Blog Post

African American History Is American History

Marcia Chatelain

“Wow!” In the closing session, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president Earl Lewis attempted to sum up the depth of the previous panels in one word: ‘wow.’ It was fitting, considering the array of methodologies, topics, and frames that have evolved from African American history scholarship.  For those who craft and appreciate the field, there are no doubts that African American history is American history.  Yet, embedded in this conversation were more enduring questions about the uses of African American history and the role of historians and the public good. Lewis asked panelists to reflect on “the politics of intellectual inquiry,” acknowledging that history is not created or sustained in a vacuum. 

Historian and artist Nell Painter expressed an ardent belief that African American history is everything.  Painter displayed a vibrant series of images of her own art—which conceptualizes history as both visual and textual.  Painter enrolled in art school after her retirement from Princeton, and she discovered a new way to address the problem of “representativeness,” a preoccupation of historians.  “How does this case study, how does this individual, how does this story represent African American people for all time?”  Painter believes historians, as social scientists, are engaged in giving “a permanent truth” to the world.  Despite the politics and the “shadow of white supremacy” that can distort or misuse African American history, Painter believes that these facts cannot and should not stop intellectual production.

Thomas Holt focused on the illustrious John Hope Franklin, “the dean of African American history.”  Holt discussed Franklin’s shift from being critical of Black Studies in the 1960s to embracing the teaching of African American History.  Holt centered Franklin as a historian whose position on intellectual inquiry responded to waves of political change.  Holt’s tribute turned to a central tension that linked the conference panels: What to make of the idea of progress?  Holt asserted that although “progress has always been in the African-American experience,” it is not an endpoint, rather each step forward creates, “a plateau on which the next stage of progress is to be built on.”  The conference, he said, was “creating a kind of ground, a terrain in which to take stock and see where we go from here.”

Darlene Clark Hine recalled the enthusiasm and exuberance in the 1980s for integrating “new topics [and] new people, who have been excluded from the history of the generation past,” into African American history.  She believed that scholars were preparing themselves for “for greater struggle,” as they took up groundbreaking projects in the field.  Hine also shared a story of a woman requesting she write about black women in Indiana.  The woman evoked her status as a taxpayer, Hine’s position at a public university, and the activist women who marched to create an academic space for black history.  Hine was convinced and wrote the book.  She concluded that African American history had pushed a “more inclusive American history and African American history simultaneously” in the service of a larger public.

Executive director of the American Historical Association James Grossman continued the conversation on the public by using the word purpose to consider how the public will perceive two museums—one devoted to American History and the soon-to-open one devoted to African American history.  Grossman asked historians to consider the ways that people look to museums to see themselves, their stories, and their histories.  He added that even in the absence of self-recognition, historians must purposefully capture human stories.  Jacqueline Jones’s comments cautioned historians from becoming too self-congratulatory in light of reinvigorated attacks on historians.  Raising the issue of inaccuracies in textbooks and the use of popular media to share history with the public, Jones suggested that historians must use their voices in spaces outside of the academy or the museum.

The audience comments did not answer the question if African American history could supplant American history, but the politics of creating and disseminating this history resonated throughout.  Audience members asked about the future of terms, academic job markets, and accessibility.  In the vastness of all these issues, Painter closed the conference by reminding historians to find allies, keep them, and to continue to do history, “because you love the work.” 


SESSION 8: African American History as American History