Picturing Black History

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Transcript: Kevin Boyle, a Picturing Black History Interview

Kevin Boyle
My name is Kevin Boyle, and I teach modern American history at Northwestern University, and my primary research interest has been on modern American social movements. So I have written about the 20th century labor movement I’ve written on the 20th century Civil Rights Movement I’ve written on radical movement, that’s been the work that I’ve done over the years. I think all of us know, at some level or another, that the present and the past are connected, we know that about our own lives, you know that about our families, who our parents, or our grandparents were mattered to us, because they shaped who we are, and that’s true of societies as well, that what happened in our past, shapes our present and the more we understand the complexities of the past, the better we have an understanding of how we got to our present moment, I think that’s really the essence of history. One of the things I’ve done over the years in my career is I’ve taught a number of courses, particularly on the Civil Rights Movement. And students come in to those courses and I’ve done public lectures to groups of adults, as well over the years, and people come in to those lectures. and they think that they know, the kind of, they understand things like the Civil Rights moving in particular, right, they have a sense that they know what that movement is and they do they know part of what that movement is, but what we can do as historians and I think historians have done a really extraordinary job doing is saying, “Yeah, that’s good, it’s good that you know, about, it is good, I don’t mean it in a snarky sort of way at all, that you know, about Rosa Parks, that you know, about Martin Luther King, that you know, about the I Have a Dream speech, that’s important stuff. But there’s so much more the black experience in the United States”, and what we can do as historians as we can, not just Civil Rights, obviously, though that’s important to me. We as historians, we can expand that out in so many ways we can help people understand students, general readers, other academics, the full, massive complexity of the black experience. And the way that we can do that is by exploring well, it goes two ways really, that we can take deeper dives into those episodes that we think we do know. And there’s been some really important, wonderful work on doing exactly that. So I think, for instance, of some of the terrific books that have appeared, say in the last 10 years or so, about Malcolm X, you understand Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam so much more deeply now, because we’ve done historians have done deep dives in to a movement that people and a person who people think they knew, and then the other way of doing it, is that you can go into incidents, events, dynamics that happen that people don’t know, and by doing that, you give a much more deep sense of the complexity of the past and that’s what ties us then to the complexity of the present. When I teach that civil rights course, that’s what it’s called, it’s called the Modern Civil Rights movement or something like that. What I tried to do is extend the history way back. Now I know as historians we look at that, and we think, Well, yeah, that’s now has become the standard way to understand the civil rights movement, that it’s no longer this short movement of people. But the students don’t know that, students don’t have that sense. So that’s one way of doing it. I got an email this morning from a student who I had a first year student who I had last quarter in a class called Protest, and what we really did was it was a team taught course, and I taught a portion of it on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, that segment of the movement, and then my co-teacher was a specialist in Indian, the subcontinent of Indian history and so she did a whole thing on Gandhi and on the Dalit movement. Anyways, I got an email today from a student who said, I just heard this NPR story about Bayard Rustin, and that really reminded me of the class because he had never heard of Bayard Rustin before. So that’s one way of expanding out the history in the classroom the other way, and it’s the way that my scholarship has gone, is to say, as we expand out the history of the civil rights movement, for me, that’s been again, my focus and of the racial dynamics of America society in the 20th century, to look at incidents and events that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. So I wrote a book on a racial event in 1925, Detroit. When I wrote that book, I knew about that event and folks in Detroit, which is my hometown, had some a lot of people had a kind of vague notion of that event. But people outside of those circles did not know about that event. Now, what I felt I was trying to do was get that event and the dynamics it explored, which is really the important thing in to the history books, and with Picturing Black History, what I tried to do was, I really wanted to write about the politics of busing particularly in the 1970s, which again, people know about, obviously, lots of people were involved in one way or another in those politics. But it’s not part of the history that reaches beyond that, it hasn’t been completely incorporated into the history of the movement, to the extent that I think it ought to be. So what I tried to do is look for those things that those moments that kind of reveal bigger dynamics that need more attention. I really love linking history with images. I think it’s such a powerful thing, and it’s set in Getty obviously has this incredible archives and I’ve loved Origins for a very long time, I wrote one of the an essay for Origins a number of years ago that I still I’m really proud of actually which feels weird to say that, but I’m really proud of that essay. So it was kind of this perfect marriage, right? The minute I saw it, I thought, oh, pictures, Origins, Getty, this is so cool, and then I did it kind of in the opposite way that I often deal with images. I knew I wanted to write about busing and so what I did was I went through looking for everything about busing, and the reason I wanted to write about busing is that I am convinced that busing, the idea of busing is actually the most radical. I don’t want to overstate it, but I don’t want to understate it either. It’s one of the most radical moments of the American Civil Rights Revolution and we never think of it that way because what we do as historians and I do it too, is we tend to think of radicalism in the obvious ways, right? That we think of radicalism as being connected with what the 20th century defined as radicalism, communism, socialism, or in black history, black nationalism, which in the late 60s, becomes embodied in movements, like say, the Panthers, right, which is, of course linked to Marxism in various ways and it is radical, I’m not trying to