples, of the founding of towns, the planting of crops, and the herding of cattle. He tells us of town meetings, of births and deaths. He tells us of a great war between those who have chosen to live on the plain and those who live in the far off country from which they have come. He tells us of the founding of a nation, with laws and governments. He tells us of the adventure of exploring parts of the great plain that lie far to the West. He tells us of a terrible Civil War between brothers and neighbors, and of a tall, gaunt man who led the nation back to unity.

He tells us the story of America.

So much is happening on the plain below, that the Historian cannot possibly tell us all of it. Indeed, even if he were to restrict himself to just one town or village, one statehouse or courthouse, there would be more to tell than one story could encompass. So inevitably, appropriately, understandably, he makes choices.

Now, the Historian is an honorable man, committed to telling us the truth about the events on the great plain, so he does not lie. But he must choose, so he tries to limit himself to the most important events, as they unfold in the lives of the most important people. And as he surveys the plain, it seems clear to him that the most important people are the presidents, the senators, the generals, the business tycoons, and the preachers. The story he tells us is filled with their doings.

That is the story we hear, so of course it is the story we tell our children. The Historian writes books for them to read in school, and on days of celebration and remembrance, we retell the story he has told us, as a way of reminding ourselves who we are and where we have come from.

For a long while, the Historian is alone on the crest of the hill, and his story is the only one we hear. But all of the people in his story are White, and the Black men and women listening to the story grow restive. “Aren’t there any Black people on that plain?” they wonder. Finally, one of them begins to climb laboriously to the crest of the hill. “When you get there,” his fellows call after him, “tell us what you see.” And sure enough, when he is finally able to see the plain, he tells a very different story. It is a story of men and women seized violently and brought to the plain, where they are forced to labor on farms and in factories as chattel slaves. It is a story of their courage in resisting their enslavers, of the role they played in that great war of brother against brother. In this new story, the music and literature and art and science and philosophy of the Black folk on the plain find a place, as they did not in the story told by the Historian.

There are in fact now two Historians on the crest of the hill, each telling his story of the events on the plain.

Soon, some of the women listening below begin to ask why there is so little mention of women in these stories, so one of their number clambers to the hill crest and begins to tell her story of what she sees. Now there are three Historians, and before long there are still more.

A great struggle breaks out among the Historians on the crest of the hill – not a physical struggle, but a struggle over whose story will be the one that the people down below will hear and remember and tell to their children. For the stories are very different from one another, and a good deal turns on which story we hear and believe. How we act towards each other, what we think of ourselves, what we think America is – all this will be decided by which story we come to accept as the true story of America.

The story of Afro-American Studies is the story of a struggle for control of the voice that narrates the story of America. Before we can hear that story, we must remind ourselves of the story it is meant to replace.

Monday, June 27, 2011


With this post, I begin what will be a rather lengthy tutorial on Afro-American Studies. Despite having spent the last sixteen years of my career as a Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I am no sort of scholar of the subject at all. My only publication that is even arguably in the field is Autobiography of an Ex-White Man [University of Rochester Press, 2005], which tells the story of my experiences in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. I have chosen to launch this tutorial because I believe both that the subject is intellectually interesting and that it has something very important to teach all of us about contemporary America.

There are three questions that a tutorial of this sort should seek to answer: First, what, in its broad outlines and in some illustrative detail, is the story of the Africans brought to North America as slaves, both during and after their period of enslavement, and of their descendants? Second, What is the history of the scholarship of Afro-American Studies? How has that scholarship, evolved over time, who are some of the principal contributors to this collective scholarly effort, and what are some of the significant books that readers of this tutorial might wish to consult? and Third, What is the institutional story of Afro-American Studies as an academic discipline? When was the discipline launched, how did it develop, and what is the state of the discipline now? In what follows, I shall make an effort to address all of these questions, but I remind you that I am a novice in the field. You must turn to others for a more authoritative account.

First some terminological matters and a clearer delineation of the academic territory I shall be surveying. As often happens, the words used to refer to the people whose story we shall be telling are themselves a focus for contention. [We saw an analogous example in our discussion of the Zhu in the tutorial on Ideological Critique.] Leaving aside the derogatory terms that were, and still are, used by Whites to refer to the descendants of slaves [a subject that is itself a sub-field in the discipline of Afro-American Studies, sometimes referred to as "Coonery"], at one time or another the subjects of this discourse have referred to themselves as "Negro," "Black, "Colored," "African American," and "Afro-American." Absolutely nothing about this choice of words is simple or ideologically neutral, and every one of these terms has been fought over and used as a celebration or a reproach. I am going to use the term "Afro-American Studies," principally because that is the choice that was made by my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts when they established a new department in the 1960's. I shall refer to the subjects of the discipline as "African-Americans." These choices are not at all arbitrary. They actually encode one particular conception of the discipline, but there are at least three other conceptions that have informed scholarly work and the institutionalization of that work in academic departments. A few words of explanation are called for.

