Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History
My research has explored the history of social movements in the U.S., the African Diaspora, and Africa; black intellectuals; music; visual culture; contemporary urban studies; historiography and historical theory; poverty studies and ethnography; colonialism/imperialism; organized labor; constructions of race; Surrealism, Marxism, nationalism, among other things. My essays have appeared in a wide variety of professional journals as well as general publications, including the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, Black Music Research Journal, African Studies Review, New York Times (Arts and Leisure), New York Times Magazine, The Crisis, The Nation, The Voice Literary Supplement, Utne Reader, New Labor Forum, Counterpunch, to name a few.
My first two books, Hammer and Hoe and Race Rebels, grew out of the same set of questions: who makes up the black working—class, how do they fight back against oppressions of race, class and gender, and what do they fight for? In some ways, my goal was to write a social history of politics that pays attention to the culture and ideas of ordinary people in struggle. I wanted to know how people changed as a result of their participation in these social movements. I wanted to know how they fought back, survived, made community outside the pale of the organizations and movements that are too often our own source for historical narratives. The last question lay at the heart of Race Rebels, which included an elaborate discussion of everyday forms of resistance. I concluded that there is nothing inherently radical or oppositional about daily acts of resistance and survival; the relationship of these acts to power always depends on the context.
Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America is a work of urban studies, public policy, social commentary and late 20th century history. In addition to offering a critique of the ethnographic imagination in studies of inner city communities, I examine various sources of the contemporary urban crisis and the means by which residents have tried to survive, achieve some kind of upward mobility, create art, and organize in order to fight back. This book has been widely read and debated.
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination might be described as a history of the collective imagination of black radical social movements during the 20th century, focusing primarily on what people in particular movements dreamed of, what they thought they were fighting for, what they articulated as the “New World” or “New Land.” The book begins with the premise that the catalyst for political engagement has never been misery, poverty, and oppression but hope; the promise of constructing a new world radically different from the one we’ve inherited. It is a brief meditation on the black radical imagination, a kind of “third eye” view of history that attempts to recover the dreams of a new world that have yet to be realized. Focusing on “back-to-Africa” movements, socialism, Third World Liberation, Surrealism, radical feminism, and reparations, I argue that these renegade black intellectuals/activist /artists not only created a vision often more inclusive than their Euro-American counterparts, but in so doing produced theoretical insights that might have pushed Western radicalism in new directions.
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press 2009) is the first full-length, complete biography of one of the most important composers/pianists in 20th century American music, and one of the most enigmatic figures of his era. While he is recognized as an originator of modern jazz, throughout much of his life his angular melodies, dissonant harmonies, and unorthodox technique were dismissed or overshadowed by tales of his reputed behavior. Critics and fans alike called him weird, eccentric, strange, taciturn, child-like—sometimes derisively, other times as evidence of his originality. Based on exclusive access to the Monk family papers and private recordings, personal interviews, as well as a decade of prodigious research, this book challenges the common stereotypes and delivers an intimate portrait of a startlingly different Thelonious Monk--witty, generous, family-oriented, politically engaged, critical and brutally honest, and a devoted father and husband. Above all, Thelonious Monk is the story of an artist’s struggle to “make it” without compromising his musical vision.
My most recent book, Africa Speaks, America Answers!: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, 2012), examines the work and lives of four artists and the groups they led during the age of African decolonization: Ghanaian-born drummer Guy Warren; pianist Randy Weston; bassist/oudist Ahmed Abdul-Malik; and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, who is also South African. By exploring the work, conversations, collaborations, and tensions between both African and African American musicians during the era of decolonization, Africa Speaks, America Answers explains how modern Africa figured in reshaping jazz during the 1950s and early 1960s, how modern jazz figured in the formation of a modern African identity, and how various musical convergences and crossings shaped the political and cultural landscape on both continents.
Each of these artists was propelled by the upheavals of the 1950s to seek new musical forms, new collaborations, new fusions across time and space. They shared neither a common agenda nor a common culture—though they recognized and often embraced cultural commonalities, “jazz” being one. Nor did they always succeed. On the contrary, they occasionally clashed with fellow artists, or bumped up against prevailing assumptions, the intransigence of the market, an oppressive state that viewed their music as a threat to order, or consumers whose own stereotypes made them incapable of hearing and appreciating the work. Yet, they all shared a common vision of jazz as a path to the future, a vehicle for both Africans and African Americans to articulate and realize their own distinctive modernity while critiquing its Western variant. And, from their vantage point, standing at what appeared to be the precipice of freedom for Africa and Black America, the continent represented a beacon of modernity blazing a new path for the rest of the world, but one tempered by deeply spiritual, anti-materialist values. This sort of janus-faced modernism is key to understanding the nexus of jazz and Africa in the age of decolonization.
