Brian Purnell: “Struggle and Progress: People of African Descent in New York City Since the 1500s”

“Struggle and Progress: People of African Descent in New York City Since the 1500s,” is the working title of Brian Purnell’s book project, which tells the diverse stories and complicated histories of Black people in Gotham over the course of nearly four centuries. While set in the New York metropolis, this book is very much a history of the United States, and indeed the modern world. The book, and this lecture, offer a new way to think about the histories of African Americans, our nation, and the modern world: not as a story that unfolds along a straight line of progress, but rather as an ever-changing dialectical process of struggle and progress. As the long history of Black people in New York City shows us, sometimes political and social struggles against racism and discrimination yield progress; sometimes they produce frustration and regression. But they always create new social terrain, on which people wage new struggles to improve their lives, their city, their nation, their world.

As the nineteenth century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” This lecture, and Purnell’s book, use roughly four hundred years of history of Black people in New York City to explore this theme and reflect on its meaning today for our cities, our nation and our world.

Brian Purnell’s research and teachings focus on urban history, African American history, oral history, public history, the history of New York City, and the history of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. He is the author of Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (Kentucky, 2013), which received the 2012 Dixon Ryan Fox Manuscript Prize for the best unpublished manuscript on New York history by the New York State Historical Association. Purnell has served on the board of directors for the Urban History Association and for the past ten years has served as a consultant and lecturer for numerous public history and teacher education initiatives with the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies, and the University of South Carolina.

Purnell earned his bachelor’s degree at Fordham University, and both his master’s and PhD at New York University. He is currently associate professor of Africana studies and history at Bowdoin.

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