say it isn’t. I’m just trying to say there’s ways that you can expand our concept of radicalism and this one we don’t think of as radical because it comes it really comes out of an organization, the NAACP, who we don’t think of as radical, we think of it’s kind of the opposite, right? But the reason that I think it’s so radical, is that so much of, really, the entire burden of racial activism and racial change in this country, fell on black people. They were the ones who had to kind of bear the weight of racial change. That’s true to this day, obviously. What busing did or tried to do is a better way of putting it is to say, “You know what, white people have to bear that weight too.” And that’s one of the reasons that it had such massive blowback, that I do not want under any circumstances, to try to narrow down the accomplishments of African American activism in the 1960s. There is sweeping change that people put in place Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, the war on poverty, those are really important things, and I am not trying to minimize them. But the truth of it is that, for a lot of those changes, they didn’t directly impact white people living say out in the suburbs of Chicago, or in the suburbs of Columbus. It didn’t touch their lives they saw it on TV. Oftentimes, at least a portion of those white people supported those changes, but it wasn’t saying to them, you know what you have a responsibility too for racial change. busing did, and that’s what makes it so dramatic, so radical it was the sweeping program of social engineering that said, whites have to bear burdens too, and it is a burden, you know, you’re sending, putting your kid on the bus and he’s going across the town or whatever, it’s a big deal. I mean I wouldn’t, I’m not try to minimize that, in fact, I’m doing the opposite. That’s why I think it’s important that we think about it. I decided that I wanted it to be a color photo, and so that kind of narrowed down the range of photos I could use and what drew me to this photo was, first of all, the photo that I used, centers a child. So it is a black child and I wanted that. I wanted to make sure that the photo said, you know, this was about children, it wasn’t just adults involved here and then the photo kind of juxtaposes the black child actually getting on the bus to go home that’s labeled wrong. It says he’s arriving, he’s clearly not arriving he is going home, and there’s a policeman watching over him getting on the bus. And the reason that there’s a policeman watching him getting on the bus is that this is in Louisville, when Louisville first implemented its busing program and there was intense white violence. So intense white violence that the city and the state together decided that every single bus running in the second week of busing in the city was going to have an armed guard on it and what this really highlighted for me was the intensity of the blowback, that here was this policy that was going to say white kids and black kids are both going to be bearing this burden. But because of the intensity of that white resistance, the burden went back on the black kids, and this was a visualization of that. I don’t mean, at all to reduce black history, to the Civil Rights Movement. Obviously, it’s so broader and so richer than that, that’s just what I focus on, because I focused on social movements. But I think it’s so important to realize that the struggle for racial justice encompassed so many people, including children, in fact, children are pivotal to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. This was really, really hard to put kids in that position, and to this day now, adults, well, even aging adults at this stage, right? Both black kids and white kids will talk about their experience of being bused in a way that gives you a sense of how great that burden was. Now I’ll go off in a slightly expansive direction. I recently wrote a book on the 1960s, and what I tried to do is personalize the experience of the 1960s and one of the stories that I told to start the really the chapter that begins the story of civil rights activism is Elizabeth Eckford, in Little Rock, in 195, and what I really wanted to drive home was both the courage she’s one of the Little Rock Nine, and she is the member of Little Rock Nine, who didn’t get the information about coming together into the school the first day, they never got into the school, obviously, so what happened was that she showed up alone, and walked through this massive white mob and her experience of that was what I was trying to describe, because it is this incredible act of courage and it is a beautiful and powerful symbol of the kind of moral power that the Civil Rights Movement brought to bear. But it’s also the story of a 15 year old girl scared to death for good reason and that’s part of the story too. Civil rights activism is incredibly courageous and it can be and often is incredibly costly. I do not remember that there was any marker of Black History Month in my schools when I was growing up. Obviously, Black History Month had been around an awfully long time before, I’m not that old, so it had been around a good long time before I went to school, grade school and high school, but I went to completely white schools. I was in a city that was increasingly the population was increasingly African American in Detroit. But my schools were completely white well my grade school was completely white, my high school was overwhelmingly white and there wasn’t any recognition whatsoever that I remember, of Black History Month. So I actually have a hard time pinpointing when, not a hard time, I can’t pinpoint exactly when I first kind of encountered Black History Month. My guess is that it was in college, I went to the University of Detroit, which is a small college in the city of Detroit in a completely black neighborhood with and the school itself had actually quite high, I don’t know the percentage, but quite high percentage of African American students, so my guess is that it was there but I can’t even swear by that. I have not every year, obviously, but because I have done some work on the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve done my share of talks in February, as various organizations kind of contact you and say, you know, we’d love to have a speaker and I’m sure there’s a giant list of speakers, and I’m like, way down at the bottom of that list, like you have failed to get everybody else you want and you have come to me, but that has been kind of the most common way for me to engage with Black History Month. I think that it is more relevant now within it has been in decades because it’s true, that Black History Month, has become much more visible than it was back in the ancient days of my schooling for folks like me, right? For kids who are going to completely white schools, it’s harder now, for places, and there’s a lot of completely white schools in this country to this day. We’ve actually moved backwards