My latest big project is a biography of the late Grace Halsell, tentatively titled The Education of Ms. Grace Halsell: An Intimate History of the American Century. The Texas-born journalist, granddaughter of Confederate slave owners, daughter of a once wealthy cattle rancher and Indian fighter, began her career as a correspondent (domestic and foreign) for several Texas papers during the 1940s and 50s, eventually worked as a staff writer for President Lyndon B. Johnson, before setting out in 1968 to chemically darken her skin and live as a black woman for a year. Known as the female John Howard Griffin, she published the best-selling Soul Sister: The Journal of a White Woman Who Turned Herself Black and Went to Live and Work in Harlem and Mississippi (1969). She would go on to write twelve more books, including an expose about living as a Navajo and working as a domestic in a California suburb (Bessie Yellowhair), a book about passing as an undocumented worker from Mexico and crossing the border three times (The Illegals), and several other unrelated texts. In her final masquerade, she passed as the person she was probably supposed to become: a right-wing Christian fundamentalist. She traveled to Israel with Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and wrote a scathing critique of the Christian Right’s uncritical support of Israel and what she regarded as the brutal treatment of Palestinians and Arab Jews. As a result of her sharply critical stance against Israel, her jobs, lucrative book contracts, and other opportunities began to disappear. She died in 2000 from multiple myeloma cancer caused largely by the drugs she had taken to turn herself brown.
Finally, I am collaborating with two other authors, Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis, on a general survey of African American history. In many ways, it is a challenge to what has become the standard ‘multiculturalist’ approach to American history. What we are proposing is a re-writing of American history through the experiences and struggles of African Americans. We want our readers to understand both slaveholders and enslaved people, lynch victims and lynch mobs, women and men, working people and employers, rich and poor, and how all of these relationships are interconnected to American culture, the economy, politics, power, and tradition.
Ph.D. American History, UCLA, 1987
Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (The Free Press, 2009).
Best Book About Jazz 2009, Jazz
Music in American Culture Award, American
Ambassador Award for Book of Special
Distinction, English Speaking Union;
PEN Open Book Award, PEN American Center
ASCAP Deems-Taylor Award
Best Non-Fiction Book, Hurston/Wright
Booklist – Starred Review
Selected by New York Times Book Review –
Top 100 books of 2009
**Italian translation: Thelonious Monk: Storia di un Genio Americano, trans. Marco Bertoli (Roma: Minimum Fax, 2012).
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002)
with Howard Zinn and Dana Frank, Three Strikes: The Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century (Beacon Press, 2001)
Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997).
Selected Best book of 1997 by Village
Voice; Outstanding Book on Human Rights,
Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of
Human Rights in the United States,
**Translated in Japanese, as Yo Mama’s DisFunktional!: Representing America’s Urban Crisis (Hanmoto Publishers, 2007), translated by Kosuzu Abe and Katsuyuki Murata. New foreword by author
Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994).
Outstanding Book, National Conference of
Black Political Scientists, 1995.
Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
Elliot Rudwick Prize, Organization of
American Historians, 1991;
Francis Butler Simkins Prize, Southern
Outstanding book on Human Rights,
Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of
Human Rights in the United States, 1991.
Edited Books and Collections
Co-edited with Stephen Tuck, The Other Special Relationship: The Black Freedom Movement in the U.K. and the U.S. (forthcoming Oxford University Press, 2014)
Co-edited with Franklin Rosemont, Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the African Diaspora (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).
Winner, American Book Award, the Before
Co-edited with Earl Lewis, To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 2000). Two Volume edition, 2004.
Selection of History Book Club and Choice
Outstanding Academic Title.
Chosen as an Outstanding book on Human
Rights, Gustavus Myers Center for the
Study of Human Rights in the United
Co-edited with Sidney J. Lemelle, Imagining Home: Class, Culture, and Nationalism in the African Diaspora (London: Verso Books, 1995).
Current Courses by Term
Previous Courses by Term
Previous Courses by Course
History of the U.S. and Its Colonial Origins: 20th Century
Introduction to U.S. History: 20th Century
Comparative Approaches to Community and Corporate Internships
2014 Spring Quarter
Introduction to Afro-American History
Departmental Seminar: Approaches, Methods, Debates, Practices
Introduction to Afro-American History
2013 Spring Quarter
Special Topics in Afro-American Studies
2012 Fall Quarter
Variable Topics Research Seminars: Afro-American Studies
2012 Fall Quarter
Topics in U.S. History
2012 Fall Quarter
Capstone Seminar: History -- U.S.