Monday, December 16, 2013

Attending the Association for the Study of African American History and Life, Part Two of Two

The ASALH panel that most engaged me this year was a 50th year retrospective of August Meier’s classic book, Negro Thought in America. This panel was organized and chaired by Shawn Leigh Alexander. Mia Bay spoke insightfully about how important this book was to her in graduate school, because Meier was the only historian she could find who had catalogued and captured with nuance the many important African American thinkers of the late nineteenth century. I very much identified with her experience of finding and relishing Meier’s book. Fellow panelists Ernest Allen and Pero Dagbovie had more critical perspectives. The most startling comments came from commentator John Bracey, who had collaborated with Meier and knew him well personally. Bracey’s candid comments included the revelation that Meier was “a real misogynist” -- not just a sexist but a person who thought women should have no place in the academy. This comment caused me to almost fall off my chair, and led to a terrific audience discussion about problems of mentorship and inclusion/exclusion in the academy, to which all of us, in any discipline, still need to be paying close attention. Bracey also pointed out a fact apparently known to many but not me: Meier was gay and Elliott Rudwick was his long-time partner. Finally, Bracey defended Meier’s anti-Black-nationalist position in Negro Thought in America by explaining that Meier was a closet socialist, who used his work to explore these ideas without having to claim them directly and thus risk being discounted for politics too far left to be acceptable in the U.S. academy. I ruminated on the connections between being a closet socialist and a closet gay person in the 1950s and 1960s, like other important figures such as civil rights activist Bayard Ruskin. Bracey’s analysis of Meier made perfect sense to me and helped me understand my own attraction to Meier’s viewpoint, despite some infuriating aspects of his work, such as his insistence on utterly discounting the important role of African American women’s thought and activism. I now understand this as a byproduct of his sexist prejudices; like so many, Meier was brilliant and deeply flawed at the same time. I wonder how much of Meier's attitude subtly persists-- but that is another blog entry. . .

No comments: