AHA Member Spotlight: Peniel E. Joseph

Peniel E. Joseph

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history at Tufts University and founding director for the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has been an AHA member since 1998.

Alma mater/s: BA, SUNY at Stony Brook; PhD, Temple University

Fields of interest: African American history; political history; intellectual history; social movements; urban history; feminism; black internationalism; race and democracy

When did you first develop an interest in history?
My mother told me stories about the Haitian Revolution as a boy, when I was as young as five or six. I also developed a real fascination with American presidents by the first grade. African American history became a focal point during elementary school as well. By the time I was in eighth grade the first part of the Eyes on the Prize documentary series about the civil rights movement was broadcast on PBS. I was only five when Roots, the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel, was broadcast to record ratings. The Eyes on the Prize series, and its sequel two years later, cemented my interest in African American history in general but the civil rights and Black Power eras in particular. My mother proved crucial throughout. As a hospital worker and member of 1199 Healthcare Workers Union (which I found out later was supported by Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X), she instilled in me a real pride and urgency in the challenges facing workers, poor people, racial minorities, women, and underdogs of all stripes.

What projects are you working on currently?
I am writing the first historical biography of the civil rights militant turned Black Power Revolutionary Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture). Carmichael is truly a forgotten icon and one of the most important historical figures to emerge from the 1960s. His political activism helped shape racial politics in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa, and other parts of the world yet there is no historical biography of him, even though he represents perhaps the single most important bridge to understanding the civil rights and Black Power movements.

What is the last great book or article you have read? 
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; this is a book that I teach in my civil rights course. It’s an important study of the War on Drugs and the unintended consequences that it has had on poor black men and their communities since the 1980s.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I am a contributor to the Cognoscenti blog that comes out of Boston’s NPR station. I enjoy the Dan Schneider interviews, which contain in-depth conversations with a diverse group of interesting thinkers, artists, scientists, and cultural critics.

What do you value most about the history profession?
I value the ability to teach students about the ways in which the past informs contemporary social, political, cultural, and economic debates. The older I get the more aware I am that I have remained a perpetual student and am allowed to satisfy my intellectual curiosity by reading books, visiting archives, taking oral histories, and traveling to places like London, Paris, and Stockholm for historical research.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
Last year in Chicago I was on two panels, one about “Historians and the Obama Narrative” and in the other I presented a paper on Stokely Carmichael. In both instances I was struck by questions and comments from audience members who were lay historians but so insightful and deeply invested in professional scholarship and its dissemination to a wide general audience.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?
I’m very passionate about sharing the histories of the civil rights and Black Power movements with young people of all backgrounds. The further we get from that time period the more newer generations are removed from understanding the period of Jim Crow, the many strides we’ve made since then, and how much further America as a nation has to go before we can achieve true racial equality. 

I am also passionate about supporting local goods and services, especially books. My favorite independent bookstore near my home is Porter Square Books in Cambridge and when I am away, Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C.

Any final thoughts?
I think that the watershed 2008 presidential election illustrated to all of us how important history is in offering context for our contemporary era. As a historian, [I can say that] Barack Obama’s election provided an important opportunity for scholars to engage in an overdue national conversation about race in America. As we approach the 50th anniversary of a number of civil rights milestones in the next few years (Birmingham, March on Washington, 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, JFK Assassination, Freedom Summer, Civil Rights Act, Selma, Voting Rights Act), we need to add our voices to the inevitable commemorations and celebrations that, shorn of historical context, will be unable to provide an understanding of the nation’s long and still unfinished journey toward racial equality and true democracy. 

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