West Africans were brought to the New World as slaves starting in the early 16th century [which is to say almost immediately after the first voyages of discovery], the first slaves arriving in the North American colonies a century later in 1619 [in the colony of Virginia.] Far and away the greatest number of West African slaves were brought to South America and the Caribbean. Over the past half century, at least four distinctly different schools of scholarly research have grown up to document and interpret this history, and though they have many points of contact and intersection, it is best to keep them conceptually distinct.

The first school of research, which I shall refer to as Afro-American Studies, examines the lives, struggles, culture, and politics of the Africans brought as slaves to the North American colonies, and their actions first as slaves in the Colonies, then as slaves in the United States of America, and then as American citizens after their liberation at the end of the Civil War. Under this rubric I include the descendants of those slaves and ex-slaves, up to the present day. This is the school of research on which I shall be concentrating in this tutorial.

The second school of research, frequently referred to as Diasporic Studies, examines the lives and doings of all of the West Africans seized, enslaved, and brought to the New World, regardless of where they ended up on this side of the Atlantic. This approach takes the entire slave trade and its consequences as a unified object of study, crossing national borders and languages in an effort to formulate an integrated picture of the lives of all of those who formed a part of the African Diaspora.

The third school of research, often referred to as Cultural Studies, explores the literature, music, drama, visual arts, folk arts, and oral culture of African-Americans, using the tools of Literary Criticism, Cultural Anthropology, Comparative Literature, and associated disciplines, frequently with extensive comparative forays into the literature and culture of other groups of Americans.

Finally, at Temple University, pretty much as the brainchild of one man, Molefi Asante, a school of research has developed that its practitioners refer to as Africana Studies or Africology. In this school, a heavy emphasis is placed on the African cultural, philosophical, and historical roots of the African-American experience, with special attention to the Egyptian contribution to world culture.

All four of these schools or tendencies have found homes in doctoral programs at American Universities. Afro-American Studies flourishes at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Diasporic Studies has taken root at Berkeley, at Michigan State, and at Yale [with an emphasis on what is referred to as "Black Atlantic."] Cultural Studies are the principal focus of the program at Harvard. And Africology still has a home at Temple.

Finally, I should mention an international movement that has played a role in world politics, but has no significant home currently in the American academy, namely the Pan-African Movement that was launched in reaction to European colonial domination of Africa and gave rise to a series of important international conferences. Along the way, I shall have occasion to make reference to several major American scholar/activists who were instrumental in the Pan-African movement.

Each of these schools of research has an ideological component, and each has its share of texts, artifacts, historical traditions, and research techniques. My choice of Afro-American studies as the focus of this tutorial is motivated partly by the constraints of my inadequate knowledge and partly by my very great interest in what Afro-American Studies can tell us about America. The only one of these schools of research that is in any way intellectually suspect is Asante's Africology, and I shall try later on to do as much justice to it as I can.

Tomorrow, we shall begin. I should say at the outset that I shall probably not be able to maintain the rather blistering pace of my previous tutorials, with well over as thousand words a day being posted. Recognizing that we are now in a lazy Summer tempo, I may skip a day or more between parts of this tutorial.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Susie and I live in a large, relatively new development in Chapel Hill called Meadowmont, with perhaps a thousand homes [and even an elementary school for the children.] One small part of the development consists of a complex of three-story brick buildings called Meadowmont Village, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and condominiums on the second and third floors of three of the buildings. We live in a third floor condo in the same building that houses the very popular Carolina Cafe, where people have breakfasts and lunches, and stop by for coffee.

One Sunday a month, the manager of the condo association organizes something he calls "The Brunch Bunch," at which Meadowmont residents can get free coffee and muffins at the Carolina cafe and sit around chatting with their neighbors. Some of the people who attend these things [they tend to be the older residents] know one another, many do not. The idea seems to be to foster a community spirit.

We also have an apartment in Paris, in the 5th arrondissment, just outside Place Maubert. Le Metro cafe, in Place Maubert, is our local cafe, and when we are in Paris, we spend a good deal of time sitting at the open air tables, having a Kir Sancerre or an espresso or a chocolat chaud a l'ancienne, and watching people walk by.

Parisians, generally speaking, devote a great deal of time and money to activities in the public spaces of the city. The most striking of these is fete de la musique, on the first day of summer, when all Paris comes out into the streets and plays musical instruments or listens to others playing, promenading until after midnight. It is the most wonderful collective celebration I have ever taken part in.

And yet: Parisians would rather die than attend a French version of a "Brunch Bunch," at which they were expected to talk with neighbors whom they do not know and with whom they have not made a formal social engagement. It would be easy to conclude that Americans are friendlier than the French, but it is the Americans, not the French, who hide themselves in gated communities, if they can afford to do so, and devote almost nothing to the public life of the community.

