Publication Date

June 1, 2023

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily, Perspectives Summer Columns

Post Type

Members Making News


  • United States


African American, Cultural, Public History

The AHA is pleased to announce this year’s summer columnists. Follow along as these graduate students write about music and memory, a high school’s embrace of local history, and the legacies of the New Deal.

Bethany Bell, “Homeplace Making in Black Memory and Imagination”

Bethany Bell

Music has always been an avenue for exploring and expressing aspects of history that can be difficult to process. I will examine musical works by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Rhiannon Giddens as examples of protest songs that respond to racial injustice in the 21st century by deploying lyrical and visual imagery from the antebellum United States. Both songs demonstrate an intimate connection between the built environment and Black memory of slavery and the Civil War era.

My first column invites readers to revisit Beyoncé’s 2016 record and music video, “Formation.” Throughout the video are scenes of Black women occupying what is staged as an antebellum plantation house. These women, through their clothing, posture, and joyful expressions, exude ownership of the old plantation landscape rather than embodying enslavement. The imaginative world of the “Formation” music video provides a new angle to consider ongoing questions about race, memorialization, and space.

My second piece will look at Giddens’s 2022 record, “Build a House,” with lyrics that tell a story of Black dispossession and survival. The instrumentation also does some heavy lifting in the song’s storytelling, as Giddens plays the banjo, an instrument of African origin that has become ubiquitous in American folk music. Written for the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, this song takes the listener on a lyrical journey depicting the trials and triumphs of African Americans. It highlights the paradox of Black labor contributing to the building of the United States while Black people are perpetually in search of a place to call home.

Across these two pieces, I will analyze the themes of Black history, memory, and taking up space as a tool of resistance. In our current moment of national reckoning with and subsequent backlash to learning hard but honest history, many questions remain about how to commemorate and interpret this history in public spaces. My columns will encourage readers to consider the creative way that these two artists invite a fresh perspective on our national history. I hope that these pieces will spark new ideas and imaginative thinking about age-old problems and encourage others to think about the ways music has been and can be used as a tool for confronting and sharing hard history.

Bethany Bell is a master’s student in history at the University of Virginia whose research explores the history of slavery and the Civil War and its intersections with African American memory work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her master’s thesis explores how unfree and free Black southerners reshaped the built environment during the US Civil War. Bell holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Arkansas and a master’s degree from Boston University.

Dariel Chaidez Rivota, “Local History Belongs in the Classroom”

Dariel Chaidez Rivota

As a teacher at West Leyden High School in Northlake, Illinois, and a master’s student in public history, I have wrestled with the issue of how to reach those outside academia, particularly teenagers. I landed on one method to invigorate and personalize our discipline for students and the wider community: local history. From secretaries and maintenance workers who have come to me with decades-old memorabilia for the school archives to administrators who appointed me historical consultant for our upcoming centennial celebration, my colleagues have helped me to turn our school into a place where community history is truly alive and full of vigor.

What happens when a high school embraces its own history? Over the four years that I have been researching and collecting its history, there has been a noticeable shift in how West Leyden High School has welcomed its past. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, I was teaching remotely and glued to my computer screen, constantly refreshing news sites for updates on COVID-19 and the political unrest of the time. I was certain that this would be an important historical moment, and I began to record the present for future use. This mission started slowly with oral histories over Google Meet from a few faculty members on their experiences teaching remotely. But upon returning to the building, my project took off. Soon after, I asked my department chair for space in the social studies office to put some old photographs given to me by the principal.

Not knowing then that this would be the beginnings of the Leyden archives, I continued expanding my initiatives. Next came the new teacher community bus tour (later expanded to all faculty and staff), multiple exhibits showcasing items from the archives, the inclusion of local history and oral history in my US history and Latin American studies classes, a shift in my graduate research to Leyden history, and most importantly the establishment of the Leyden Archival Internship.

In my first column, I will discuss the journey of establishing local history initiatives in secondary schools. My second piece will explore the instructional and communal possibilities of a robust local history program. I believe this story is important not just because of its importance to my school community, but because it can serve as a model of what history can do for a place, especially a place where the past is not embraced.

Dariel Chaidez Rivota is a history teacher and school historian at West Leyden High School located in Northlake, Illinois. Dariel graduated from North Park University in 2019 with bachelor’s degrees in history and secondary education and is pursuing an MA in public history at Loyola University Chicago. His academic interests lie at the intersection of local history, population change, and Latin American studies, and his past research focused on Mexican immigration to Chicago and how demographic change has created physical and social changes in local landscapes.

Natalie D. McDonald, “The Living New Deal in Los Angeles”

Natalie D. McDonald

Growing up in Los Angeles—an international city and focal point of many a diaspora—led me from a young age to see borders as porous and imaginary and identities as flexible and contingent. This background has inspired my historical work on 20th-century empire, migration, and memory, as well as my twin convictions that research should be geared toward inspiring contemporary change and that nuanced scholarship must be made accessible to the public. These are the pillars of my identity as a young historian. I have had the opportunity to put them into practice while working with the Living New Deal, a crowdsourced public history project based at the University of California, Berkeley.

As a research assistant for the Living New Deal, I have been delving into the fascinating and little-known history of Works Progress Administration–Federal Art Project murals in Los Angeles that were subsequently whitewashed for being too politically progressive, which I will write about in my first column. These include The Social Aspects of Tuberculosis (1936), painted by Myer Shaffer for the Los Angeles Tubercular Sanatorium in Duarte (the site of today’s City of Hope); The Elder in Relation to Society (1937), painted by Shaffer at the Mount Sinai Home for Chronic Invalids; and works by Leo Katz at the former Frank Wiggins Trade School and Charles Kassler at Fullerton Union High School. These murals have helped me to identify the global historical themes that have driven my academic research—empire, migration, and memory—at play in my home city. As I continue to delve into Los Angeles’ “living” New Deal, the global and local increasingly blur, as do past and present.

My second column will build upon these case studies by considering the stakes of remembering New Deal artwork in our contemporary political climate. An encouraging example of nuanced civic discourse surrounding public art and memory in the Los Angeles region, the Reframe: City Hall mural project in Santa Monica is tackling the past/present/future of Stanton McDonald-Wright’s WPA murals that include controversial depictions of first peoples and “recreation.” How is the New Deal, nearly a century later, continuing to inspire the radical reimagining of democratic participation?

With these columns, I hope to inspire readers to think about how the past is in fact “living,” both in our urban landscapes and in our collective political consciousness.

Natalie D. McDonald is pursuing her MA in history at California State University, Northridge, having graduated summa cum laude from Pomona College in 2019. After a life-changing summer spent researching her undergraduate thesis—“Engendering Empire: The British Women’s Military Services in India and the Middle East, 1939–1945”—in London archives, Natalie’s academic work has focused on migration, empire, and memory in 20th-century Europe and the Mediterranean. A passionate educator, she volunteered as a citizenship instructor with the International Rescue Committee during the pandemic.

The Perspectives Daily summer column program is designed to highlight the voices of graduate students and to emphasize the importance of communicating the work of historians, broadly defined, to a variety of audiences and in a variety of media. See the original contest announcement for more information.

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Laura Ansley
Laura Ansley

American Historical Association