AHA Activities

"The Future of the African American Past": A Landmark Conference to Mark the Opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Dana Schaffer | Apr 12, 2016

A slave cabin from the early 1800s at Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island in South Carolina. National Museum of African American History and CultureIn October 1983, a generation of senior historians gathered at Purdue University under the auspices of the AHA to share what they had learned about the African American past and to establish what issues still needed to be explored. The conference and the resulting publication (The State of Afro-American History: Past, Present, and Future, 1986) became milestones—they provided not only a classic assessment of the field at the time, but also helpful guides for moving forward. Now, 33 years later, we stand at a different moment in the historical field. A new generation of historians is bringing fresh insights to long-standing questions and answering others that were only dimly imagined in the 1980s.

To mark this moment and the forthcoming opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) later this fall, the AHA and the NMAAHC are organizing another historic conference, “The Future of the African American Past.” Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities with additional support from HISTORY, the conference will take place May 19–21, 2016, and will be the first major public event held in the new museum. Although the NMAAHC will be the first national museum devoted specifically to African American history (and the last to be built on the National Mall in Washington, DC), the integration of African American history into our understanding of the nation’s past has enabled Lonnie Bunch, the director of the NMAAHC, to speak authoritatively of the museum as telling “America’s story.”

What issues are the next generation’s historians likely to explore? What themes are most likely to engage the millions of visitors to the museum in the next 35 years?

Public and scholarly engagement with the African and African American struggle against slavery and the achievement of freedom has deepened over the past generation. The narratives of slavery, emancipation, and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the themes of oppression, struggle, and liberation, still resonate deeply and command considerable attention from historians. Indeed, Americans and others around the world turn to the histories and cultures of the African diaspora for inspiration.

Rosa Parks’s dress from 1955. National Museum of African American History and Culture  But the context for these interests has changed. We are at a different time for the public as well as for research historians. This conference occurs not only on the occasion of anniversaries of significant events—the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the ending of the Civil War, the enacting of the Voting Rights Act, to name a few—but also in the midst of a time when students on college campuses across the country are demanding that we reexamine how the black experience is taught, studied, written about, and portrayed in the public realm. As historian Tom Holt reminded us during his session introduction at the 2016 AHA annual meeting in Atlanta, “[We are] in a crisis-induced national moment of reflection on the past, present, and future of efforts to understand black Americans’ historical experience and how that history might inform our present.”

So what comes next in the popular understanding of African American history and its relation to American history, as clearly both have changed dramatically? What issues are the next generation’s historians likely to explore? What themes are most likely to engage the millions of visitors to the museum in the next 35 years? The conference’s goal is to generate a conversation that at once describes the complex landscape that has evolved over the past three decades and that maps new directions. This conference and the occasion of the museum opening provide an opportunity for historians to share research and ideas, take stock of recent trends, and set an agenda to guide future inquiry. We intend to do this in a way that captures the imagination of public audiences as well as the interest of historians.

To reach both audiences, conference sessions have been organized into nine moderated panels of oral presentations limited to 10 minutes each. Session chairs will actively moderate the conversations, facilitating discussion among the panelists and directing questions from the audience. Papers will be posted on a gated section of the conference website in advance, enabling more informed conversations among invited participants and registered attendees. To encourage further public conversation, each morning we will post on the conference website two blog pieces per session, summarizing the discussions of the previous day.

The Washington Monument and the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Gina WhitemanThe conference will begin on Thursday evening, May 19, with an opening round­table, “The Long Struggle for Civil Rights and Black Freedom,” featuring veterans of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and today. Panelists will reflect on African American political activism in the last half century, putting recent struggles in the broader context of black people’s long demand for equality, which began in the holds of slave ships and survived the nadir of segregation and disenfranchisement.

Continuing throughout the weekend, the conference will also feature sessions titled “Who Is Black America?”; “Slavery and Freedom”; “Race, Power, and Urban Spaces”; “Capitalism and the Making and Unmaking of Black America”; “What Is African American Religion?”; “Historic Preservation and Public Reckoning”; and “Internationalization of African American Politics and Culture.” The conference concludes on Saturday afternoon with the session “African American History as American History,” at which panelists will examine how historians might explore the texture of American history through the experiences of people of African descent while addressing the changing demands and interests of public culture.

For more information about the conference, including a full schedule, a list of participants, and registration details, please visit www.futureafamhistory.si.edu. Registration is free, and attendees are encouraged to register in advance. The conference will be live-streamed on the website.

Dana L. Schaffer is deputy director of the AHA.

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