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Interpreting African-American Life and History


Interpreting African-American Life and History

: Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, State University of New York-Stony Brook
Education: Ph.D., M.A.,
American History, Temple University; B.A., Africana Studies and B.A., European History, State University of New York-Stony Brook
Age: 34

As an undergraduate, Dr. Peniel E. Joseph had journalism aspirations. Although he chose an academic path instead, he is indeed living that dream of storytelling as well as feeding his lifelong curiosity about history.

Last year’s publication of his first book is proof of that. His narrative, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour, has gained praise from The Washington Post and other major reviewers. Midnight Hour is a reassessment of the Black Power movement, examining iconic figures as well as little-known ones with a novelist’s eye for detail.

“He possesses the ability and the potential to become perhaps the single-most influential interpreter of African-American life and history of his generation,” says Dr. Manning A. Marable, a Columbia University professor of public affairs, history and African-American studies and one of the country’s leading political scholars. Marable calls Midnight Hour “the most outstanding narrative interpretation” of the Black Power movement ever produced.

Joseph has taught at Stony Brook since 2005. Prior to that, he was a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island for five years. He has taught courses on topics such as Black nationalism in America, the Black radical tradition and American attitudes toward race. He also edited an anthology, The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights and Black Power Era, which was published in March.

Joseph encourages young scholars, especially those in Black studies programs, to try to reach as wide an audience as possible with their writings, rather than focusing merely on impressing other academics.
“There is always a public component to our work,” he says. “We can touch public policy and American race relations while still keeping our scholarly integrity.”

A native New Yorker born to Haitian immigrants, Joseph grew up an avid reader, consuming everything from newspapers to comic books to African-American and world history books. His mother’s nightly dinner conversations about history, labor politics and anti-racist struggles in Haiti nurtured his fascination with social justice. She also passed on a lifelong passion for activism, which has led him to join organizations and stand in picket lines for a number of causes. Among other issues, he’s fought to dismantle apartheid in South Africa and protested the quarantine of Haitian refugees in Guantanamo.

As an undergraduate at Stony Brook, Joseph wrote for the campus newspaper, thinking he would become a freelance journalist. But after realizing the financial difficulties inherent in the career field, he opted for graduate school, which would allow him to delve deeper into African-American history. After watching the documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” he says he wondered about the broader backstory surrounding the civil rights movement.

“I was looking forward to reading a book about the larger cause and the ideals of the time period, only to learn that no one had written it, so that fueled me to write it myself,” he says, referring to Midnight Hour.

Even before publishing Midnight Hour, Joseph had written extensively on civil rights and the Black Power movement in editorials and book  reviews for journals as well as The New York Times. He recently joined the editorial working group of the social science quarterly, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society. Currently, he is working on several new books, including a biography of activist Stokely Carmichael.

— By Lydia Lum

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