Writings by Allyson Hobbs


"My color shrouds me in…” Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry adopts this line from Countee Cullen, another Harlem Renaissance writer, as one of its two epigraphs. (The other is the well-known “Negro folk saying” that supplies the novel’s title: “The blacker the berry / The sweeter the juice…”) Through the life of his protagonist, Emma Lou, Thurman delves deep into the painful history of colorism, a term defined by Alice Walker to mean “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Emma Lou, Thurman writes, “was black, too black, there was no getting around it.” Her skin color overdetermines her life circumstances and alienates her from lighter-skinned family members, including her grandmother, who takes pride in her “blue veins,” and her mother, who wishes that Emma Lou had been born a boy because “black boys can make a go of it, but black girls…”

The Nation, April 26, 2018
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Standing 285 feet tall, Hoover Tower occupies a central place on Stanford’s campus. It is one of the university’s most recognizable landmarks. It houses the Hoover Institution, a think tank known for its members’ conservative leanings and for providing an institutional refuge for Reagan and Bush administration figures, including former secretaries of state George Shultz and Condoleezza Rice.

In early March, 30 white men (and one white woman) gathered to discuss “applied history” at a quietly organized and unpublicized Hoover Institution conference. The conference organizer Niall Ferguson handpicked members of his personal network, “rack[ing] his brain” for people he knew who worked on “the right kind of material.”

The Washington Post, March 26, 2018
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When former President Barack Obama concluded his farewell address on Jan. 11, 2017, Bruce Springsteen’s anthem, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” played for the 18,000 supporters who had crowded into McCormick Place in Chicago. Obama’s soaring speech, followed by Springsteen’s song, offered a momentary respite from the grief, dread and shock many Americans experienced after the election of Donald Trump.

As the night came to a close and Michelle and Barack Obama walked off the stage hand in hand, one era was ending and another was coming into sharper view. Obama’s and Springsteen’s messages blended together to reassure listeners that everything would be all right: “Leave behind your sorrows/Let this day be the last/Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/And all this darkness past.”

One year after Trump’s inauguration, a majority of Americans know that everything is not all right. The darkness that Springsteen sang about has not passed. Instead, it has surrounded and battered us on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. Just when we think things can’t get any worse, news breaks of another ill-informed, inappropriate and unpresidential tweet. 

Trump’s lead role in escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea created mass hysteria in Hawaii when an emergency message was sent in error about a ballistic missile threat. Hawaiians and tourists ran to seek shelter and wrote frantic goodbyes via text message to their loved ones. Pick your nightmare. Anything is possible—even nuclear holocaust—with Trump as president.

The Root, January 20, 2018
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In 1870 and 1871, Congress passed three Enforcement Acts that safeguarded the rights of African Americans to vote, hold office, serve on juries and receive equal protection under the law. These acts, also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Acts,” targeted the Klan for acting murderously to prevent African Americans from exercising their rights as citizens.

Today 146 years later, we could use the Enforcement Acts once more.

The Guardian, August 21, 2017
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In Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, the character Baby Suggs has survived more than 60 years in slavery and has lost eight children. She preaches a sermon to a group of formerly enslaved people and beseeches her audience to love themselves—their hands, their backs, their hearts, their laughter, their dances, their very flesh—because others do not:

In this here place, we flesh; … Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it.

On Friday afternoon, the announcement that Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile, had been acquitted of all charges, brought many people to something like “this here place” that Morrison described in Beloved. Yanez had been charged with second-degree manslaughter and endangering safety. Protesters outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, Minn., expressed disbelief, outrage and anguish. But for some, there was no surprise at all.

The Root, June 21, 2017
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"I'm Not the Nanny: Multiracial Families and Colorism"

Allyson reviews the book, Same Families, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families by Lori L. Tharps, for the New York Times Book Review (November 3, 2016).


In Danzy Senna’s 1998 novel “Caucasia,” two sisters — Cole and Birdie — share a bond so intimate that they create a language only they can understand. Engulfed in the racial chaos of Boston in the mid-70s, the sisters nestle themselves away in the cozy world they have created in their attic bedroom. Their lives are forever changed when their mother, a liberal white New Englander, and their father, a black man with radical political leanings, decide to divorce. The sisters are divided: Birdie lives with her mother and essentially passes for white, while Cole, who looks black, moves in with her father and his black girlfriend. In a city as racially divided and explosive as Boston in the 1970s, this separation by skin color strikes the reader as a chillingly rational decision.

