This project represents an evolutionary step in my interest in twentieth-century African American political thought. In my first book, Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919–1941, I examined black radical intellectual ideology during the New Deal. One of these radicals was Ralph Bunche, who, after leaving progressive politics behind in the early 1940s, became best known as an establishment insider and political moderate. In the early 1990s, I came across the carbon-copy set of Bunche's memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma during archival research in the Bunche Papers at the University of California, Los Angeles. Bunche's two-hundred-page “memo” on leadership intrigued me from the start, although I would do little with it for many years. It has been a delight to revisit that early moment of fascination.
My weeks in the archives, however, did not represent my original engagement with Ralph Bunche. In 1994, six months before I received my doctorate, my parents presented me with a Christmas gift: Margaret Young's The Picture Life of Ralph Bunche (Franklin and Watts, 1968), a slender cloth-bound book that was part of a late-1960s and early1970s series on black leadership designed for the adolescent market. This particular book was about Bunche and his United Nations work. It took a moment, but then I realized that I had seen this text before, roughly twenty-two years earlier. My mother and I read this book together when I was four or five years old. I confess that I did not retain anything about Bunche's life from the book, but I vividly remember its color: what I have always called “United Nations Blue.” It is impossible to say, of course, but it may be that my interest in Ralph Bunche—even if I only associated the individual with a particular shade of blue—extends back to that introduction to him in the early 1970s. What is certain is that I owe my love for history to my mother, and she thus deserves the first acknowledgment.