Blog Post

African American History as Public History

Paul Gardullo

“What is this thing we call Public History?” asked David Blight (albeit rhetorically) in the closing presentation to the panel entitled, “History, Preservation, and Public Reckoning in Museums.”  One simple way of answering that question is to demarcate the terrain and to say that Public History is the practice of producing historical narratives in places outside of the classroom and texts of academia, such as museums and monuments, historic sites and the built environment, the digital landscape, festivals, films, documentaries, popular culture and various other forms of cultural expression.  All sites where we know the great majority of the public consumes, forms opinions about, and engages in conversations around history and the past.

The assembled panelists each provided windows into aspects of this practice, in some ways displaying a genealogy of several major strands of the contemporary state of the field of public history.  More importantly, embedded across all of the presentations was a demonstration of some key words that exist at the heart of public history practice helping us to understand that this work can be more than just about the venues where history is produced and consumed.  Rather it has the power and potential to be about Healing, Reckoning, Truth-Telling, and Transformation.  Set in balance with that potential were examples of the hard reality and structures of power and racism, and the challenges of legislation, collaboration and fundraising.  “Public History is not for the faint of heart,” declared Panel Chair, Lonnie Bunch, in his introduction. “It depends on finding a balance between giving the public what it wants and giving them what they need.” A process that is easier said than done when telling hard truths is involved.

In detailing stories of his work across 40 years in the trenches of public history work, George McDaniel made the first case that I heard over the course of the conference for the importance of collecting and studying material culture as a way of teaching about history. In discussion of his collection and interpretation of a tenant house from Prince Georges County, Maryland for the National Museum of American History to his work leading reinterpretation of the entire plantation landscape as Director of Drayton Hall and connecting to African American genealogical and community historical groups such as Lowcountry Africana, to his current work with members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC on collecting and preserving memorabilia following the massacre last June, a recurring note was to the admonition to reach into, forge relationships with and connect communities, developing a shared authority with the public on interpretation and leaving space for all voices to be heard.  This is an element of curation that the NMAAHC similarly recognizes is essential to being a national museum.

Dorothy Spruill Redford’s discussion of her multi-decade struggle toward transforming Somerset Plantation in North Carolina from an anemic, exclusive “He” story, to a vibrant, inclusive story of “We,” demonstrated cogently and powerfully how more often than not, when dealing with African American history in public spaces such as the plantation, the overburdening need is not providing a space for allowing all voices to be heard, but rather to assert new, historically accurate or “legitimate” narratives that undo and overcome the overriding “institutional unwillingness to recognize the significant participation of African Americans in American history.”

In this struggle toward building a more inclusive, legitimate story of Somerset Place’s past, Ms. Redford was careful to delineate how important it is to cultivate relationships with legislators, historians and the non-profit community for fundraising and support.  Implied within her presentation was also the importance of maintaining and exhibiting humor when fighting those battles and building intra and interracial coalitions. 

While Redford’s and McDaniel’s work primarily focused on the re-imagining of already interpreted sites on the antebellum landscape, Dolores Hayden shifted our focus both to the urban environments and to the continued need to carve out and create space for new interpretations of spatial history.  Reminding us of her influential work with The Power of Place collective in Los Angeles (work that I have been both deeply inspired by and shamelessly stole from in naming my own inaugural exhibition that will open at the NMAAHC), Hayden made a claim for how a politically engaged “spatial history can help us fill silences in the record” by, for instance, in part, by bringing back into public memory the lives and work of African American women such as Biddie Mason and the First AME church of Los Angeles.

But she also hastened to add that changing priorities for commemoration and memorialization isn’t merely about adding “new names” to the cultural landscape or simply correcting the record, but that spatial histories should compel us to dismantle a simple understanding of African American history and culture, focusing on intersectionality, and instead look at the ways, for instance, that people and institutions have sought to incorporate and bring into conversation multiple racial narratives in single sites and/or venues, community initiatives, web-based initiatives and other projects that connect to racial and social justice.

David Blight’s eloquent and evocative meditations on Public History to close the panel briefly touched on some practical measures such as the need to better train and educate both professional public historians and academic historians in the promise and challenges inherent in the practice of doing public history as well as to diversify the field.  Just as important to me, however, was his provocative claim that “this history, African American history, has always been public history.” Claiming both James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass to its ranks, Blight sufficiently drew boundaries both wide and useful enough around the public history to encompass a wide range of theory and practice.

While Blight quoted Baldwin’s ruminations on history and tragedy in service to African American history as public history, there has been another Baldwin quote that has served to inspire me over the years me as we conceptualize, collect and curate for the opening of the NMAAHC, a museum 100 years in the making.  In 1963, Baldwin wrote “American History is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

In many ways, it is the job of this museum to help to do the work of filling in the silences embedded within Baldwin’s quote and the silences of the archive that Elsa Barkley Brown spoke of in Friday’s panel, “Who is African America”.  Some of these silences will begin to be filled by the positioning of the museum literally and metaphorically on the National Mall, the conceptualization and writing of exhibitions, the dialogue with visitors and the ongoing engagement with scholars. This work must, however, be ongoing and be done in concert with scholarship, and also with the work of institutions, sometimes collaborating with, sometimes catalyzing and sometimes shining a light on projects, organizations and institutions -- historically black and historically white -- that either need assistance and/or prodding in their approaches to saving and sharing in Dorothy Redford’s words “the legitimate and inclusive past.”

I would argue, however, echoing Lonnie Bunch, that the most permanent thing we can do to address these silences is within the very process of building our Collection -- this national collection. It is this that must serve as roots for our most important work of beginning to reorient or redefine our relationship to the American and the global past for a worldwide public. What we choose to save, recover, hold up to the light of day and remember IS crucial -- personally and collectively, unofficially and officially, for the body politic and for the soul. 

It is the labor we do in engaging with and expanding that archive – in concert with one another, sometimes in critique and heated debate, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful, but always in the spirit of life, struggle, freedom and equality -- that matters. And then infused with that spirit, our institutions and works become more than shrines full of static artifacts and sheaths of paper in a nation’s attic but places with the potential to be genuine transformative forces for truth-telling, for healing, for reckoning and for transformation. That is the work of African American History. That is the work of Public History.


Paul Gardullo is Museum Curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.


SESSION 7: History, Preservation, and Public Reckoning in Museums