I have found that legal historians, especially, relish in the construction of hierarchies. There are the leading works, the leading scholars, the persons at ASLH conferences worthy of conversing with (but see Miss Peppercorn’s advice). Of course one needs such lists of what to read and who is at the top. But just as I am attracted in my scholarship to recovering the stories of those who haven’t previously “made the list,” I’m also attracted to underappreciated (in legal history, at least) gems of scholarship. Here are a few such gems I discovered along the way in researching secondary sources while writing Defining the Struggle:
* I had not thought a great deal about the connections between literature and the civil rights movement. Then I read an impressively succinct article by Christopher Metress, using Hayden White’s concept of history as “emplotment” to criticize “an unwillingness to acknowledge the cognitive value of literary discourse in the production of social memory” (141). Metress juxtaposes a reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Why We Can’t Wait” speech against Anthony Groom’s 2001 novel Bombingham, which interweaves the story of the 1964 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls in Alabama with a fictional character’s experiences during the Vietnam war in targeting innocents for slaughter. I can’t do justice to Metress’s conclusions in this short space, but do commend the essay to readers.
* Thus primed to think harder about literature as an historical artifact, I began researching the voices of African American middle-class women activists at the turn of the twentieth century. I became especially interested in the women who joined Du Bois’s Niagara Movement once it lifted its policy prohibiting women’s membership (yes, somewhat ironic for an organization devoted to citizenship equality). I noticed that many of these women were involved in literary pursuits, either in writing literature themselves, as did Barbara Pope, the plaintiff in the Niagara Movement’s only test case challenging Jim Crow train cars under the interstate commerce clause, or in promoting and studying it, as did Medora Gould, a teacher and activist (who, as history would have it, is the familial ancestor of law professor and former NLRB chair William Gould IV). In seeking to understand more about these women’s intellectual commitments and the connection between these commitments and their social activism, I stumbled upon Elizabeth McHenry’s Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies, a lovely, deeply considered work of exploration that seemingly has very little to do with legal history but which really does have a lot to do with how early twentieth century African American women thought about and pursued their commitments to law-related social reform activism.
* Another interesting and helpful discovery: Kate Dossett’s Bridging Race Divides: Black Nationalism, Feminism, and Integration in the United States, 1896-1935. Black nationalism is, obviously, a very important part of the civil rights history story. I had always thought about it as taking social reform work “out of the law”--about abandoning the commitment to law, general public institutions, and being part of one polity in favor of going into a separate space. And, I now realize, I had thought about Black nationalism as primarily masculine. This book helped me make sense of where my research had taken me to in trying to understand African American women’s early twentieth century activism, as a kind of “bridging” of the public/private, law/voluntarism, integration/separatism divides.
I’m sure we all have our favorites on the list of underappreciated gems of scholarship; I would welcome anyone sharing their lists with me.