in terms of integration of schools. So it’s important that Black History Month kind of pushes Black History onto a curriculum that I suspect wouldn’t engage with it. Obviously, one of the big criticisms over the years is well, why are you limiting it to one month? I profoundly believe that, I agree with that, but right now, in the moment that we’re living in, I’m not sure that’s the alternative. I don’t think the alternative is for a lot of schools, obviously, not every school. But for a lot of schools, I don’t think the alternative is either we incorporate Black History across the curriculum, or we do it in one month. My fear is the opposite, that there is enormous political pressure to not engage with black history at all, because somehow not somehow it does, it makes white people uncomfortable, which is one of the points of history, history is not about making everyone feel comfortable it’s about giving us a sense of how difficult and how complex the past is, and in the United States, that has to be centered on race. It’s not to say there are other aren’t other issues. Of course, there are other issues, it has to be centered on race, but what we’re doing what the political pressure is doing is it’s pushing teachers who are in a very difficult spot, to do less. What I hope is that Black History Month, is a way to kind of prevent that pressure from overwhelming the curriculum entirely, the visibility that you see, you know, the ads that you’re going to see on the Super Bowl, right, or the embrace of Black History in other media is, at this moment, this really difficult, depressing moment, it serves as a backstop, right, a way of pushing back against this drive, to eliminate discussions of race by centers of power right? Corporate support is problematic in some ways, and what it often does, is it reifies those standard stories, we know that I’ll take that over, no support at all, because that’s one way that you can stop this push down on the ground in the classroom, to eliminate race somehow from the curriculum. We are obviously a multiracial society, and we are growing an increasingly multiracial society partly by processes of immigration, partly which I find really fascinating processes of redefinition, as communities start to redefine their own identity in racial terms, which is a really fascinating process, and all of that history of racial tensions of racial transformations of racial structures, we need all of that. But of those multiple racial identities and the complexities of America as a multiracial society, the central fault line still remains the black-white fault line. What Black History Month does is say, no one’s trying to deny that this is a multicultural society, that black history has a particularly important place, and it has a particularly important place partly because black people are a substantial portion of the American population. They have always been the largest non-white group in the United States, till very recently, the largest non white group in the United States. But more importantly, it’s that black white divide is the relationship, the place of black Americans has defined so much the nature of American society, and what Black History Month does is make these current debates, right. Those are debates about black history. There have been times certainly where ethnic studies have come under attack as well. But this current moment this is about black history, this is overwhelmingly about black history and what Black History Month does is anchor that particular in that fundamental aspect of the American racial regime, where I think it needs to be anchored and I’ll just add one last point. Again, my interest has been on civil rights activism but that’s not the totality of black history. And the totality of Black history is not purely about racism, though racism informs the black experience, obviously, in fundamental ways, but there’s all sorts of dynamics inside the black experience that we need to explore. So this conversation, which I have thoroughly enjoyed, has focused on that aspect of black history. But it’s so important to stress that is not the totality it isn’t even close to the totality of black history. I would love more and more of general students, general audience, general readers interested people more broadly, to look at the ways in which black history plays out for ordinary people, the ways in which it reaches in to all those fascinating communities that exist across the country that exists across time, and there’s great historical scholarship that does that. I would love that to get more kind of crossover into, Black History Month in somebody’s high school, or black history month in somebody’s grade school and I’m sure it happens. But I would like to see it happen more, I’d love people to get a sense of what was life like, for ordinary people in all its complexity, down on the ground. For most of us, the vast majority of us live our lives. So obviously, there is a huge fight going on over the term critical race theory. I actually think that education would actually, and it’s such a false flag argument. You know, I was just giving a talk, a guest lecture one of our classes last week. Well over somewhere around 60% of Americans have no idea what Critical Race Theory is. People are all upset about it. As of last summer, 30% of Americans had never heard the words, critical race theory put together, we would actually benefit from more teaching of Critical Race Theory in our classrooms not in the I mean, it’s a complex concept, but you know, that’s our job as educators is to take complex concepts and to apply them in appropriate ways for the students the level we’re at. We need a greater understanding of the structural forces of race, that so much of the you know, one of the many perverse pieces of this current moment right of controversy is that the white pushback has been don’t make us feel bad. You’re saying I’m a racist. The argument is the opposite not that you’re not, it is that the force of race is its way that has infused the structures of society. Now, that’s not to excuse people’s individual behavior, but it’s to try to explain how society becomes structured by race, and I’m not saying you should delve into all the particulars of that in your fourth grade classroom. Good luck with that. My daughter teaches fifth grade, I have some sense of what we’re talking about in a fifth grade classroom. But there are ways to approach especially with high schoolers, you can approach high schoolers that way to understand the connections between structures and individual action in the past. That’s what I would like to see us do more of that. All the way through the curriculum not you know, it’s so easy to reduce race in the past to while there were some bad people out there, and there were some bad people out there. I’m not trying to say there weren’t, but to make it to understand how it fits into a structure, of race, that’s really I’d love to see things move in that direction.