Distinguished Lecturers
Clarence Lang

Clarence Lang

Clarence Lang is dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and Professor of African American Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936–75 (2009) and Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties: Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism, and Politics (2015). He is a coeditor, with Robbie Lieberman, of Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement: "Another Side of the Story" (2009) and, with Andrew Kersten, of Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom, and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph (2015). A cowinner of the OAH EBSCOhost America: History and Life Award, Lang has published in the Journal of African American History, Journal of Urban History, Journal of Social History, the Black Scholar, New Politics, Critical Sociology, American Studies Journal, and the Crisis. He also has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Against the Current, LaborOnline, Working-Class Perspectives, and the Black Commentator.

OAH Lectures by Clarence Lang

One of the most transformative developments in U.S. higher education since the late 1960s and early 1970s has been the creation, growth, and evolution of Black/Africana Studies academic units at historically white institutions of higher learner. The status of Black Studies programs, centers, and departments in academia has become more consequential over the past decade as colleges and universities have moved to recruit and hire more Black students, faculty, staff, and even administrators, especially in the wake of campus-based "Black Lives Matter" mobilizations following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
These developments all have occurred parallel to a surge in political polarization and white supremacist violence in U.S. society, much of it driven by a long-term reaction to the historic presidency of Barack Obama. Likewise, campuses have become ensnared in renewed "culture wars" surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion in curriculum, hiring, research, and the overall teaching and learning environment.  This talk discusses what all of this means for Black Studies in the twenty-first century, exploring the bigger question of whether institutions of higher education can be the transformative laboratories of democratic citizenship and social mobility that they are heralded to be.

This presentation argues that constant comparisons between our contemporary moment and the 1960s (the "Sixties") not only distorts that past, but it also substitutes for political creativity and imagination today. In the case of a phenomenon like "Black Lives Matter," the persistence of the "Sixties" as a cultural and political point of reference can blind us to the current challenges and opportunities that we confront in the early twenty-first century. Thus, while it is appropriate, even healthy, to review the past in order to grapple with the present, resorting to a "Sixties" framing can have unintended negative consequences for how we might understand the prospects for a transformative black politics in the here and now.

As “North” and “South” converge in a new synthesis of the history of the Black Freedom Movement, scholars confront the need to expand and refine typologies of place for assessing both the national character and regional particularities of historic African American freedom struggles. Among other things, this method calls for (1) treatment of regional histories, local political economies, and African Americans’ position therein; (2) government processes at the city, state, and federal levels; (3) interpretation of the specific forms of black community and institutional development, and class stratification, present among defined black populations; (4) consideration of the dynamics of migration and immigration to a given locale, and the impact on African Americans, both interracially and intraracially; and (5) an appreciation of the uneven patterns of political development, organization and mobilization among black communities across time and place. Using the city of St. Louis, Missouri, as an illustration, this presentation argues for a conceptualization of the “border South” region as a transitional space where both northern and southern political economies, migration and immigration patterns, and modes of black racial control and black politics merged, often prefiguring shifts in the rest of the nation. This presentation suggests that the peculiar histories of such border states such as Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky illustrate simultaneously the instability and concreteness of regional designations in historical narratives of black freedom struggle.

Building on Lang's previous work on African American community building and social movements in St. Louis and the urban Border South, this presentation provides social and historical context to the black political mobilizations that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland in the wake of the police-related deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, respectively. This presentation also explores what historians do, or ought to do, when the focus of their work "comes home," so to speak. Specifically, what are historians' relationship with, and responsibility to, the subject matter of their research? To put it another way, how do historians creatively inhabit the history that they write?


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