Black History Month Part V: “Race” and Its Kid Brother, “Whiteness”

al jolson blackface

Every summer, ToM contributors revisit works that influenced them and meditate on how they’ve held up over the years as part of our Dog Days Classics series. These works have included everything from John Brooke’s study on the roots of Mormon esoterica to Mike Royko’s epic book  on Chicago mayor Richard Daley.

But a quick look at our category cloud makes it clear that “race” stands out as a major theme at ToM, with “whiteness” not far behind.  While we’ve spent a good deal of time looking at Asian-American and Latino/a studies, African-American history has been a frequent subject for the site as well, so it’s no surprise that Dog Days pieces have also touched on the idea of “race” and its impact on the black experience in America.

In particular, we would like to highlight two pieces that looked at historians whose work is sometimes understood (not least by the scholars themselves) as in contradiction: Columbia’s Barbara Fields, who has devoted much of her career to debunking the supposed biological basis of race as well as the idea that “race” has any value whatsoever as a concept in historical analysis; and the University of Kansas’s David Roediger, who helped initiate the field of whiteness studies by suggesting that white racial identity has a history of its own.  Whether you think Fields or Roediger is right, their work has proven insightful and provocative for several generations of scholars.  And while it might seem odd at first to highlight “whiteness” during Black History Month, it is impossible to escape the fact that ideas about what it means to be white have been hopelessly entangled with ideas about what it means to be black in America – in ways that continue to confine and ensnare African Americans today, far more than their white fellow citizens. As journalist Greg Tate once put it, white Americans get to embrace “everything but the burden” when they borrow from black culture.  There is no equivalent on the other side.

Keith Orejel on Barbara Fields’s ground-breaking “Ideology and Race in American History”

Joel Suarez on David Roediger’s classic The Wages of Whiteness