Spotlight on Faculty: Maryan Soliman, Assistant Professor in the Intercollegiate Department Of Africana Studies

Maryan Soliman

This fall, 11 new tenure-track faculty members joined Scripps College, including two at the W.M. Keck Science Department. As part of our ongoing series on Scripps’ faculty, the Office of Marketing and Communications recently sat down with Maryan Soliman, who is an assistant professor in the Intercollegiate Department of Africana Studies and has an appointment with Scripps College.

Soliman earned her PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, her BA in history from UC Berkeley and her MA in history from San Francisco State University. During the 2015–16 academic year, she held a postdoctoral fellowship with the African and African American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Maryan’s research interests include the black freedom movement, labor organizing, and radical history. Her scholarship examines social movements’ race politics and views on capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Maryan’s book manuscript, Reconstruction Relived: Communists, Race, and Southern Liberalism in 1930s Atlanta, explores the protest movement that emerged to defend the constitutional liberties of Communists facing state repression in Atlanta during the Great Depression. The project recognizes that responses to Communist race radicalism in the region provide a window into the worldviews and racial attitudes of southerners.

Scripps College: Your upcoming book manuscript, the focus of your dissertation, provides insights about how the Communist Party worked to help the cause of justice for black Americans during an era that we don’t often hear much about: that of 1930s Atlanta. Who were the players? What issues were at stake?

Maryan Soliman: As part of the Communist International, headquartered in Moscow, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) believed that the economic crisis of the late 1920s had created a situation ripe for worldwide revolution and that black workers would play a pivotal role in overturning capitalism in the US. In 1930, scores of black and white Communists headed to the South—to where the majority of African Americans resided at the time—in a brave effort to build an integrated labor movement. In Atlanta, the CPUSA’s events drew the attendance of hundreds of black southerners curious about what these radicals had to offer. At a time of Jim Crow segregation, the Communists advocated for full racial equality, including for the legal right of black and white people to marry. In contrast, progressive organizations in the region took a cautious approach to race relations, combating only the most egregious aspects of separate facilities instead of confronting segregation itself. In fact, these groups designated separate black and white seating at their meetings in observance of Atlanta racial norms. No wonder the Communists aroused the ire of Atlanta city officials and conservatives with their integrated events and radical race politics. Authorities arrested and charged those who organized Communist meetings with “attempting to incite insurrection” under a state statute that dated back to the antebellum era and carried a possible death sentence. Interestingly, white southern liberals came to the defense of the Communists’ free speech rights, but they did so in the tradition of a cautious approach to race relations. They left race out of the discussion of why the Communists were targeted, and they organized an all-white public defense campaign. In the end, the Communists were spared, but the insurrection statute remained on the books only to be called upon once again during the next episode of integrated dissent in Atlanta: the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

SC: How do you approach the teaching of history?

MS: I cultivate an interest in history by using engaging material and spurring discussion. When I prepare a syllabus, I think of myself as a curator introducing students to a collection of great materials that are in discussion with each other. I have found that students benefit greatly from primary source readings. The secondary literature helps frame the discussion, while primary source documents—like a speech or poem from the era—bring the history to life. I like to start class by playing a song from the period that we’re examining or one that raises themes we’ll discuss. I also use documentaries, audio clips, and images to convey a sense of the past. My classes involve a great deal of lively discussion, which happens not only because of the great material we engage but also because as a collective we are posing thought-provoking questions.

SC: What or who was it that helped you catch the “history bug” when you realized that this was the subject you wanted to study at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate?

MS: It was in an introductory history class taught by Leon Litwack when he was lecturing about “the Wobblies,” an international labor union that was founded in 1905 in Chicago, and had incorporated into his lecture rich material from that social rights movement that I first “felt history.” In that 700-seat auditorium, I was spellbound experiencing the issues, music, voices, and stories of people who were embroiled in the class struggle of their time, and I was able to understand them as multidimensional players. At the end of the lecture, I turned to my classmate, enraptured by what I had just seen and heard, and said “so, it wasn’t just me, right?”

SC: Why do you encourage students to take the introductory class to Africana Studies?

MS: The course gives students a glimpse into Africana studies, an interdisciplinary field that explores the lives, histories, ideas, and cultures of people of African descent. It also provides students with an opportunity to discuss race in a classroom setting where all participants are expected to engage readings that convey the history of slavery, colonialism, and systemic racism. My rendition of the course focuses on social movements for black freedom, as well as on issues of class and gender. Students enjoy learning about how campus movements fought to establish Black Studies programs in the 1960s. I’m encouraging students to work with me and the department to uncover the history and origins of Black Studies at The Claremont Colleges, an endeavor that would be of great value to the entire campus community.

SC: Do you have a random fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about you, that you’d like to share with us?

MS: I love literature and the arts as much as I love history and would like one day to turn my study of radical interracial organizing into a play.