ACLS Community Message for February 2021
W.E.B. DuBois showed in unforgettable fashion how different American history looks when Black scholars write it. In the last chapter of his Black Reconstruction in America, he observes that one reads books like Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization “with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved”:
Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash, as winds and waters strive…Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation there is no room for the real plot of the story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful experiment in democracy; for the triumph of sheer moral courage and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in their fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted or half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific?
Black History Month is a fitting time for us at ACLS, an organization devoted to scholarship, to recall our responsibility not only to celebrate the path-breaking achievements of scholars like DuBois and Woodson, but to combat the structures that hinder the pursuit and sharing of knowledge in academia and in public discourse. These include institutional structures such as reputational rankings and funding levels, as well as structures of feeling, in Raymond Williams’ phrase. Seeing the obstacles that continue to confront historically and systemically marginalized groups in the United States, our priority is to hear these voices and advance these interests in our collective pursuit of inclusive excellence.
Advancement does not simply mean enlarging gateways into old buildings designed to suit a past age. We seek to lay new foundations and design new spaces where just academic values and practices rule. Reckoning with racism’s formative traces in the roots of the areas of study we represent and the societies and institutions with whom we engage, we see anti-racism policy and practice as fundamental to our work: sustaining outstanding scholarship through fellowship and grant competitions, supporting learned societies, creating community among scholars in the humanities and related social sciences, and convening faculty and administrators working to strengthen the fields and bring about needed change in academia.
Achieving racial justice in academia is not a zero-sum enterprise. It enables us to study and understand the whole of human experience rather than only those parts seen through the lens of whiteness and wealth. ACLS is grateful to work with Hyphens and Spaces, a firm experienced in helping organizations like ours fulfill our mission. I want to express my thanks to Samira Abdul-Karim, Hyphens and Spaces’ founder and principal, as well as all my colleagues at ACLS for allowing me to draw inspiration from their thoughts.