Thursday, November 14, 2019

Brandon R. Byrd's "The Black Republic"

Brandon R. Byrd is an intellectual historian of the 19th and 20th century United States with specializations in African American History and the African Diaspora. Currently, he teaches at Vanderbilt University, where he an assistant professor in the Department of History and an affiliate of the Department of African American and Diaspora Studies.

Byrd applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti, and reported the following:
The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti re-considers the history of black internationalism and black political thought in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries by focusing on how and why black intellectuals in the United States engaged with the political realities, people, and ideas of Haiti. Page 99 reads as follows:
In 1889, a debate unfolded in St. Louis, Missouri. Under the St. Louis School Board’s initial plan for renaming the city’s colored schools, Wendell Phillips, the late abolitionist known for his antebellum lecture on Toussaint Louverture, would become the namesake of Colored School No. 5 while a host of other white abolitionists, politicians, and Union officers would receive similar honors. The proposal failed; to the chagrin of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the names of those “saviors of the colored race” never graced the segregated black schoolhouses in the city. The newspaper, owned and operated by the conservative white Democrat Joseph Pulitzer, complained that the St. Louis School Board revised its recommendation after African Americans protested the renaming of Colored School No. 6 in honor of Winfield Scott Hancock, a deceased Union general, Democratic politician, and avowed segregationist. Bowing to that pressure, the Post-Dispatch grumbled, the St. Louis School Board scrapped its first proposal and requested that black principals offer names for their institutions in recognition of black heroes and heroines.

Divided opinions within black St. Louis soon emerged. In a letter to the St. Louis School Board, the principal of Colored School No. 1 argued that “the imputation already rests upon [African Americans] that we are slow to appreciate our real benefactors and friends” and predicted that those “imputations would certainly rest upon stronger grounds” if his school “failed to honor the memory of Wendell Phillips ... the scholar, the orator, the fearless anti-slavery advocate.” Other black principals in St. Louis welcomed the chance to express their race pride even if it meant drawing the ire of their white counterparts. Indeed, some wanted school names that commemorated the most radical expression of black independence in the world.
This page, which opens Chapter 3 of The Black Republic, recounts a controversy over the re-naming of black schools in St. Louis, which ended in Colored School No. 2 becoming the Dessalines School and Colored School No. 4 re-emerging as the Toussaint L’Ouverture School. It is part of a vignette that leads to the ensuing chapter’s main arguments. The decision of Arthur Dessalines Langston, the principal of Colored School No. 2, and other black St. Louisans to name their schools after Toussaint Louverture, one of the foremost leaders of the Haitian Revolution, and Jean Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s first head-of-state, suggests the deeper meaning of Haiti to African Americans during the post-Reconstruction era. “Haiti,” I go on to write, “came to epitomize virile black manhood and militant resistance to racial oppression” in a moment of dimming prospects for global black freedom. “It was an inspiring albeit embattled stronghold of black self-determination in the Age of Imperialism and Jim Crow.”

A reader who opened The Black Republic to page 99 would get a better idea of the main ideas of Chapter 3 than of the central arguments of the whole book. The Black Republic tracks African American thinking about Haiti, a singular black nation-state born in slave insurrection, across the shifting political, cultural, and social landscape of a “long postemancipation era” stretching from the U.S. Civil War through the period between World War I and World War II. It finds consistent interest among a diverse group of U.S. black intellectuals in Haiti’s perceived exceptionalism but inconsistent, complex, and sometimes conflicting interpretations of Haiti’s meaning to African Americans, the United States, and the world. Put simply, page 99 introduces readers to one iteration of a multifaceted aspect of black internationalist and political thought.

Still, it is worth mentioning that a reader applying the “Page 99 Test” to The Black Republic would get a strong sense of my methodologies even though they would not get a holistic understanding of the entire book. Like numerous other contemporary intellectual historians, particularly those writing about black intellectual history, my work is influenced by social and cultural history. The Black Republic thus mines a diverse archive composed of written, oral, material, and visual sources produced by self-defined intellectuals and organic thinkers alike. It finds ideas wherever they emerge, including the naming of colored schools.
Visit Brandon R. Byrd's website.

--Marshal Zeringue