The differences are quite striking. It would be impossible to imagine, in Meadowmont, the sort of cafe that seemingly occupies every street corner in Paris.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish, has a link to a list of thirty slams of great authors by great authors. Here is Mark Twain on Jane Austen: “I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

Note that he says, "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice." There is enough complicated irony in that one phrase to keep a Jane Austen fan happy for a week.


Everyone who has spent a lifetime fighting for ideals against hopeless odds has a little piece of folk wisdom, a mantra, tucked away in his or her head -- something to come back to, something to think about, something to keep the spirits up. Today is a good day, a day for victory laps. Last night, New York voted to legalize same-sex marriages. The vote was hedged round with all manner of protections for churches, synagogues, and mosques where the least whiff of homosexuality carries with it the scent of brimstone, but Cuomo and Bloomberg, a whole lot of Democrats and a crucial handful of Republicans made it happen.

At times like these, I think of my little mantra -- a line from that great Newman/Redford movie, The Sting. Redford's buddy, Luther, has been murdered by Doyle Lonnegan [the late, great Robert Shaw], and he comes looking for Newman in a whorehouse to learn how to get back at Lonnegan by playing "the big con." Newman agrees, after sobering up, but he warns Redford: "I just don't want a hothead comin' back halfway through sayin' it's not enough, because it's all we're goin' to get."

There is great wisdom in that line. Nothing is ever perfect in politics, no candidate ever meets one's impossibly high standards, no victory is ever without compromise, but in this fight, which goes on for a lifetime, we don't need any hotheads who come back halfway through saying it's not enough, because it is all we are going to get.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


This is for denizens of Boston. Whitey Bulger has been captured! I will not even try to explain, to those who do not know, why Whitey, legendary mob guy and FBI informant, was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Suffice it to say that his brother, Billy, was for a while the President of the University of Massachusetts. Alas, despite Billy's pull and Whitey's muscle, UMass did not benefit from the connection. Since they were both good Catholic boys back in the day, Whitey will probably try to cop a plea on the grounds that he was abused by a priest while an altar boy.


The phrase "the dog days of summer" usually refers to that long, hot stretch in late July and August when it seems as though cool breezes will never come. [It seems the phrase originated with the Romans -- dies canicularis -- who knew?] But here in the Upper South, we have been flirting with 100 degrees for a week, even though summer officially started only the day before yesterday. I actually like some hot weather, but it does seem that we are in for more than our share this year.

I have been mulling over the idea of launching a lengthy tutorial on Afro-American Studies, and I will probably do that some time. But with this sort of weather, I cannot believe anyone wants to read thirty or forty thosuand well-chosen words on a serious subject, spread over a month or more, so for the time being, I shall content myself with snarking at the Republicans, bemoning the wretched state of the world, and mooning over those good old times when it felt as though America was embarked on a progressive path to, at the very least, a vibrant Social Democracy.

Fat chance.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Some of you may recall my writing about Dorothee Benz, a wonderful young woman [now middle-aged, lord help me] who served as Executive Director of Harvard and Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid before I did. I had lost touch with her for many years, but just reestablished contact. Here is a short piece she sent me which she agreed to allow me to post on my blog.


Does the church really need protection from queer people?

An angry queer rant in light of the current debate on marriage equality in New York State

“Protection for religious groups is the last major issue to be worked out in Wednesday's negotiations over a bill that would legalize same-sex marriages in New York state,” said a typical lead in a news story on this week’s still unfolding drama over the possibility of New York State’s legalization of gay marriage (this one from WNBC, The only thing standing between gay and lesbian New Yorkers and their right to marry is religious – Christian – opposition – and the mainstream media coverage out of Albany has been all about the Senate Republicans’ concern for adequate protections for religious institutions in the bill.

Let’s be clear about what this really means. Here’s the translation: GOP lawmakers are refusing to even bring the most important piece of civil rights legislation in the country right now to a vote until they can guarantee that it will not hinder churches’ ability to continue to discriminate against gays and lesbians. “Protections” here is a (PR evil genius) code word for the right to discriminate. Because, of course, we are all about the separation of church and state and God forbid we get in the way of the ongoing persecution of LGBT people that has been led and fueled by institutionalized Christianity.

Isn’t it bad enough that religious homophobia contributes to the bullying and suicides of gay kids? Isn’t it bad enough that church condemnation gives moral cover to queer bashers and hate crimes against LGBT people continue to rise? Isn’t is bad enough that queer clergy are drummed out of churches, queer people are denied church weddings, membership and sacraments, and most LGBT people in search of spiritual communities cross “Christian” off the list of options where the might look to find a religious home? Must we “protect” churches even further??

The pandering to religious homophobia going on in Albany right now is exactly the reason why Christians opposed to their churches’ bigotry must speak up, rise up, fight back and end it now. Not only do churches continue to inflict spiritual violence on LGBT people with the lie that there is something less than holy and God-ordained about being queer; they are also the major reason our civil rights are denied.