The New York Times, November 3, 2016
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This book asks if Barack Obama's election as the 44th President of the United States represented a paradigmatic shift in the political and cultural tides. It works to move beyond a renewed acknowledgement of the extraordinary symbolic value of a black man having become president in a country still rife with racial problems. Specifically, 'Obama and the Paradigm Shift' investigates those areas of cultural politics in which Obama's election to the U.S. presidency were expected to make the greatest impact. These include racial politics, normative forms of masculinity and femininity, and an abatement of the divisiveness of the political climate. Outside of the United States, the volume questions the degree to which these phenomena have affected related areas in German culture. Adopting a trans-Atlantic perspective, 'Obama and the Paradigm Shift' reflects on ways the presidency has impacted on German cultural politics particularly regarding women in power and a politics of affect. 

Allyson Hobs, "Conclusion: A Paradigm Shift in Fits and Starts" 

A review by Johnny Van Hove:

This timely volume emerged out of the conference "Obama and the Paradigm Shift", organized in the summer of 2011 at the University of Giessen, and offers 10 essays that ask if and to what extent Barack and Michelle Obama caused a paradigm shift in the U.S. and Germany in terms of gender, race, and political divisiveness. Despite not always being consistent, especially not in terms of its self-declared transcultural approach, this collection of essays offers lively, differentiated, multifaceted, and critical readings of the presidency of the Obamas. As such, it provides enrichment for the current, deeply polarized book market on the Obamas.

“40 Million Ways To Be Black”: A Reconsideration Of “Who Is Black America”?

The legendary blues musician Rufus Thomas once gushed to a white man, “If you were black for one Saturday night on Beale Street, you would never want to be white again.” Like Thomas, many others have romanticized the image of a warm and welcoming black community. In addition, African American identities have often been flattened, homogenized, and reduced to a form of shorthand or a taken-for-granted concept—think of phrases such as “the black experience,” “the black vote,” “the black family,” and “the black community.” But as the panelists in session one, “Who is Black America,” made clear, there is no essentialized, immutable, or true black “identity” waiting to be found just below the surface. Rather, as the speakers argued, identities are conditional, contingent, and “always in process.”

Each presenter in the session offered new frameworks to understand the complexity and multiplicity of black identities. In doing so, they made several critical points: that we have been less attentive to identities that we consider shameful and that these identities have often been silenced in our family histories and in our classrooms; that we have yet to fully understand the complex historical connections between Native American and African American identities or the role that the knowledge of the law played in how African Americans understood themselves as Christians; and that each generation must grapple with the particular historical contexts that shape how identities are lived. Still, African American identities function as intangible spaces of imagination or sets of symbols to which people feel powerful attachments.

The Future of the African American Past
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Why Aren't We Inspired by Hillary Clinton?

It was an unseasonably warm night in Chicago. On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, nearly a quarter of a million people—young and old, men and women of almost every racial and ethnic background—streamed into Grant Park. The crowd was peaceful and somewhat subdued, filled with a jittery anticipation about how the night would likely unfold. Shortly after 10 P.M. Central Standard Time, television networks announced that Barack Obama had been elected the forty-fourth President of the United States. For a few seconds, the crowd stood still, in a stunned silence. Then, the crowd let out a collective and euphoric scream. There was joy, relief, and disbelief. Tears flowed freely, strangers hugged for several minutes, others knelt and prayed. Senator John McCain’s concession speech put Obama’s election into its historic context by reminding Americans that just a century ago President Theodore Roosevelt had been vilified for inviting Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. Obama’s victory speech took the high-spirited crowd even higher: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” I called my cousin, who was too filled with emotion and too mystified to complete her thought: “This country . . . This country . . . This country . . . ” she said quietly, as her voice trailed off.

If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and the national election, can we expect the same gathering of crowds and the same emotional outpouring? Would the historic election of the first woman President evoke a similar thrill and sense of wonderment at the leaps that this country is capable of making?

newyorker.com, September 23, 2015
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Actually, Hillary, Hearts Do Change

On August 11th, Hillary Clinton met privately with five Black Lives Matter activists in Keene, New Hampshire. The activists had arrived at Clinton’s campaign stop shortly before it was to begin, but they were not allowed to enter because the room was filled to capacity. So the campaign reached out to the activists and arranged a time for a meeting after the event. Last week, video of the sixteen-minute, behind-closed-doors conversation was released. Clinton appeared measured and tense at times, holding her hands tightly in front of her. She listened carefully to the activists and gave thoughtful, unscripted, and sometimes impassioned answers to questions about her past support for policies that have harmed communities of color.

newyorker.com, August 27, 2015
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Barack Obama's Second Inaugural in Charleston

On March 4, 1865, after days of heavy rain, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in a soggy capital to tens of thousands of Americans gathered in the mud and the muck. The speech was brief but profound and elegant. The abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass called it “a sacred effort.” Lincoln began humbly, noting that the address was hardly necessary compared to the lengthy message given at his first inaugural. That speech was given on March 4, 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, after seven Southern states had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Four years later, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the war was nearly over, and the Confederacy had been soundly defeated.

newyorker.com, June 29, 2015
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Rachel Dolezal's Unintended Gift to America

In James Baldwin’s 1968 novel “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” a child points to his light-skinned mother’s relationships to offer a compelling case that she is indisputably black:

“Our mama is almost white … but that don’t make her white. You got to be all white to be white …. You can tell she’s a colored woman because she’s married to a colored man, and she’s got two colored children. Now, you know ain’t no white lady going to do a thing like that.”

