Not a Black Historian in Sight

This morning the National History Center will host a Congressional briefing on the history of Civil War monuments. They have assembled an impressive panel of three senior scholars, including Karen Cox, David Blight, and Gaines Foster. The session will be recorded and should be available for viewing at a later date. I look forward to watching for myself as this promises to be a fascinating discussion.

That said, I am just a bit surprised and saddened to see that this panel does not include a single African-American historian. Many of the topics that will no doubt emerge over the course of this discussion will center on the history of racism, white supremacy, and Jim Crow culture and yet we will not hear from a single black voice.

I received an email from someone involved in the organization of this panel in response to a tweet that I posted last night:

We did invite two African American scholars.

So, it looks like organizers tried to secure at least one black scholar. I am going to leave it to you to decide whether this is a satisfactory response.

In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville a number of historians spoke out passionately about encouraging the media to reach out to black scholars for commentary and providing equal space for op-eds and essays. Why the silence in this case? This is not just any panel discussion. This one is taking place in our nation’s capital and is intended to inform and educate our nationally elected leaders.

If ever there was a moment to reflect the diversity of the historical profession this is it.

 

14 comments… add one
  • Kevin,

    This is a difficult thing for me, because I think I understand your point, but I’m confused as to exactly what perspective an African-American scholar would have that couldn’t be covered by any other? The organizers approached two who were either uninterested in appearing or unavailable due to other commitments (does your email explain why they chose not to participate?), but from your post you seem to think that’s not a significant attempt. History is history whether it’s told by someone who is white or black. Does a Jewish scholar carry more weight when it comes to studying the Holocaust? Will a female historian provide deeper insights into women’s history then a man? Do Irish historians do a better job of telling Irish history? Some may think so, but I disagree.

    An African-American’s words would carry greater weight if this was simply a townhall meeting describing how the monuments make someone feel, but unless a conscious attempt was made to exclude someone who was African-American (which isn’t the case here) I respectfully submit that this isn’t that big of a deal.

    Best
    Rob

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    • Some good points, Rob. I am glad to know that, indeed, Black historians were invited, before this outrage blew up, further. That being said, if they had not included Dr. Cox, I would have been outraged – not because she is a woman, but rather, because this is her expertise.

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    • Hi Rob,

      Thanks for the question. I think I made it perfectly clear that this post is not in any way a criticism of the scholarship of Foster, Blight, and Cox. They are all experts and all deserve to be on this panel.

      I can’t speak to the efforts made to secure a black panelist beyond the email that I received which simply indicated that two had been contacted and declined. I have no idea why they declined.

      All three panelists can speak to the subject narrowly defined, but I suspect that the conversation did move beyond history to the racial politics of the time and its impact on today’s racial climate. It is unavoidable. For that reason alone it would have been helpful to have someone who can speak to this from within the African-American community even though that community does not speak with one voice.

      I am also very much aware that in the wake of Charlottesville the vast majority of op-eds/essays and interviews about these monuments were done by white historians. As far as I am concerned this is inexcusable in 2017 and institutions should make it a point to try to address this in different ways. Hope that helps.

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      • Kevin,

        I never believed you were criticizing any of the panelists. My understanding of your concern is that an African-American voice on the panel would have made it more rounded. That’s hard, if not impossible, to disagree with. However, as I read your post, you seem to question whether the organizers did all they could to find that voice. There are a number of unknowns to this (at least for me). Most important, when was the panel organized in relation to its presentation? If the organizers had months to do this I think a stronger case could be made that more effort could have been extended. However, if we are talking about weeks, or even days, that changes the dynamic entirely.

        That said, even if the discussion moved toward the racial politics of the time, again I fail to see what an African-American voice would have brought to the table that no other competent historian could have brought. The elephant in the room for me is the question of whether identity politics has a place in the presentation of history. As much as one can argue (with merit) that minority voices were not only ignored but were actively suppressed in the past, I fear that if the pendulum swings too far the other way, and non-minority voices are somehow silenced in favor of those suppressed voices, nothing beneficial has been gained.

        You point out yourself that the African-American community (and others) rarely if ever speak with one voice. I am a leftist who supported Hillary (secretly wishing Bernie could be elected) yet I find inherent danger in our obsession with identity politics, even though I fully accept that those generally on the wrong side of the issue have been, and continue to be, the alt-right. To speak with a more nuanced voice is the ideal, and is certainly an attainable goal. But a more nuanced voice invites everyone to speak. Again, from what you’ve posted, this organization did just that. That no one accepted the opportunity shouldn’t be held against the organization.

        As to your concern over those speaking out after Charlottesville, we must be reading different media. Many of the op-ed pieces I saw were written by African-Americans as well as white historians. But I freely admit that I only read a select number of news outlets, so I could very well have missed something.

        Best
        Rob

        Reply
        • Rob,

          Thanks for the follow up. I have no idea what went into the planning of this panel. All I have is a two-sentence email that indicates that two black scholars were invited and declined. Beyond that I don’t know was or what wasn’t done. I do know that there are way more than two black scholars who can comment thoughtfully on this issue.

          Again, I am not suggesting that black scholars have some kind of privileged access to historical truth when it comes to monuments. What I am suggesting, however, is that given the subject and setting, this particular panel should have included a black scholar. When I put together my most recent book on the Civil War and public history

          I intentionally sought out African American historians because I wanted my book to represent the diversity of the community. Crossing the color line does bring out different perspectives and this informs the kinds of questions we ask as scholars as well as the answers. The same can be said for a panel like this.

          I hope that helps.

          Reply
    • Given the stature of the three named panelists, I will credit that they also made a good faith effort to get African American participants of similar caliber. It’s unfortunate that, for whatever reason, they could not participate.

      I agree with you that having African Americans on the panel shouldn’t matter, but as a practical matter it does. It would be too easy stir up some controversy about an all-white panel, regardless of what they’ve actually written or said. (You gotta know that Cornell West is logging onto his Twitter about this right now.) Sometimes image is as influential as substance, even if it shouldn’t be.

      Reply
  • Can you imagine what would be said if they had a panel discussion on the Holocaust and had not one Jewish historian?

    Reply
    • I remember a hearing (not about history or historians) on women’s health where all the witnesses were male and most were clergy. That was the one where Sandra Fluke wasn’t allowed to testify because she wasn’t “qualified”. The results were as bad as the optics.
      I’m with Kevin on this.

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  • Brian, whom would you have suggested?
    Some one should at least read into record the speech by Mayor Landrieu from earlier this year.

    Reply
  • Mean Kevin not Brian

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    • I am not going to rattle off names right now. Let’s just say that the list extends way beyond two people. We should also avoid thinking that the only people qualified are specialists in Civil War memory and monuments. There are a number of sub-fields that are directly relevant to understanding the history and memory of these monuments.

      Reply
  • Hey, I recognize a guy in this Vox piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOkFXPblLpU

    Reply
    • Posting it now.

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  • Not being an expert in the field, I never heard of the listed panelists. But I have heard of Dr. Henry Louis Gates & wondered why he wasn’t on the panel. Then I remembered that the reason us white working class women know so little black history is because American history was mostly written by white men, from their perspective, for their sanctification.

    Reply

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