Monday, June 20, 2011


OK. Let's give it a go. Here is the idea:

I want everyone to send me a write-up of a Blue H(e)aven in Red America: A neighborhood, a cafe, a bookstore, a restaurant, any place in a deep red part of America where progressives can gather and find political soulmates. Send me as detailed a write-up as possible, complete with addresses, telephone numbers, websites, pictures, GPS coordinates and all that good stuff. Send it by email to me at

Tell all of your friends and relatives in Red America to contribute. When in doubt -- i.e., havens in Purple America -- send it in. We can have a chapter on Transitional waterholes. If we assemble enough material for a book, we will try to find a publisher. if we succeed, then all of the royalties will go to Planned Parenthood.

Let us see what happens.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Several days ago, Philip Green emailed me a link to a long, thoughtful, knowledgeable, deeply depressing essay that he has published in Logos called "Farewell to Democracy?" You can find it here:

Some of you may know Green as a longtime forceful voice on the Left, a member of the editorial board of Dissent, now Professor Emeritus of Political Science from Smith College. I have known Phil for perhaps seventy-five years. When we were eleven, we went to Camp Taconic in the Berkshires [I have a picture of the two of us perched high on two very large horses, taking a riding lesson.] Earlier still, when we were both two, it is said that on occasion we shared a baby carriage during outings in Sunnyside, New York. So, give or take, three-quarters of a century. I read Phil's essay quickly, growing more gloomy with each page. Essentially, he argues that historical forces are at work that are inexorably bringing to a close a three and a half century long "democratic moment" in the Western world, with the consequence that the best we can hope for, if indeed "hope" is the right word, is temporary ameliorations and defensive accommodations. When I read the piece, my first thought was of Oswald Spengler's famous book, THE DECLINE OF THE WEST [hence the second part of the title of this post.] Now, I am by nature an optimist, as some of my more lugubrious friends take a certain delight in pointing out, as though it were a character flaw. And I simply do not want to spend what few years I have left on earth angry and depressed all the time.

Yesterday morning, I spent some time courtesy of Netflix watching on my computer the 1995 movie HACKERS, with the ever lubricious Angelina Jolie. I have always liked the anti-authoritarian, countercultural, intellectualist sensibility of that movie. Later on, my son Tobias, the law professor, showed up for an overnight visit. [Old Jewish joke: Mrs. Shapiro is taking a walk in Brooklyn Heights with her three year old and one year old in a stroller. She meets Mrs. Goldstein, who coos, and asks "And whom have we here?" Mrs. Shapiro replies proudly, "The one on the left is the doctor. The one on the right is the lawyer."] After dinner, Susie, Tobias, and I were sitting around, and I remarked that I could not figure out how to get free movies on my IPad. Tobias allowed as how he had downloaded a dozen or more books onto his IPhone [including the Critique of Pure Reason and Locke's Second Treatise!], and told me to get my IPad. He then proceeded to show me how to access thousands of free books, speaking slowly and distinctly in that way one talks when explaining things to a little child. [Tobias is forty-one, and at the top of his game, professionally, but we shall always be father and son.]

Which got me thinking. For the first one hundred and fifty thousand years or so of homo sapiens sapiens, the old people in each generation have explained to the young people how things work. That is how the knowledge of the species accumulates and expands. But we are living in the first human generation in which young people regularly explain to old people how things work. Want to stop your DVD player from blinking "12:00 12:00 12:00? Find an eleven year old.

This development is so new, and so completely contrary to the inherited wisdom of the entire species, that we have not yet begun to adjust ourselves to it and incorporate it into our collective understanding of the social world. Oh, we are all familiar with twenty-something billionaires who have managed to transform our experiences almost before they are old enough to vote. But we still assume that when it comes to the big things -- politics, religion, war, international finance -- the old will tell the young what to do.

Is it possible that I have managed to hang on just long enough to see the beginning of an entirely new era in human history? Will my grandchildren Samuel and Athena, now five and almost three, live in a world that I cannot imagine? And might that world be better in countless ways than the godawful mess we see around us now?

I choose to think so.

Friday, June 17, 2011


I was paging through the first section of the NY TIMES this morning, while having my regular lemon poppy seed muffin and decaf at the Carolina Cafe, when I came across a full page ad for something called The Nook, which is apparently a competitor for Amazon's Kindle. I have no interest in either, but my eye was caught by the photo of the [supposedly inferior] Kindle on which was displayed the first page of Pride and Prejudice. I read what is certainly one of the most famous first lines in the entire genre of the novel: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Reading that sentence gives me the sort of familiar and reliable pleasure that I derive from hearing yet again Haydn's "Kaiser" quartet or seeing Notre Dame at the bottom of my street in Paris. As I am sure any student of literature will agree, Austen's words are deceptively simple, and it would take several careful paragraphs to unpack their complexities of ironic voice and narrative point of view.

