In October 1983, senior historians gathered at Purdue University under the auspices of the AHA to share what they had learned about the African American past, and to establish what issues still needed to be explored. The conference and the resulting publication (The State of Afro-American History, 1986) provided both a landmark assessment and a helpful guide for moving forward. Now more than 30 years later, a new generation of historians is bringing fresh insights to long-standing questions and answering others only dimly imagined in the 1980s.
Our goal of the conference is to generate a conversation that at once describes a complex landscape that has evolved over the past three decades, and maps new directions. As they did in the 1980s when the Purdue conference was held, Americans and others around the world still turn to the histories and cultures of the African Diaspora for inspiration, and engagement with the African and African American struggle against slavery and the achievement of freedom has deepened. But the context for these interests has changed. The narratives of slavery, emancipation, and the Civil Rights Movement, and the themes of oppression, struggle, and liberation still resonate deeply. But what comes next in the popular understanding of African American history and its relation to American history? “The Future of the African American Past” conference will provide an opportunity for historians to share research and ideas, take stock of recent trends, and set an agenda to guide future inquiry. We intend to do this in a way that captures the imagination of public audiences as well as the interest of historians.