Blog Post

Every Generation Has to Write Its Own History

Stephanie J. Shaw

During the late 1960s and early ‘70s, there was concern amongst some American historians that efforts underway to establish an African American history field were somewhat misguided.  They insisted, among other reasons, that African American history was already included in American history.  A panel session at The Future of the African American Past symposium, “African American History as American History,” certainly called to mind that discussion.  It also called to mind a discussion that took place among African Americanists a little later that addressed similar concerns but from a different perspective.     

The Future of the African American Past symposium aimed to revisit and to carry forward discussions that took place in 1983 at Purdue University where African Americanists convened to discuss “The State of Afro-American History.”  A major issue under discussion was whether black historians should work to integrate American history more completely or would instead be better served if the fields were separated.  Another parallel quickly became apparent during the symposium- given that the panel discussions were intended to coincide with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we expect that people will also ask, “why do we need an African American museum when there is an American museum right across the street?” 

The politics of intellectual inquiry quickly became an important part of this discussion.  The papers of both Jacqueline Jones and Tom Holt take up the issue from different directions.  Jones showed how bigoted “scholarship” and pseudo-science became “knowledge” and justified bigoted policies. Holt showed how placing ourselves in history and making (writing) history was inherently political.  All the presenters recognized that the issue today is not simply integration vs. separation as it was when John Hope Franklin began his career and for the first several decades of it.  He wanted his work recognized as Southern history but by 1983 he supported the youngsters’ insistence on the need for a separate field and recognized the importance of different methods, sources, and perhaps especially different perspectives. 

Many of the issues addressed during the day revealed a continuance of generational divides.  There was clearly a feeling among many (probably younger) participants that we have made little progress in the larger profession.  Tom Holt challenged us to see the magnificent building that is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on the National Mall, and still say there has been no progress.  Darlene Clark Hine noted the major book series in African-American history/studies.  The issues are clearly beyond whether we will be allowed to attend scholarly conferences (which was the case for Du Bois) or eat in the cafeteria or even use the public reading room (which was still an issue for Franklin), but audience members were still worried about employment, publication, and general acceptance by those in the larger field (and perhaps even by older members in their own fields).  Jacqueline Jones believed that historians were the most generous scholars in their recognition of good work, whoever produced it.

Other questions remained on the table (not that anything mentioned above could be resolved in a conference session).  Jones made the point that despite the “untapped demand” for public history/historians, today it seems that if one isn’t studying a STEMM field then whatever one is doing is worthless. And the humanities seem to be at the bottom of the worth/value heap.  Nell Painter pointed out how important it is for us not to be afraid to tell whole stories.  (Didn’t slaves sometimes have fun?)  Holt wondered out loud how “respectability” came to be something to be disparaged--an admitted over simplification but exasperation with “respectability studies” came up in numerous sessions.  If we had had more time, there could have been a deeper discussion of why the word “enslaved” seems better than “slave” to some writers and thinkers; whether we can do anything about the small group of people (in Texas) who determine what will appear (and how) as American history in textbooks; how much more we can do to serve the public (and more directly); and, how, despite discussions of difference, we should all be able to find ourselves in both the NMAAHC and the NMAH.

Out of time (and, personally, out of space), it would have been interesting to talk about generational perspectives in more detail.  As Tom Holt noted, every generation has to write its own history, and each of those histories is merely a foundation for the next one.      


SESSION 8: African American History as American History