Then I thought to myself: "In a career spanning fifty-three years, at Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, Barnard, CCNY, Rutgers, CUNY, UMass, Williams, Yale, Boston University, Northeastern University, Duke, and UNC Chapel Hill, I have taught untold thousands of students, and yet there are probably no more than a handful -- five score, perhaps -- who could, if called upon, give unprompted an accurate, intelligent interpretation of that sentence."

The thought saddened me, but it also troubled me, because the ability to grasp easily and intuitively the nuances of language is one of the preconditions, I believe, of effective participation in the public life of a democracy. It is not, by itself, sufficient, heaven knows. Still, if one has no more than a coarse, ham-fisted grasp of language, then one's thoughts will be equally crude, lacking in the ability to make fine distinctions or balance competing claims and arguments. I hope my lengthy discourse on Ideological Critique demonstrated that even the domestic narratives of a Jane Austen, if managed with sufficient intelligence, are capable of encompassing the most controversial themes of the larger world, such as slavery and empire.

We see today an assault world-wide on the Humanities in tertiary education, as budgetary constraints and a corporatist mentality threaten any discipline that cannot prove its worth in the marketplace. Having spent a lifetime fighting losing political battles, it is, I suppose, only fitting that I should devote my declining years to one more lost cause. And yet, there is some reason to hope that though the Humanities may lose their once secure place in the Academy, Jane Austen's words, and those of David Hume, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Mannheim, and countless others will live immortally in cyberspace, ready to captivate and challenge a lively mind idly surfing the web.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I have a cat, named Christmas Eve, who for the past four years has been in renal failure. Three times a week, I give her a subcutaneous infusion of liquid to assist her kidneys, a process that involves slipping a large needle under her skin [not apparently a painful procedure] and waiting while 100 cc's of the fluid flow into the space between her skin and her flesh [on that spot at the nape of the neck where mother cats pick up their kittens in their teeth]. This process has kept her alive for these four years, a source of great joy to both myself and my wife, Susie. We are devoted to her, and even cut short our Paris visits so as not to be away from her too long. Christmas Eve, of course, has no understanding of why I do this to her periodically, and although she accepts the treatment docilely, she clearly does not like it.

Now the question: Since Christmas has no understanding of death, and no ability to anticipate her demise, or to grasp that she is being kept alive by this process, am I right to inflict it on her, as opposed to having her quietly and painlessly "put to sleep" [as we pet lovers squeamishly describe euthanasia]? There is no question that keeping her alive gives great pleasure to Susie and me, but ought that to count?

I am aware that there are two absolutely non-overlapping groups of people in the world: those who recognize this as a pressing, important question, and those who think I am insane even to think this way. So be it.


From time to time, I come across ideas for books that would fill a niche and almost certainly sell well. These are books I shall never write myself, but there ought to be someone out there looking for a likely project. The first idea came from my wife, Susan, who during our many visits to Paris has always been enchanted by the Parisian practice of bringing the family pet to a cafe or even to a serious restaurant. She lost her heart to an otherwise unremarkable bistro called Les Philosophes on rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais because in the old days, the owner had a large dog who sat near the maitre d's post on one side of the main dining room. Susan had the idea of doing a Dog Lover's Guide to Paris that would offer capsule reviews, and perhaps recipes of signature dishes, of Paris restaurants that allow dogs. So common is the practice, by the way, that the Guide Michelin, the fat red book that is an indispensable guide to the hotels and restaurants of France, actually has a little symbol [a dog's head] indicating which establishments allow pets. The great attraction to doing this book is that everything one spent on meals in Paris would be tax deductible as a business expense.

A second idea for a book occurred to me just a week ago when my former student, now Professor Jennifer Jensen-Wallach, came to town with her husband, Charles, for a wedding. Jennifer [who has moved from books on Jim Crow memoirs and Arkansas civil rights organizations into the field of food studies, and is now working on a study of the political, cultural, and racial significance of African-American food traditions] teaches at the University of North Texas in Denton, twenty miles or so north of Dallas-Fort Worth. I offered my sympathies to her for having been exiled to this benighted region of America, and she assured me that Denton has a lively community of like-minded people who gather together for mutual support and manage to keep alive cafes, bookstores, and the like.

I thought, Now there is an idea for a book. We could call it America for the Sane, or something similar. It would be a series of vignettes of enclaves of progressive, culturally literate folk in unlikely locations across America. I am not talking about Cambridge, or Hyde Park, or Berkeley, or Morningside Heights, or Greenwich Village. Those are not enclaves but epicenters of Blue State dominance.

For example, many years ago, when my son Tobias graduated from Yale Law School and was offered a clerkship with a Ninth Circuit Federal Appeals Court Judge, he invited me to drive with him from Connecticut to California. [It was while we were crossing endless miles of one of the Plains states that Tobias looked around at the emptiness and said, with awe and wonderment, "They have two Senators!"]. We stopped overnight in Omaha, and found our way to a downtown street on which, for the space of one long city block, were located a number of funky cafes and countercultural bookstores. This was probably it for Omaha, but it was obvious that there was a small community of men and women -- some of whom, Tobias assured me, were gay -- who had managed to make a home in this unpromising locale.

