Blog Post

The Politics of Narrative

James T. Campbell

It is in the nature of academic conferences that one leaves them with more questions than answers.  But rarely have I had that feeling more keenly than I did at the conclusion of the "Future of the African American Past" conference.  To some extent, my reaction bespeaks the richness of the papers and conversations, but it also reflects the unique occasion.  As panelists presented their papers in the auditorium of the National Museum of American History, workers across 14th Street installed exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution's new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open in September.  Nat Turner's Bible and Louis Armstrong's trumpet; Trayvon Martin's hoodie and Sojourner Truth's white shawl; George Clinton's Mother Ship and timbers from a slave ship sunk in the waters off Cape Town; the looming guard tower from Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary and a recording of "Motherless Child" in the keening tenor of Robert Pete Williams, one of the countless black men who labored in the tower's shadow:  priceless treasures from the ongoing odyssey of black people in America.

            The setting gave debates at the conference unusual urgency.  How are we to recount the story of the African American past?  How can a single narrative, a single museum, encompass such disparate things?  What does it mean to create a "national" museum focused on the experience of people whose place within the nation has been so often contested and denied?  Does African American history offer "a lens to understand what it means to be an American," as the museum's founding director, Lonnie Bunch, suggested in his opening remarks, and, if so, what do we see when we gaze through it?  

            As always in matters of historical interpretation, our answers to these questions are shaped by the exigencies of the present.  However we may preach about approaching the past on its own terms, it is in our nature as historians -- as human beings -- to view the past through the prism of our own time.  And what a curious time it is, an age that erects monuments to the Civil Rights movement while systematically rolling back its accomplishments, that sends a black man to the White House while casually consigning millions of his brethren to the purgatory of poverty and prison.

            While the precise subjects varied, the panels at the conference continually returned to these questions -- questions about history and memory, about the entanglements of past and present, about the sources and consequences of historical silence.  Panelists also discussed the politics of narrative, including the perils of those reassuring, redemptive narratives to which national mythmakers seem instinctively to resort when faced with the experience of African Americans.  "What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending," William Dean Howells once observed, and what more tempting ground to seek it than African American history?

            All these themes and questions converge in the papers in session six, "Internationalizing African American History."  Ranging widely across space and time, the papers illuminate previously neglected stories of black life and struggle, the kind of stories that slip through the cracks of a narrowly national framework.  Carol Anderson recounts the efforts, ultimately unavailing, of NAACP leaders to prevent the World Bank from granting vital loans to the National Party government of South Africa in the aftermath of the 1948 "apartheid" election.  (Anderson takes her title, "Hang Your Conscience on a Peg," from the instructions given to U.S. State Department officials preparing to take up posts in South Africa.)  Tiffany Ruby Patterson-Myers uses the experience of two extraordinary women activists, Addie Hunton and Vicki Garvin, to reconsider a century of internationalist and Pan-African politics, while Barbara Savage recovers the remarkable career of Merze Tate, a pioneering scholar of international relations, whose cruel dismissal by her male colleagues at Howard University has been reproduced by neglectful historians.  Last but not least, James Sidbury traces the epic journey of the so-called Black Loyalists, African Americans who sided with the British in the Revolutionary War and eventually found their way to the West African colony of Sierra Leone, where in 1800 they staged a short-lived rebellion.  Sidbury finds in the rebel's manifesto a glimpse of an alternative founding, a vision of political community related to but different from the one framed by the Founders in Philadelphia. 

            Sidbury's conclusion, simply stated yet vast in its implications, might serve for all the papers on the panel, and indeed for much of the conference:  "When some were excluded from 'the people', their ideas were excluded as well."  How does a museum rectify that? 


SESSION 6: Internationalization of African American Politics and Culture