Conversations in Black StudiesHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, Black History
Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the tenth-anniversary celebration of CBFS, scheduled for March 2nd, we are featuring a conversation with the curators of the series.
Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine is a historian whose teaching and research explore Black social protest after World War II, urban and working-class radicalism, and gender. Her book The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland was published in 2016. She is co-founder of the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project and has written widely on gender and Black Power. Her writings have appeared in the Journal of Women’s History and Souls as well as The Washington Post, Vibe Magazine, Colorlines, and Truthout. She has received awards for her work from the Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Association of Black Women Historians. Her latest work focuses on the intersections between the movement for Black liberation and the movement against the US war in Vietnam. In addition, she is working on a biography of Pat Murphy Robinson, a Marxist therapist whose work as a counselor and organizer transformed the Black freedom movement.
Jeanne Theoharis is the author or co-author of eleven books on the civil rights and Black Power movements and the contemporary politics of race in the United States. Her widely acclaimed biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks won a 2014 NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians and has been adapted into a young adult edition and a documentary for NBC-Peacock directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton and executive produced Soledad O’Brien. Her book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History won the 2018 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize in Nonfiction.
Komozi Woodard is professor of history, public policy, and Africana studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Woodard was managing editor of Unity & Struggle and Black Newark newspaper and radio program in the Black Power Movement, Main Trend journal in the Black Arts Movement and Manhattan’s Children’s Express before writing and editing A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics; The Making of the New Ark; The Black Power Movement: Amiri Baraka from Black Arts to Black Radicalism, Freedom North, Groundwork, Black Power 50; and Want to Start a Revolution: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle?.
Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): What was the impetus for the creation of CBFS a decade ago?
Jeanne Theoharis (JT): Komozi Woodard and I first began collaborating around our first edited collection Freedom North. Partly we were writing our books for the community more broadly, not just other academics–but how would people find out about them? We were dismayed as yet another bookstore in Harlem shuttered. We wanted to start a series where the community could come and hear the latest work in Black history, and the Schomburg Center had long been a place for that. And so, we went to meet with Khalil Muhammad, who had just become the director of the Schomburg. All three of us came to this idea as scholar-activists, convinced that learning the history of the Black freedom struggle was crucial for understanding the history of this country and providing a map of the way forward. All three of us were concerned there were fewer places for people to engage this scholarship outside of a connection to a university–despite a broader community hunger for it.
So the idea for Conversations in Black Freedom Studies was born–3-4 scholar-writers sharing their work around a particular theme always on the first Thursday of the month. From the beginning, it was also imperative that the conversation was not just a one-way street with knowledge dispensed from the stage but instead a robust Q&A with audience members asking questions and also sharing their own experiences and knowledge of these historical events.
Komozi Woodard (KW): Ten years ago, the impetus for creating Conversations was the culmination of several conferences and symposia that Jeanne Theoharis and I organized, including an international conference on Black Power Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York and then in Trinidad. Another conference that we organized was held at both Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College; the attendance at that conference on the role of women in the Black freedom struggle could not fit in the classrooms. Moreover, the new field of history was burgeoning just as several important New York bookstores were closing. How would the Harlem community specifically and Black America generally find out about that new knowledge?