There must be hundreds of such places in America. Just last Friday evening, Susie and I found our way to a lovely place called The Eddy Pub in the town of Saxapahaw. I figured I would be venturing into the real North Carolina, and foresightedly changed out of my Obama T-Shirt. But the pub turned out to be a gem, with first-rate food and an ambiance that would have fit quite nicely into downtown Chapel Hill.

Well, there are two ideas for books. Any takers?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Now that my Ideological Critique bourse is concluded, let me return to the Hot Stove League for some more reflections on the bizarre spectacle of the Republican race for the presidential nomination. I have been giving this some serious thought [thereby demonstrating once again that it is possible to think seriously about things that are beneath contempt]. Herewith my latest musings. As always, the rules of the Hot Stove League apply, which means that neither I nor anyone else can be held accountable for predictions that do not pan out.

Recall that I have laid it down as an unquestionable premise that someone is going to get the nomination. That may seem even less likely than when I first fired up the hot stove, but bear with me. So who will it be? It is essential to ignore the bloviations of the Inside the Beltway conservative commentariat [George Will, Charles Krauthammer, et al.] and focus on the process by which the decision will be made. Starting next January, there is going to be a series of Republican caucuses and primaries, in the course of which 1921 pledged delegates and 378 quasi-unpledged delegates will be selected [a "quasi-unpledged" delegate is one who is not officially committed to any candidate, but who has been chosen by an election, and hence has some sort of tacit commitment to whichever candidate wins that state]. In addition, 123 genuinely unpledged delegates will be given votes at the convention [akin to the Democratic Party's "super-delegates."] There will thus be 2422 delegates, and 1212 will be required to secure the nomination.

None of the delegates will be chosen by Fox News, or Ralph Reed, or Grover Norquist, or Rush Limbaugh, or George Will, or the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.

As I see it, there are four possible states of affairs when all of the caucuses and primaries are done with.

[1] One candidate has 1213 delegates, or more. In that case, that person will be nominated, regardless of how much he or she is hated by some wing of the party, and regardless of his or her standing in head to head polls with President Obama.

[2] One candidate emerges with a clear plurality of the delegates -- say 1100 or so -- and no other candidate has more than 500 or 600, the remaining votes being scattered among other candidates and the quasi-unpledged delegates and genuinely unpledged delegates. In that case, I am dead certain that the candidate who is almost there will get the nomination, either by winning over enough unpledged delegates, or by cutting a vice-presidential deal with another candidate. I say this because there is no way that bosses in behind the scenes deals are going to frustrate the will of almost half of the delegates in the hall and hand the nomination to someone who has clearly failed to win sufficient support over the course of a long, expensive, rancorous primary fight.

[3] The race settles into a two person battle, with neither winning a majority, but the two of them, between them, winning maybe 1800 of the delegates, the rest scattered among die-hard candidates who refuse to drop out. In that case, no matter the identities of those two, the nominee will be one of them, and not some White Knight riding in at the last minute to save the party. If those two, for example, are Romney and Bachman, the Party bigwigs and pundits may decide that since they hate Romney and know that Bachman cannot win, they want to turn to Huntsman or Christie or Perry or someone not yet on anyone's radar screen. That just is not going to happen. The Convention will erupt into a full-scale revolution if three-quarters of the delegates there see their candidate passed over for someone who could not even win a respectable plurality of the delegates in the primary process. [Keep in mind that the people who actually stand as delegates for a candidate are die-hard loyalists who really believe in their man or woman. This is a big enough country so that even oddballs like Ron Paul and Herman Cain, and dirtbags like Rick Santorum, can find people who think they walk on water.] There will be a great deal of maneuvering, and it is not a foregone conclusion that the one with a slight edge in delegates wins, but the nominee will be one of those two finalists.

[4] When the last primary or caucus is over, the delegates are scattered all over the map, with no one having more than 500 or 600, and three or four candidates still in the running. This is a formula for something resembling an old-fashioned open convention, and it is very hard to say what the outcome will be.

Which of these scenarios will we see, and who will be the players? I think it is possible to make some pretty solid predictions, even this far in advance. The key is the nature of the primary process. In the opening stages [Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina], publicity and buzz and subjective impressions and even the opinions of the commentators will count for a good deal, but very quickly [Super Tuesday and beyond] the sprint turns into a marathon, and money, field operatives, and campaign discipline will count for a great deal. If there are two or more candidates who appeal to the same subset of Republican primary voters, one of them, by virtue of gaining an early edge, will squeeze out the others. Money will dry up, operatives will quit, and voters from that subset will migrate to the candidate who seems to be ahead.

All of this favors Romney and Bachman, and works against Pawlenty, Huntsman, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, Christie, Perry, and "a player to be named at a later date." Ron Paul is sui generis. He will stick it out to the end, get a handful of delegates, flutter some libertarian hearts, and go nowhere. What is my reasoning?

