This past weekend, I went to the Organization of American Historians Conference in St. Louis. I had been invited to chair and comment on a panel comprised of historians younger than me: “Subversive Solidarities: Other Histories of the ‘American Century.’”
The historians on our panel are all engaged in the study of globalized racial capitalism, which I found to be a powerful explanatory framework for our current moment, as well as the history of the “long twentieth century.” Two out of three of them also work currently as “contingent” academic laborers, meaning that they lack the security of the traditional tenure track. This also tells us a lot about where we are historically.
Here are my comments on our panel, on global racial capitalism, and on surviving the present.
I was honored to be asked to be part of this panel, because I think so highly of the work of the historians represented here. I have sensed an important new synthesis emerging from their work and others of their cohort, but that has been mostly an intuitive response on my part. So I decided that part of my work as chair/commentator today is to try to articulate what I think is so crucial about this work.
All of these papers engage the global history of racial capitalism. They delineate layers of transnational circulation: migrant imaginaries, national political economies, labor unions, political formations such as the Comintern, carceral spaces adapted to serve as people’s universities. Their engagement is relentlessly dialectical and transnational; they do not gesture once at possible connections, but repeatedly illuminate routes, nodes and crossroads. They all draw on encyclopedic knowledge to trace the practices of empire as well as the hidden and ongoing arts of resistance to it. All these papers question territorialized identity and unitary political strategies in an era of globalized securitization and the expansion of finance capitalism, an era antecedent to our own.
I was walking around St. Louis yesterday, considering these papers. I was also thinking about Dred Scott in the 19th century, about Ferguson just to the northeast of us, and about the state of Wisconsin: about what often seems to me to be a tightening noose of securitization and permanent austerity made possible by white supremacy, the purposive dereliction of civil society and the savaging of public discourse.
In the exhibit in the Old Courthouse where Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson first petitioned for their freedom, there is a section that talks about Scott’s short life after the Supreme Court decision denying the citizenship rights of African Americans. Freed by his owner less than three months after the case, Scott worked as a porter in a local hotel until his death, less than two years later. The exhibit noted the high regard in which Scott was held in the Black community in St Louis because of his advocacy for freedom.
In face of current and historical struggles, ongoing advocacy and our collective honor of resistance and alterity is crucial. Even to argue that constructing a global American empire was a key act of the “long twentieth century” takes every iota of the formidable archival and analytic chops deployed by the historians on this panel today. That these papers also limn the history of collaborative and effective resistance to the erection of this empire is vital to understanding where we are today, and to surviving it.