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Digital Subscriptions > Boston Review > Allies (Fall 2019) > THE HISTORIAN AND THE REVOLUTIONARY


Walter Johnson & Tef Poe interviewed by Mordecai Lyon

WALTER JOHNSON, a historian at Harvard University, has written for Boston Review about the role that guns and race played during his upbringing in Columbia, Missouri. With books such as River of Dark Dreams (2013), he has made a reputation as one of the most astute chroniclers of American slavery in the academy. His upcoming book, The Broken Heart of America, traces the history of U.S. imperialism and anti-blackness specifically through the history of St. Louis. Climbing the stone stairs to the Victorian he shares with his family, I notice the front door is wide open. Inside there is a comforting chaos: toys across the floor, stacks of books, basketballs, newspapers, shoes of every size, style, and color. I am unsure whether to knock or call out.

Johnson is hosting our mutual friend Tef Poe, one of the central organizers of the 2014 Ferguson Uprising. Poe is a St. Louis rapper and revolutionary devoted to dismantling white supremacy and shedding light on the city’s history of black greatness. Poe and I met at the end of 2018, when he visited a class I was auditing at Harvard called The Historical Philosophy of W. E. B. Du Bois. The course was taught by Cornel West, who has mentored both Poe and me for the last several years. After traveling together to Puerto Rico and St. Louis, Poe invited me to help him with his forthcoming memoir, Rebel to America.

To those who know only one of the pair—a middle-aged Harvard professor and a millennial revolutionary from the North Side of St. Louis—it might come as a surprise that Poe is godfather to Johnson’s youngest son. But the two have a strong bond of both personal and professional admiration, forged through their shared commitment to fighting anti-blackness and white supremacy. Since 2017 they have been working together toward the goal of creating a community-based arts center on the North Side of St. Louis (a story in and of itself). This fall they are cosponsoring a fellowship to support photographers and other visual artists from St. Louis, culminating in an exhibition that will travel between St. Louis and Harvard.

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About Boston Review

Allies is the first publication of Boston Review's newly inaugurated Arts in Society department. A radical revisioning of the magazine's poetry and fiction, the department unites them—along with cultural criticism and belles lettres—under a project that explores how the arts can speak directly to the most pressing political and civic concerns of our age, from growing inequality to racial and gender regimes, a disempowered electorate, and a collapsing natural world.