Q&A with Claudrena Harold

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Claudrena Harold, author of New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South, is an associate professor of African American and African Studies and History at the University of Virginia. She has also published The Rise and Fall of the Garvey Movement in the Urban South, 1918-1942 and co-directed two films with Kevin Everson. Keep reading for excerpts from her answers to our questions…

What author or book inspires you most?

The great scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois has had a profound impact on my personal and intellectual trajectory. Since my undergraduate years at Temple University in the 1990s, Du Bois has been my blueprint, my model of what it means to commit oneself to what Vincent Harding calls the vocation of the black scholar. His influence pervades New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South, particularly my readings on black labor politics, black student activism, and my vision of the South as a site of revolutionary possibility. In fact, much of what I do in terms of writing and film can be traced to Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk, his short essay, “Behold the Land,” and his writings on black student insurgent movements at Hampton and Fisk during the 1920s.

What is your favorite part of participating in book festivals?

The dialogue with the audience. Listening to and receiving questions from folks who take ideas and aesthetics seriously and who push you out of your intellectual comfort zone is a privilege I don’t take for granted.

When did you realize you wanted to write this book?

During the writing of my first book, which looked at the rise and fall of the Marcus Garvey movement/the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Urban South. Garveyism was not an exclusively northern movement, it also drew support from black folk in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia […] and other southern locales. However as I neared completion of the Garvey book, it became very clear to me that there were aspects of the New Negro movement—labor politics, black women’s struggle to vote, black youth activism—that could not be covered in detail. So I knew I wanted to write a book that would be more expansive, that would cover more dimensions of black Southern life and culture during the 1920s.

Which part of the book are you most proud of?

The sixth chapter, which looks at two African American intellectuals, James W. Ivy and Thomas Dabney, who graduated from Virginia Union and would go on to respected careers in journalism and profoundly shape discussions about race, class, and region in the 1920s. These two men contributed immensely to the vibrancy of black intellectual life during the New Negro Renaissance through their provocative writings on labor, sex, religion, and culture. Unfortunately, their contributions have been largely forgotten. Through examining their lives, I also wanted to illuminate the centrality of Virginia Union University—a school that trained Ivy, Dabney, and some of the most important social scientists and thinkers of the era—in the making of the black intellectual tradition.

What are you working on next?

Currently I’m continuing a series of collaborative film projects with Kevin Everson on the history of African Americans at the University of Virginia during the 1970s. We’ve completed three films (Sugarcoated Arsenic, We Demand, and Fastest Man in the State) thus far and they’ve played at film festivals across the world. We are currently finishing a short film that looks at Sly Stone’s visit to UVa in 1973.

Insofar as books, I’m working on a book that examines the history of black gospel music from 1968 to 2000. This book will contextualize gospel music’s sonic innovations, theological tensions, and political assertions within the larger framework of the socioeconomic and cultural transformations taking place in black America during those years.

At this year’s Festival, Claudrena Harold will participate in two programs: Women Making History: Who Gets to Write Which Stories? about the paths available to women writing history, and Activism & Leadership: African Americans During Jim Crow, exploring the life stories of nineteenth and twentieth century black leaders.