Black Women’s Studies community, hello!! I’m Paula C. Austin. I’m Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Sacramento. I earned an M.A. in History at North Carolina Central University, and a PhD in History back in my hometown at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. I specialize in African American, gender, and urban history.
I am excitedly working on the last edits to my forthcoming book, Coming of Age in Jim Crow D.C.: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life (due out in fall 2019 from New York University Press). For this project, I mined E. Franklin Frazier’s papers at Howard University for his 1941 book on black adolescent personality development in D.C. Frazier argued that poor and working class young people were being negatively impacted by racial segregation and its attendant poverty and restrictions to resources. To Frazier, their personalities and beliefs about themselves, and thus behaviors and potential contributions to society, were severely at risk, if not already seriously damaged. While calling for an end to Jim Crow, he also advocated black cultural rehabilitation. After spending nearly five years with the (relatively) raw data of the 150 interviews of young people and their families, my research finds that young black, poor, and working class people in the nation’s capital were masterfully aware of and articulate about the incongruities of the city’s (growing global) symbolism of democracy and freedom and its restrictive racial geographies, racist policies, and practices. Coming of Age narrates the everyday lives of young Southwest D.C. residents like fourteen-year-old Susie Morgan and seventeen-year-old Myron Ross Jr.
For example, Susie, who lived in an over-crowded 2 rooms in Clarks Court Alley in 1938, could see the dome of the Capitol building from her street. She shared stories about her movements throughout the city with her friends, dodging police interactions, fights with white boys, and street harassment from black and white men alike. She articulated disinterest in marriage and could imagine a bright future for herself as a French teacher. She and her friends reterritorialized spaces like the Union Station Columbus Fountain and the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool as places of leisure and recreation, not only because few were available for and accessible to black children, but also because as Susie herself says, “‘we know we ain’t got no business in there, but that’s why we go in.”
I happened upon this archive in my search for the names of the individuals who Frazier quoted at length in his Negro Family in the U.S. I wondered who these people were and what else they said. This project works to produce an intellectual history of folks we don’t often think of as intellectuals. Black, poor, and working class urban young people have long been, and continue to be portrayed as not possessive of (nor capable of) interiority. The young people whose voices I try to foreground in Coming of Age stress the generative capacities of an interior life. They were “thinkers, theorists, critics, and commentators,” as one of my anonymous readers said. (Thank you for this whoever you are!!) I hope these black young people’s voices make clear the critical role of ideas in navigating structural impediments to full identity formation and expression, even and especially for young black people.
- Dr. Paula C. Austin, @ProfPAustin