For the child in Baldwin’s novel, racial identity was determined by the life one chose to live and the relationships one chose to privilege.

Rachel A. Dolezal evidently believes that she should have the same choice as the light-skinned mother in Baldwin’s novel. Enmeshed in black politics, black communities and black experiences — she is raising two black sons — why should she see herself any other way?

nytimes.com, June 17, 2015
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Why We Can't Look Away from Violence against Black People

“I’m white! I’m white!”

On July 27, 1919, a recent immigrant from Italy was running for his life. Covered in dirt, he feared that the policemen who sped into his Chicago neighborhood in patrol wagons and squad cars might mistake him as black and “shoot him down.”

Chicago had exploded into a bloody race riot that lasted five days. By the time calm was restored to the city’s streets, thirty-eight people were dead, 537 were injured, and over a thousand had lost their homes. African Americans comprised the vast majority of the victims.

historynewsnetwork.org, June 11, 2015
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Pay Tribute to the Black Women Who Spoke Out About the Sexual Violence

The complex history of Reconstruction is often overlooked or forgotten altogether. The particular plight of African-American women during this period has faded even farther into history’s margins.

Similar to their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, African-American women experienced political and economic terror. But these women also endured sexual violence at the hands of white men determined to restore the sexual codes of the slavery regime. When the federal government called for congressional hearings to investigate the Ku Klux Klan in 1871, hundreds of black women came forward.

nytimes.com, May 26, 2015
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Chronicle of Higher Education

“A History of Loss”

Alexander Manly could have been the first victim of the bloody race riot that exploded in Wilmington, North Carolina in early November 1898. Manly, the publisher of the Daily Record, North Carolina’s only African American newspaper, was the target of the rioters after he wrote an inflammatory editorial challenging white-supremacist charges that black men were assaulting white women. Manly fired back that the white women who claimed that black men raped them, in fact, engaged in consensual sex. Manly’s press was burned to the ground. He narrowly escaped to Philadelphia, but upon his arrival, he discovered that work was hard for a black man to find. Employers summarily rejected his applications for employment as a painter and a decorator, claiming that no union would accept a black worker.

“So I tried being white,” Manly explained to journalist Ray Stannard Baker, “that is, I did not reveal the fact that I had coloured blood and I immediately got work in the some of the best shops in Philadelphia. I joined the union and had no trouble at all.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 9, 2015
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The ‘White’ Student Who Integrated Ole Miss

When Harry S. Murphy arrived at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1945, he was nervous. He landed at Ole Miss by way of the Navy's V-12 program, a wartime measure that allowed young men to take college classes, receive naval training and preparation to become officers.

Murphy was black, but university officials did not know that. He had a white complexion and wavy brown hair. A military official checked the "W" box for white when Murphy enlisted in the Navy.

cnn.com, February 5, 2014
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‘I, Too, Am Harvard’ Raises Alumnae Concern

As we watched the video for “I, Too, Am Harvard,” our hearts broke. 

Harvard undergraduates recounted painful experiences of isolation and alienation. They spoke of being maligned, underestimated and underappreciated. One student said that he did not feel valued or valuable. Another student said that although she went to Harvard, she was not “of Harvard.”

Scholars have a term for the insults described by these students. “Racial microaggressions” are defined as “brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” Hurtful words are spoken, but the speaker has little or no awareness of the meaning or effect of what he or she has said.

“Microaggressions” sounds like a misnomer to us. In the powerful delivery of “I, Too, Am Harvard,” we found nothing “micro” about what these students experienced.

theroot.com, April 2, 2014 co-authored with Florencia Greer Polite, M.D.
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Allyson Hobbs has been quoted in:


Bill Duke, Light Girls,

Documentary Film, Oxygen, Winter 2015


Felicia Lee, “In a Novelist’s World, You Choose Your Race,”

nytimes.com, August 11, 2014
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Koa Beck, “The Legend of Vera Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse,”

theatlantic.com, April 8, 2014
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Peter Morris and Stefan Fatsis, “Baseball’s Secret Pioneer,”

slate.com, February 4, 2014
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