On Tuesday, Feb. 5, Wesleyan’s Center for African American Studies hosted historian and theorist Irvin Hunt for a talk about his book manuscript, “Before the Utopia: A Cultural History of the Black Cooperative Movement, 1890-The Present.”
Hunt is an assistant professor of English, African American Studies, and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He received a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College, a master’s degree from University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. His dissertation, titled “Investing in Stereotypes: Comic Second-Sight in Twentieth-Century African American Literature,” examined the absurdist humor present in the works of a number of Black authors.
Hunt’s talk was one of the first events hosted by the newly established African American Studies Department. African American Studies, which was formerly a program, received Department status on Dec. 4, 2018 after a full-faculty vote.
The talk focused on W.E.B. Du Bois and his role in the formation of economic cooperatives throughout the early-to-mid 20th century. As Hunt explained, Du Bois saw these patron-owned businesses as a way to resist the harms of capitalism and the threat of racial discrimination. In his book, Hunt also discusses cultural leaders George Schuyler, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer and their role in establishing local cooperatives.
Hunt began with a question that he asked himself while reading histories of Black leftist movements. He wondered how, in denouncing socialist and communist movements whose goal was to resist capitalism, Black leaders believed they could do the same.
“If our cultural titans found the most progressive political parties of their day, the socialist and communist parties, so discriminatory, where else might they have looked to wage their attacks on capitalism?” he asked.
The argument he makes in his book is that cooperative movements championed by leaders like Du Bois conceived of progress and time differently, and thus forever changed how we understand activism and social movements. He stated this argument clearly at the beginning of the lecture.
“My overall argument is that cooperatives were arenas in which artists decided to experiment with ways of forming a social movement without investing in historical progress,” he said. “They essentially were asking, where can we move to, if we’re not trying to move towards a better tomorrow?”
With this thesis, Hunt places the concept of time at the forefront of his analysis of Du Bois and the cooperative movement he championed. He explained the understanding of time as something we ascribe to social movements.
“It may be immediately obvious that tying my concepts together is the thematic of time. An emphasis on movement time is one of the principle contributions that history makes to dominant social movement theorizations…” he said. “How many times have you heard stories of civil rights actors in terms of their demonstrations, strikes, public meetings, vigils, rallies, or boycotts?”
In his chapter on Du Bois, Hunt focuses on the formation of the Negro Cooperative Guild, a grassroots organization comprised of representatives from six states. These representatives met in 1918 in the office of the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis, to study models of cooperative ownership and implement cooperative businesses throughout the country. The business model the Guild devised was simple: a group of people would buy and sell necessities to each other, keeping profits for themselves and investing them back into the business.
Hunt highlighted the work of Bert M. Roddy, the Tennessee representative at the Guild’s first and only meeting, who founded a chain of African-American-owned grocery stores in Tennessee. While these stores followed an essentially cooperative model, they strayed from certain cooperative principles. For instance, the patron-owners of Roddy’s stores did not all have one vote; instead, the number of votes each patron-owner had was in proportion to the number of shares they held.
Even with these shortcomings in Du Bois’ eyes, Roddy’s cooperatives fulfilled the fundamental purpose of these businesses: removing the excess of options present in the capitalist model while retaining shareholder access to the necessities.
“With the repetition of basic goods, as Du Bois would insist: flour, meal, meats, sugar, coffee, teas, etc….cooperative stores left you supplied, if not satisfied,” Hunt said after describing the simple yet intentional product displays in these stores. “They attempted to change the requisites of personal satisfaction, along with the…basis of the wanting self. Could you slick your desires with just a few things? Could you question and revise what you really needed? Could your desire to support others…occupy as much space as the desire to support yourself?”
Near the end of the talk, Hunt explained how his previous reflection on time fits into his analysis of Du Bois and the cooperative movement of which he was a part. He argued that Du Bois was caught up with the idea of beginning, fashioning a movement that was all about the formation of cooperative businesses and societies instead of the ends they were intended to achieve.
“Because the beginning did not cease, the very notion of meeting ends and therefore politics of ends was thrown into question,” Hunt explained.
In articles Du Bois authored in Crisis, a magazine he founded, he wrote about the founding of cooperatives with a focus on their beginnings. Hunt discussed the emphasis Du Bois and other leaders placed on the beginning of movements over their ends, arguing that this emphasis forever changed the way we think about social movements.
“The crowning of longevity as politically potent and necessary for real and lasting successes continuing to unite such disparate fields as empiricisms in social science to the illuminations of speculative theory,” Hunt said. “It’s not that these artists gave up on trying to last, they were trying to last differently…My book on a whole simply seeks to supply some struts and beams to a theoretical apparatus that can account for a lived transformation of political account: the lives expended and the lessons they bear.”
William Halliday can be reached at email@example.com.