The Journal of African American History is planning a Special Issue – “California on My Mind: The Golden State in the African American Imagination.” We are seeking out studies by historians, literary scholars, sociologists, and other social researchers engaged in theorizing about and documenting various aspects of the African American experience.
California has meant something utopian and specific in the history of people of African descent in the Americas. Indeed, California has been on the minds of African-descended people in the United States especially since its entrance into the union in 1850 as a “free state.” The association of “California” with “freedom” meant that enslaved and oppressed African Americans felt an attachment, even though they never made it there. Another group with California on their mind would be those African Americans who actually visited and were impressed by the physical beauty, the racial diversity, and western lifestyle, but who never lived there, yet longed to stay. The third group would be the African Americans who migrated to the “Golden State” and created communities, institutions, and social networks. What has California meant to them?
It has been suggested that in the case of Los Angeles, for African-descended peoples the city was the stuff of dreams, but the realities were often harsh and disappointing. We have examined the process of racialization for African-descended people in Los Angeles, “the nature of the `black’ in Black Los Angeles.” With the African American experience statewide taken into account, the “realities” under examination change, but the declension narrative could predominate and serve to explain at the state level the existence of the Golden Gulag. The racialization process occurring in Los Angeles was also taking place in other parts of California, but we still need to know if the declension narrative applies to the communities formed and institutions created.
In locating California as a site in the African American imaginary a good place to begin would be W.E.B. Du Bois’s articles in The Crisis magazine in November 1913. “Here I had my first sight on thePacific and realized how California faces the newest color problem, the problem of the relation of the Orient and Occident. The colored people of California do not realize the bigness of this problem and their own logical position.” At the state-level it is imperative to move beyond the black-white binary and focus on meanings created as a result of interactions with Asians, Mexicans, Native Americans, and other “colored people of California.” Looking throughout the state, we would document the individual and collective meanings of the oppression of the indigenous population to African Americans who were being oppressed by the same forces. Racially restrictive housing covenants aimed at maintaining segregation discriminated against Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Native Americans, Filipino Americans and other “colored people of California.” In challenging the racial restrictions in housing, employment, and education in various parts of the state, lawyers and plaintiffs for various people of color made common cause with the NAACP. And we would have to look beyond Los Angeles to understand the meanings of alliances for workers’ rights and social justice. The alliance between Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers union and Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, and the Black Panther Party has been documented in the JAAH. What does this incident tell us about the meaning of California in the African American and Chicano experiences?
For those who never visited, from the early 20th century imaginings about California were framed by Hollywood. Here there would be possible challenges to the declension narrative, though for many African Americans, Hollywood symbolized the lies being spread in the popular media about black people. The images of the beauty of the state inspired tributes, garnered awards, and were publicized broadly and African Americans imbibed them as did other sectors of the public. These imaginings of California, spurred by filmic images, were often confirmed and enhanced by the narratives and images of those who actually visited the state. Langston Hughes’s California was in some ways similar to, but in many ways different from James Baldwin’s. How did we come to know California through the works of African American writers and other artists? The musical sound tracks, the film images, the architectural renderings, the religious awakenings should all contribute to African American cultural meanings about California.
This Special Issue is inspired by Harlem on My Mind, the exhibition of 700 photos and explanatory texts and over 500 film images mounted in New York City in 1969 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1994 Allon Schoner, the curator for Harlem on My Mind, concluded that the exhibition “transformed museums, compelling them to open their galleries to subjects and audiences they had excluded.” Harlem was the subject in images and narratives by and about African Americans. The reverence inspired beauty to artists from all over the world. The exhibition included the images of people from everywhere visiting or living in Harlem, and narratives about Harlem from everywhere covering five decades. Harlem as a grand and important cultural capital conjured up meanings to people of African descent around the world, as did California. “California on My Mind,” the proposed JAAH Special Issue, seeks to offer new insights into the meanings of the Golden State in the African American imagination.
Guidance for Papers
Essays should be no more than 35 typed, double-spaced pages (12 point font), including endnotes. The JAAH uses the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition (Chicago, 2003) for citations. Guidelines for manuscript submission are available in The Journal of African American History,
Submitted essays will be peer-reviewed. Your cover letter should include the title of your essay, name, postal address, e-mail address, phone number, and fax number. Your essay should begin with the title of the essay and should NOT include your name.
Please send three (3) hard copies of your manuscript to:
Prof. V.P. Franklin, Editor
The Journal of African American History