A combination of factors — elections, funding scarcity and funder mandates, metrics for “impact” — has helped produce among scholars a burst of enthusiasm for public engagement. But in the last few years it may be that the urge to advocate and teach eclipses them all. Things that seemed obvious and of clear public benefit are newly vulnerable: science now needs a march on Washington.
But the very thing that required the March on Washington in 1963 still demands advocacy and teaching. In a compelling turn, and at a moment when older scholarly societies worry about membership declines and formulating new sustainability models, a new scholarly society exemplifies a fresh approach to the history and meaning of race in America. The African American Intellectual History Society began in early 2014 as a group blog, founded by Professor Christopher Cameron of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Cameron undertook this work to “provide a space for scholars in disparate fields to discuss the many aspects of teaching and researching black intellectual history.” The blog soon acquired an organization, which begat some familiar scholarly society structure including officers, bylaws, and a program for scholarly communication. AAIHS officers are mostly early career, but also have a depth of experience as scholars and writers. The society held its second annual conference this past weekend at Vanderbilt University.
What’s distinct from a lot of scholarly societies — certainly from most humanities scholarly societies, and most definitely from those legacy societies founded in the early twentieth century or before — is that the AAIHS’s own scholarly communications content is entirely online and in blog form (rather than in a traditional journal). In January 2017 the AAIHS blog relaunched under a new name, Black Perspectives. The blog is “the leading online platform for public scholarship on global black thought, history, and culture. As engaged scholars, we are deeply committed to producing and disseminating cutting-edge research that is accessible to the public and is oriented towards advancing the lives of people of African descent and humanity.” Daily content, from a roster of 40 regular contributors who commit to monthly posts plus guest authors, includes features such as scholarly reflections, roundtables, book reviews, and author interviews.
Black Perspectives is now getting over 10,000 unique visitors a day. Given the rate of growth these statistics are likely outdated by the time you read this post on Scholarly Kitchen. The AAIHS social media game overall is terrific. AAIHS boasts nearly 14,000 Twitter followers, and the new blog name has its own Twitter handle, @BlkPerspectives, with 4,000 followers in under four months. I didn’t ask about readership about particular posts, but I’m betting that there are some that get more traffic but that overall volume is steady.
A clear attribute of the blog is the consistently high quality content. In just this last week the blog had featured posts on “Black Masculinity in Comic Books,” “Slavery, New Orleans, and Counting Blues,” and “Social Death and Insurgent Discourses in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” A featured books section highlights works “in African American History and African Diaspora Studies.” The first 2017 forum, on the anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination, offered a series of reflections on “Remembering Malcolm.” A stunning roundtable in March on Sowande Muskateem’s book Slavery at Sea included pieces on the relentless capitalism, grinding violence, archives and memory of Transatlantic slavery.
I asked Keisha Blain, Senior Blog Editor, about the success of the AAIHS and the blog in particular. “I would credit two factors,” Blain said, “passion and creativity. It’s one thing to talk about a commitment to using all forms of media to reach a general public; it’s another to be passionately committed to doing it….we make time for it and we’re always trying new approaches.” She also offered some insight into the importance of editorial review. She noted that an editing team, a regular review process of blog material by the leadership team, and a strict publishing schedule have all contributed to the blog’s ability to provide consistent depth and breadth of content that attracts readers. The connection of the Senior Blog Editor to the AAIHS Board echoes some of the form of older scholarly societies where Editors served with other Board members, but makes sense in that it keeps the goals and practices of the organization and the blog aligned. Blain also offered terrific advice for graduate students and early career researchers about the role of social media in their career. Social media is most powerful, she observes, “as a platform from which to engage in crucial dialogue about a range of issues and as means of building community.”
The community of readers for AAIHS is itself a fascinating question. The scholars of African American history who comprise its conference goers and membership are clearly eclipsed in number by the popularity of the blog—and this is by design. The outreach that Blain described is creating a community of engaged readers who might have come for the Malcolm X and stayed for the daily diet of wide-ranging scholarly writing.
Arguably a key moment in galvanizing attention for AAIHS – certainly for its combination of intellectual work and public outreach — was the creation of the Charleston Syllabus. Hashtag syllabi are generally recognized as originating with Marcia Chatelain, a professor in the history department at Georgetown University who started the #FergusonSyllabus campaign on Twitter as a way to generate resources for educators around issues of race and violence. Two nights after the racially motivated murder of 9 men and women at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in June, 2015, Professor Chad Williams of Brandeis University started the #CharlestonSyllabus. Reading about how this movement moved, one can’t help but be moved. Within an hour, the #CharlestonSyllabus was trending. Williams and AAIHS Secretary and Senior Blog Editor Keisha Blain, a professor at the University of Iowa, along with Professor Kidada Williams of Wayne State University, published a version of the #CharlestonSyllabus as a book, Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence from the University of Georgia Press. Publishers Weekly called the book, “an offshoot of the original online syllabus (a blockbuster bibliographic tool that’s also included in this volume)…simply a must-read.”
What makes something a “must-read?” Well, in one’s own field of specialization you’ve got to keep up. But the ambition of the AAIHS and Black Perspectives – and the #CharlestonSyllabus — is different, and not because there isn’t deep field specialization here. The ambition here is to engage citizen thinkers around the most urgent issues of the past that live in our present. That’s work that scholarly societies for hundreds of years have reached toward, but rarely in such explicit and expansive terms.