Romney has tons of money and figures to do well in New Hampshire. He will survive until Super Tuesday, on which day his campaign will run a full-court game in every primary being held that day. He will very quickly start to accumulate delegates, and regardless of how much he is disliked by some wings of the party, he will go on winning delegates, because there is a subset of primary voters who want someone like Romney, and by the time they get to vote, it will be obvious that he is their guy. Huntsman will never get out of the starting blocks. The wise heads in the party may pine for him, but he will not be able to accumulate anything like enough delegates to win or come close to winning or be one of the top two ][scenarios [1] through [3] above.] His money will dry up, and he will be reduced to hoping for a vice-presidential nod from Bachman [he cannot be tapped by Romney -- two Mormons on the ticket!] Pawlenty has a version of the same problem. He is not going to emerge from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina with more delegates than Romney, and he is not going to out-crazy Bachman. Once the cable news stations start showing daily counts of delegates won by one candidate or another, Christie, Perry, Daniels, Barbour, Gingrich, Trump et al. will be out of it, and will never be able to get back in.

On the loony wing of the party, Palin is pretty clearly toast. If she makes the mistake of running in Iowa, she will be beaten by Bachman, and will quit, finding a way to claim that she has been unfairly treated. Bachman will either win Iowa or come in second. She will do pretty well in South Carolina. She cannot match Romney's money, and she does not yet have a comparable organization, but she will very quickly come to be seen as the far right alternative to Romney, and all of those end-times young-earth inerrantist gay-hating, abortion doctor killing loyal Republicans have to go somewhere, so they will vote for her.

My prediction is that by the time Super Tuesday is over, the race will have settled into a slog between Romney and Bachman, with Romney likely to end up the winner [scenario [1] or [2]], but with a real possibility of scenario [3]. The natural result of scenario [3] will be a Romney Bachman ticket.

If that happens, I predict that Obama will move Biden over to Secretary of State and choose Clinton as his Vice-Presidential running mate.



The most famous case in all of English Common Law concerning the institution of slavery was adjudicated in 1771. Although this is more than forty years before the publication of Mansfield Park, the decision remained very much a part of the on-going discussion of the slave question and would have been known to Austen. The facts of the case are these: Charles Stuart, an Englishman [not the King!] bought James Somersett as a slave in Virginia in 1769, and brought him as a personal servant to England. In 1771, Stuart decided to send Somersett back to Virginia to be sold. Somersett escaped, and through the intervention of three English citizens, brought before an English court an appeal against his transportation back to Virginia. Through his intermediaries, he claimed that as he was on English soil, he was a free man, and ought not to be returned to the condition of slavery, either in England or elsewhere. The judge, in a landmark decision, freed Somersett. The heart of his decision is contained in these words:

"The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law which preserves its force long after reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say that this case is allowed or approved by the law of England, and therefore the black must be discharged."



Tuesday, June 14, 2011


The clue to Said's reading of Mansfield Park, and to Rozema's cinematic rendering of it as well, is the fact that Sir Thomas Bertram's "interests" are in the West Indies, specifically in Antigua. In short, the money that supports Sir Thomas, his wife, his four children, his sister and brother in law, and the entire magnificent estate, comes from slave plantations. In 1814, there would have been nothing at all unusual in a fine English estate relying for its wealth and comfort on slavery. Indeed, as the West Indian scholar and later statesman Eric Williams argued in his classic 1944 study, Capitalism and Slavery, the British industrial revolution was in large part financed by the slave trade and the flourishing West Indian sugar plantations. The fact is that in the several generations prior to the setting of the novel, the so-called triangular trade flourished. Slaves were bought in West Africa and transported in hellish slave ships to the West Indies, where they were put to work in the sugar plantations. The sugar cane from those plantations was converted into molasses and then into rum. The rum was carried back to England, where the ships were loaded with trinkets and baubles to be traded for slaves in West Africa, thus completing the triangle. Between 1714 and 1773, when this trade was at its height, imports into England from the tiny island of Antigua were three times as large in value as all of the imports from the New England colonies in those same years. By the time in which Mansfield Park is set, sugar production in the West Indies had peaked and started to decline, and profits had fallen almost to nil -- the background for Sir Thomas' concern for his "West Indian properties."

But a careful reader of Austen would be hard pressed to find much mention of this in the pages of Mansfield Park. I count a total of twelve references to the West Indies, Antigua, or the slave trade, eleven of which are quite fleeting and unremarkable. The first, which is typical of the eleven, is on the second page of the novel, in the context of a letter written by Fanny's despondent and economically distressed mother to her extremely well-fixed sister, Lady Bertram. Casting about for some way in which her more fortunate sister might lend a helping hand, she wonders whether there was any chance that her oldest boy, then ten, might "hereafter [be] useful to Sir Thomas in the concerns of his West Indian property?" [It is this appeal that leads to Fanny being taken into the Bertram household.]

The only reference in the entire novel to the institution of slavery occurs in the course of a conversation between Edmund and Fanny. We readers, by this point, are positively panting for some indication, any indication, that Edmund and Fanny are going to get it on, so the hot topic of slavery may fail to register, but there is no question that it is there. Since we are erecting a rather large edifice on a very slender foundation, it might be best to quote the entire passage. For those among you who are not Janeites [as I discovered the fans of Austen's novels call themselves], this comes from Volume Two, Chapter Three of the novel:

"'Oh! Don't talk so, don't talk so,' cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of; [ed. Edmund has been telling her that she is becoming pretty.] but seeing that she was distressed, he had done with the subject, and only added more seriously, 'Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more -- You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.'

"'But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?'

"'I did -- and was in hopes the question would be followed by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of further.'

"'And I longed to do it -- but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like -- I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by showing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel'."

And there it is. Not much, I must say, although lovers of Austen are accustomed to reading whole worlds into a sigh or a glance. Said's analysis of the novel is so nuanced, so fine, so judicious in its attention to the text itself, that one is tempted to quote at length from what is only a seventeen page section of a book. But this bourse has gone on long enough, so I shall content myself with one passage, simply to give the flavor of his remarks:

"My contention is that by that very odd combination of casualness and stress, Austen reveals herself to be assuming (just as Fanny assumes, in both senses of the word) the importance of an empire to the situation at home. Let me go further. Since Austen refers to and uses Antigua as she does in Mansfield Park, there needs to be a commensurate effort on the part of her readers to understand concretely the historical valences in the reference; to put it differently, we should try to understand what she referred to, why she gave it the importance she did, and why indeed she made the choice; for she might have done something different to establish Sir. Thomas' wealth." [p. 89]

Said says, in the paragraph just preceding this passage, that "Austen seems only vaguely aware of the details of these activities" [i.e. Britain's imperial doings], but in this, he is, I think, mistaken. A little digging into Austen's family affairs reveals that despite leading a sheltered, country existence, she had available to her a good deal of information specifically about slavery and West Indian plantations. In what follows, I am beholden to the published research of N. Gregson Davis, who is currently Professor of Classical Studies and Literature at Duke.

First of all, in 1807, the British Parliament banned the slave trade [but not slavery -- that would come later], and as a consequence, British naval vessels began interdicting English ships carrying slaves. Austen's favorite brother, Francis, served on a British ship charged with intercepting slavers, and in one long extant letter to her, he describes the horrors of slavery, as he has seen them, and voices his opposition to the institution. Austen herself wrote letters showing her to be sympathetic to the abolition of slavery, which was being much agitated for during the years when she wrote Mansfield Park.

Austen was also in a position to gain a good deal of quite particular knowledge about the Antiguan slave plantations. Her father, Reverend George Austen, served for a while as a proctor at St. John's College, Oxford. Among the students he befriended was James Langford Nibbs, who became a prominent Antiguan slave owner and sugar magnate. He remained a close friend to the Austens, serving as godfather to Jane Austen's oldest brother. Reverend Austen was a principal trustee of Nibbs' Antiguan estates, and was thus in a position to gain detailed knowledge of their operations, and of the treatment of the slaves.

We may confidently conclude that Austen was well positioned to learn more than enough about slavery in general and Antiguan slave plantations in particular. If, as is now commonplace in literary critical circles, we acknowledge both Jane Austen's intelligence and her literary skill, we can agree with Edward Said that the subject of West Indian slavery, and thus of British imperialism, is indeed present in the pages of Mansfield Park.

Patricia Rozema, clearly influenced by Said's reading, introduces a number of directorial adjustments to the plot, several of which are designed to make the theme of slavery manifest, rather than latent, in her film rendering of the novel. Some of these cinematic innovations need not concern us, such as the conceit that Fanny is herself a budding novelist, encouraged by Edmund, and clearly figured in the film as Austen herself. The most important interpretative novelty concerns the oldest son, Tom, who, you will recall, is afflicted upon his return from the West Indies with "brain fever." While he is feverish and in danger of dying, a sketch book is discovered, from his time in Antigua, in which he has recorded in charcoal drawings the horrific tortures to which the slaves have been subjected by his father [who, by the bye, is played splendidly in the film by the eminent playwright Harold Pinter.] Rozema represents Tom has having been driven mad by the discovery that these tortures are the foundation of his inheritance -- tortures which his father is able to contemplate with equanimity [Pinter communicates this with some marvelously understated acting.]

And there it is, the case for construing Mansfield Park as a novel inextricably and intentionally intertwined with the subjects of slavery and empire. These evidences seem to me compelling by themselves, but there is one more fact that clinches the case, and it sits, surprisingly enough, on the title page of the novel. This fact is, I warrant, all by itself sufficient to demonstrate Austen's intentions. But you shall have to wait until tomorrow for that penny to drop.