Thursday, June 26, 2008

YBW Interview With Prof. Peniel E. Joseph

Interview with Harvard fellow, Peniel E. Joseph, by Tolu Olorunda.

Peniel E. Joseph is one of the nation’s leading scholars of African American history. Although Joseph’s formal expertise includes the Black Radical Tradition, Pan-Africanism, Black Social Movements, and African American feminism, he is currently embarking on a re-evaluation of the Black Power Movement. Professor Joseph is associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies and affiliate faculty in history at Brandeis University. Joseph is the founder of a growing subfield of historical and Africana Studies scholarship that he has named “Black Power Studies.” Joseph's dynamic presentation style and innovative scholarship, place him on the cutting edge of a new generation of public intellectuals. Joseph’s book “Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America,” was a “Washington Post Book World” Best Nonfiction Book for 2006. It was also a finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize. It received honorable mention for the 2007 Gustavas Myers Center Outstanding Book Award; and received the inaugural W.E.B. Du Bois Book Award from the Northeastern Black Studies Alliance. It was also a Boston Globe paperback bestseller in 2008. Joseph is currently working on a biography of Civil Rights and Black Power activist, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), and a study of postwar African American history. For the 2008-2009 academic year, Dr. Joseph will be a fellow at Harvard University’s Warren Center.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Joseph on a wide array of issues. With topics ranging from politics to culture, and education to sports, he was insightfully-enlightening in his observations:

Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us about your background, and the journey leading up to Harvard?

I’m from New York City, born and raised, and I’m just raised by a single mom. My mom was a trade unionist for 40 yrs in New York City – just retired. So, I was always into social and political activism; I was on my first picket line by the time I was 9 yrs old, so I was always active. I was always interested in Black history, Caribbean history, Asian history and African history, so after college I got my PhD from Temple University. At the same time, I was still involved in community and social activism. I wound up teaching at Arizona State University for a couple of years; then I taught at University of Rhode Island and Stony Brooks University in New York -- which is my alma mater. And now at Brandeis University, but this year, I’m a fellow at Harvard University.

Is the continued presence of Black and Brown intellectuals in Ivy League schools emblematic of any substantive progress for us?

Yes, I think it’s an example of progress, but I also think it that -- well, I’ll do the ‘positives’ first. I think it’s a tremendous example of progress, given the fact that when we think about higher education and academe, especially predominantly white institutions; these we’re set up as spaces for the white, elite and the rich. So as soon as you get any kind of African Americans in there, it’s very positive. And, obviously we owe a lot of these to people like Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B Du Bois and Ida B. Wells; the generation of the 19th and early 20th century intellectuals. Some we’re PhDs and others we’re just organic intellectuals in that degree, such as Marcus Garvey and Hubert Harrison. By the time you get to the 1960s, there’s really a second wave of Black Studies, vis-à-vis the Black Power movement that forces some of these predominantly white institutions to open up their doors, through the implementation of Black Studies majors in programs across the country. So that’s the positive. But the negative is the fact that I think most of these spaces are still overwhelmingly white and racist. So, having Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and Manning Marable is great, but at the same time, it provides cover for some of these racist institutions as well. So, you have this representative-nature of Blackness, but you don’t have enough Black Undergraduates, or Graduates, let alone Faculty and Administration; because we are sorely underrepresented in all those categories. It’s the same thing with Senator Obama. You might have a black president, but you might also see a lack of Blackness in the federal judges or the news-media. So, there’s the good and bad to the process.

What is your overall perspective on the Senator from Illinois -- especially being that he hails from your very Harvard?

Well, I’m a critical supporter of Mr. Obama, and what I mean by that is that I support Obama’s candidacy; and at the same time, I think that if he is elected, we have to be very vigilant and very critical. So that we force ‘President Obama’ to publicly confront things like, the Prison Industrial Complex and the pervasiveness/viciousness of institutional racism – locally nationally and internationally. But again, I think that trying to run for president is a hard thing to do.

Do you believe that Cynthia McKinney from the Green Party can help in exerting some ‘progressive-pressure’ upon the political landscape?

I think that Cynthia McKinney is obviously a very progressive person -– whom I admire. I think that when we talk of Cynthia McKinney, a lot of activists get confused with Third-Party runs and Community Organizing. Nowadays, some people think that ‘trying’ a Third-Party run - in and of itself - is community organizing, and there’s a problem there. I think that the bankruptcy of that strategy is shown when you have a candidate like Barack Obama, who’s actually energizing millions of people. The Third-Parties don’t seem to have a parallel-outreach and success. When people like Malcolm X and Kwame Ture would say, “We got to follow the people, because the people are ahead of us;” how come they’re following Obama? Masses of the American people are following Obama.

Do you think Senator Obama’s struggle for the White-House is one which we must all embrace?

I think we should be critically supportive of Barack Obama’s candidacy. We’ve seen a lot of debates over this. We saw Tavis Smiley come out and catch a lot of flak for it. But, I do like the idea of holding Barack Obama accountable, but I also feel that he’s in a very difficult position, because he is the first black man that could actually become president. I think the African American community should embrace his candidacy - but critically - and then really watch what’s going on, and try to influence it within the next four years. And then if our needs aren’t being addressed, we can begin making intelligent calculations on what to do next.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Father’s Day Speech that he gave last Sunday. Did you have a problem with it, or did you feel that it was indeed a legitimate critique?

Well, certainly the speech was pandering, but if you’re from that background, where you’re raised by a single parent, you realize that you do need to speak to Black Men about this. And I thought Obama did it in a way that wasn’t quite as condescending as the way in which Bill Cosby did it in 2004. You have to talk about the politics of self-responsibility vis-à-vis our failures, and also the system that is perpetuating that failure, and that’s a dialogue that we haven’t had in a really complex way. If you’re speaking of the politics of self-determination, whether it’s Marcus Garvey or the Nation of Islam, you’re supposed take personal responsibility. But, one big issue with a Barack Obama presidency is that he might not be able to preach responsibility all across the board.

In matters of education, how does the next president rehabilitate the dilapidated public school system?

To be honest with you, all the president can do is propose laws to the Congress for passage. Certainly, he can give more money to public schools and have further accountability by putting more ‘teeth’ behind “No Child Left Behind;” but it’s really based on spending bills.

As an expert on issues pertinent to race, what are the major obstacles threatening our progress?

I think the biggest things are probably lack of access to higher education, the Prison Industrial complex and the Criminal Justice System. Unemployment, Violence and drugs also are power-brokers in our stagnancy. And we’re talking of Black Americans who happen to be part of the so-called “underclass.”

Do the recent victories of Tiger Woods and the Boston Celtic (being overwhelmingly black) have any substantial impact upon the lives of everyday black folk?

I think they might be an inspiration to some, but a Barack Obama presidency would be even bigger. You know, sports is different from politics, and I think if you have a black President, it will transform the way a lot of young people look at themselves. And, I think Obama’s presidency would bring about reverberations in other aspects of American society. I think that newspapers and television and media would be forced to re-examine aspects of how they’re made up vis-à-vis the shock of having a Black President.

What is your advice for the average brother and sister trying to gain access to higher education?

The pursuit of literacy would allow you to really excel; because, a lot of us are woefully unprepared after graduation from High School. The way it is now, so many of our people have a star-crossed relationship with school, and it is not perceived as something which would impact their lives. I think that what the older folks have to do is educate the younger ones about our history and the struggle that took place to get to this point. And, I think that can provide a context for a way to move forward in the present.

Once again, thanks for speaking with us Dr. Joseph.

This interview was conducted by Tolu Olorunda, Staff Writer for

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