The Organization of American Historians (OAH) today announced that Johanna Fernández, Baruch College of the City University of New York, is the recipient of three OAH awards: The Frederick Jackson Turner Award recognizes a first scholarly book dealing with some aspect of American history; the Merle Curti Social History Award recognizes the best book in American social history; and the Liberty Legacy Foundation Award recognizes the best book by a historian on the civil rights struggle from the beginnings of the nation to the present. The Awards were presented during the OAH’s 2021 Annual Meeting.
Fernández’s book, “The Young Lords: A Radical History” (The University of North Carolina Press), offers a nuanced and lyrical investigation into one of the most underappreciated radical organizations to emerge from the tumult of the 1960s.
In ways distinct among the social movements of the time, the Lords took up the full meaning of “power to the people,” tackling not only poverty and discrimination but also colonialism, indigeneity, and anti-Blackness. With profound insight and consistent evenhandedness, Fernández traces the organization’s rise and fall, showing why the Young Lords captured the imaginations of millions and explaining the destructive internal schisms that occurred as they sought to hold the empire at bay. Fernández charts the party’s origins, growth, and impact on the fight for social and economic justice in the era of the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. Fernández probes the daily lives of Puerto Ricans in postwar Chicago and New York, finding the origins of the Young Lords’ politics and tactics in their personal experiences with racism, schooling, poverty, first-generation college attendance, and as “language and cultural translators” for their immigrant parents. In addition to an astonishing effort to gather oral histories, Fernández reviewed the Young Lords’ internal documents and even won a lawsuit to access the New York Police Department’s surveillance files on the group. On page after page, Fernández uses her array of sources to overturn assumptions about the Young Lords’ relationship to gender politics, the Black Civil Rights Movement, and white allies, among others. “The Young Lords” is a magisterial history of everyday social movement building and revolutionary community organizing with urgent lessons for the present.
Fernández quotes activist Iris Benítez booming through a bullhorn, “The people of El Barrio have gotten to the point that they don’t ask the why of things anymore, they just see things as they exist and try to survive. The Young Lords know the why and we’re trying to relay that information to the people.” Historical education was a central preoccupation of the Lords themselves, and a half century later, Fernández’s sensitive and comprehensive work renews their call to inform a new generation about the struggles of their forebears.
In this powerful book, Johanna Fernández narrates the history of the legendary Young Lords Party, from its roots in a Chicago street gang to its heyday in New York City to its decline in Puerto Rico. She conjoins a rich social history of everyday activism with a lively account of political culture, intellectual underpinnings, and news-grabbing protests. The book is engagingly written and crisply argued, and the research is phenomenal. Fernández mined archival and personal collections, conducted almost 100 oral history interviews, used Federal Bureau of Investigation counterintelligence reports, and sued the New York City Police Department to win access to an immense collection of surveillance records. By placing the Young Lords in the context of late 1960s Black Power, leftist, third worldist, and feminist movements, she opens our vision of community organizing and shows us how multiethnic class-based politics—both radical and pragmatic—“helped stretch the country’s definition of citizenship and democracy.”
The academy rarely uses the word definitive to describe books but, in this case, Johanna Fernández has produced the most authoritative work on the Young Lords. “The Young Lords” is deeply anchored in an expansive archive that includes a decade-long Freedom of Information Act request and court battle to secure the New York Police Department’s Handschu surveillance files—over a million police records of New Yorkers collected between 1954 and 1972, which included the missing infamous Malcolm X records. Also noteworthy are the numerous oral interviews with former members of the group in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. If Fernández’s collection is ever digitized it will produce the most robust and exhaustive collection of Puerto Rican activism. Although modeled after the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the Young Lords, made up of young Puerto Rican women and men, over time developed their own cross-fertilization of political ideas that helped reshape the socialist Left in the United States, which provides a new lens on larger questions related to revolutionary nationalism, civil rights, and Black Power.
The Young Lords understood how solidarity with antiwar, women’s, and gay liberation movements, Black freedom fighters, workers, prisoners, and Latin American radicals was essential for revolutionary transformation and the decolonization of Puerto Rico. Amid a global pandemic, Fernández gifts us a usable history in which radicals mobilized to protect the health of the economically precarious and the labor rights of essential workers. Moreover, the book’s rich history greatly improves our understanding of the Young Lords, the Panthers, and Third World socialist struggles.
For the full list of OAH 2021 book award and prize recipients, please visit the OAH website.
The Organization of American Historians was founded in 1907 and is the largest professional organization dedicated to the teaching and study of American history. The mission of the OAH is to promote excellence in the scholarship, teaching and presentation of American history, and to encourage informed public discussion of and engagement with historical questions. The mission of the OAH is guided by the principles of the advancement of scholarship, historical advocacy, and professional integrity. The OAH national headquarters are located in the historic Raintree House on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus.