Top Young Historians: 57 – Robert O. Self


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

57: Robert O. Self, 6-25-07

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor, Department of History, Brown University
Area of Research: urban history, the history of race and American political culture, post-1945 U.S. society and culture, and gender in the mid-century city
Education: PhD, Department of History, University of Washington, 1998
Major Publications: Self is the author of American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton University Press, 2003), Robert Self JPG the winner of 4 prizes including: 2005 James A. Rawley Prize, Best Book on U.S. Race Relations, Organization of American Historians, 2005 Best Book in Urban Affairs, Urban Affairs Association, 2004 Ralph J. Bunche Award, Best Book on Ethnic Pluralism, American Political Science Association, and 2004 Best Book in North American Urban History, Urban History Association.
His currently working on The Politics of Gender and Sexuality in America From Watts to Reagan which examines the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race in U.S. political culture between the Watts riot and uprising in 1965 and the election of Ronald Reagan.
Self is the author of a number of journal articles and book chapters including: “The Black Panther Party and the Long Civil Rights Era, 1935-1975,” in In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement, Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams, eds. (Duke University Press, 2006); :Prelude to the Tax Revolt: The Politics of the ‘Tax Dollar’ in Postwar California,” in The New Suburban History, Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue, eds. (University of Chicago Press, 2006); and “‘To Plan Our Liberation’: Black Power and the Politics of Place in Oakland, California, 1965-1977,” Journal of Urban History 26/6 (September 2000), winner of Best Article on Urban History, Urban History Association, 2000, among others.
Awards: Self is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
W. Turrentine Jackson Award for Best Dissertation on the Twentieth-Century West, American Historical Association, Pacific Coast Branch, 1998;
Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, 2008-2009;
Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), 2007-2008;
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University;
Residential Fellowship, Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Harvard University (declined), 2007-2008;
Cogut Center for the Humanities, Faculty Fellowship, Brown University (declined), 2007-2008;
Edwin and Shirley Seave Faculty Fellow, Pembroke Research Seminar, Brown University, 2006;
Wriston Curricular Development Grant, Brown University, 2005-2006;
Richard B. Salomon Faculty Research Award, Brown University, 2005-2006;
W. M. Keck Foundation and Andrew Mellon Foundation Fellow, Huntington Library, 2004;
Graduate School Research Committee, Research Grant, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 2002-2003;
Rackham Summer Interdisciplinary Institute Fellowship, University of Michigan, 2001;
Office of the Vice President for Research Faculty Grant, University of Michigan, 2000;
American Philosophical Society, Research Grant, 1999;
Book Club of California, Manuscript Writing Grant, 1999;
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Dissertation Fellowship (year-long), 1997-1998;
National Science Foundation, Dissertation Grant (year-long), 1997-1998;
Rondeau Evans Dissertation Fellowship, History Department, University of Washington, 1997-1998;
Harry Bridges Graduate Research Fellowship, University of Washington, 1995.
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant Professor, History and Urban Studies, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 2002-2004.
Self was the Rackham Fellow, Michigan Society of FellowsUniversity of Michigan, 1999-2002, and the Fellow in the Study of the North American West, Stanford University, 1998-1999.

Personal Anecdote

Late in the afternoon in summer, usually around three or four, fog rolls through the “golden gate” from the Pacific Ocean, crosses the San Francisco Bay, and slams against the Oakland Hills. If you are lucky enough, and have enough money, to live in the hills, this is both an extraordinary sight and an exhilarating form of air conditioning. The daily fog keeps the hillside neighborhoods cool, while temperatures on the eastern side of the hills climb into the nineties and typically push one hundred.

On the western side, down below, lie the “flatlands” of Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond. The fog is slower to arrive there, and the heat can stay trapped for longer. Much of the flatlands was plotted in the first half of the century for workers: small bungalows, workers’ cottages, and Victorian duplexes to house the dock, warehouse, railroad, ferry, oil, and factory workers who made up the East Bay’s mid-century laboring classes.

Those classes, much like today, were multi-racial and international. African American, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Mexican American, Irish, Eastern European, they lived in eclectic neighborhoods of dense work, leisure, and residential life. Their labor made the East Bay a prosperous place, and when World War II arrived their labor (and the addition of perhaps a quarter of a million migrants) made it a booming place. You can catch them still in the amazing photographs of Dorthea Lang.

In between the working-class neighborhoods of the flatlands and the air-conditioned hills is the middle-class foothills. Packed with churches and commercial strips, these neighborhoods are a crazy-quilt of curving streets and secluded, tree-lined nooks. In the last decade, the housing bubble has pushed the modest homes in these neighborhoods into the six- and seven-hundred thousand dollar range. On the edges of these neighborhoods, even more modest flatland homes now stare down gentrification.

No one who traverses San Francisco’s East Bay can escape the geography of class and race that has been engraved into the terrain for more than a century. The flatlands are still a port of entry for the nation’s immigrants and the least privileged, 14th Street (now International Boulevard) an emblem of global flows of labor. The dock and railroads no longer provide employment, but Walmart and Best Buy, hospitals and nursing homes do as well as not a few of the hillside lawns and gardens.

You can travel to the flatlands from the hills in less than 10 minutes, but for more than a century it’s not been a distance you can measure in miles or driving time.


By Robert O. Self

  • The most significant political, economic, and spatial transformation in the postwar United States  JPG was the overdevelopment of suburbs and the underdevelopment of cities. As ostensible signifiers of this transformation, “white flight” and “urban decline” mask volatile and protracted social and political struggles over land, taxes, jobs, and public policy in the thirty years between 1945 and the late 1970s…Histories of the postwar United States typically tell separate stories. Civil rights was the great freedom movement. Suburbanization was driven by affluence and white flight. Urban history was characterized by deindustrialization and ghetto formation. These stories stand side by side one another, but we are left with a surprisingly impoverished analytical language for thinking of them relationally. To consider them in relation is not just to recover their deep connections but to rethink the stories themselves. — Robert Self, in “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland”

About Robert O. Self

  • “American Babylon promises to be one of those rare works that redefines the field. Robert Self brilliantly weaves together histories that are usually told separately: political economy, labor, black community formation, suburbanization, and civil rights. His analysis of the relationship between ‘black power’ and ‘white power’ opens up a new way of thinking about race, economics, and politics in modern America.” — Thomas J. Sugrue, University of Pennsylvania reviewing “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland”
  • “By grounding his historical narrative in its spatial context, Robert Self offers a new conception of postwar urban history and also of national political history, making it possible to map the relations of social and political power. He has moreover broken free of a traditional limitation of urban histories: rather than limit himself to a single municipality, he tells the story of an entire metropolitan region. This very readable book promises to be highly influential in the fields of urban history, postwar political history, and African American and race relations history.” — Philip J. Ethington, University of Southern California reviewing “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland”
  • “American Babylon traces the dialectic of suburbanization and black power in my hometown of Oakland, California. Encapsulating the postwar history of hundreds of mid-sized American cities, Robert Self’s original and fascinating case study historicizes city-suburb racial segregation as a creation within living memory. We cannot heal or make sense of the nation we live in now without American Babylon.” — Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University reviewing “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland”
  • “[A]n original and complex explanation for the urban crisis that transformed Oakland, California, from 1945 to 1978. . . . By placing the history of Oakland and its African American community in a new theoretical framework that emphasizes suburban growth, tax revolts, and battles over land, jobs, and political power, Self has challenged historians to reconsider the way that they study postwar black urban communities.” — Albert S. Broussard, “Journal of American History” reviewing “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland”
  • “[M]eticulously researched. . . . [A] compelling, complex, and original account of black and, to a lesser extent, white community politics in metropolitan Oakland California from 1945 to 1978.” — Cynthia Horan, “Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science” reviewing “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland”
  • “By placing the history of Oakland and its African American community in a new theoretical framework that emphasizes suburban growth, tax revolts, and battles over land, jobs, and political power, Self has challenged historians to reconsider the way that they study postwar black urban communities.” — Albert S. Broussard, “Journal of American History” reviewing “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland”
  • “If you are concerned with the postwar city, race, economics, and politics, get this book and read it.” — Kenneth Durr, “American Historical Review”
  • “Interesting, multi-faceted lectures every day. Prof. Self is so interesting and enthusiastic. He makes you equally as fascinated with history.”… “Prof. Self is an incredibly engaging, energetic, and dynamic professor who has made class fun and interesting throughout through his audiovisual aids (music as we shuffle into class and PowerPoint during lecture).”… “Prof. Self was wonderful…I learned so much about the history of gender and sexuality. The course questioned my ideas and completely transformed the way I look at history, politics, and society today.” Comments on postwar gender and sexuality course.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, June 24, 2007 at 9:41 PM

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