A Pandemic-Era Gathering
After the 2021 annual meeting was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the AHA faced many challenges in planning for the 2022 meeting. As the Omicron variant began to spread in late 2021, many presenters opted to move their sessions to AHA22 Online in late February. But over 900 historians still gathered in New Orleans from January 6 to 9, with vaccines, masks, and rapid tests to mitigate risk.
A much more intimate meeting than a typical AHA annual meeting—which can attract more than 4,000 attendees—AHA22 addressed local history issues in New Orleans and how historians can become involved in advocacy, among many other topics related to teaching and learning, research, and professional issues. Read on for dispatches from across the meeting.
—Laura Ansley, Leland Renato Grigoli, Sarah Jones Weicksel, and Rebecca L. West
Changes at the Crossroads
New Orleanians will soon navigate streets named for local historic figures, including rhythm-and-blues great Allen Toussaint, jazz trumpeter Henry James “Red” Allen, and James Guillaume, who played a role in desegregating streetcars in 1867. On January 6, 2022, the New Orleans City Council approved these names as replacements for streets named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee; John Slidell, a Confederate ambassador to France; and New Orleans Mayor Andrew McShane, who signed a law prohibiting racial integration in neighborhoods.
That same evening, at a plenary session, Thomas Adams (Univ. of Sydney), Karl Connor (New Orleans City Council Street Renaming Commission), Rashauna Johnson (Univ. of Chicago), and Sue Mobley (Monument Lab) described the process by which the city council arrived at this vote. The session was chaired by AHA executive director James Grossman.
The New Orleans City Council Street Renaming Commission (CCSRC) was established in June 2020 and tasked with recommending a process to facilitate educating residents and gathering public feedback on possible changes. They were also asked to create a list, accompanied by detailed explanations, of streets, parks, and places that should be renamed, as well as suggestions for potential replacement names. The ordinance that established the CCSRC specified criteria for name removal that focused on the relationship between treason and the defense of slavery, and the denial of rights under the 14th and 15th Amendments.
The commission, chaired by Connor, worked with a panel of experts, chaired by Mobley and Adams, who have a “demonstrable record of scholarship, formal or informal, regarding the history and geography of the City of New Orleans, especially in relation to traditionally underrepresented communities.” These scholars, including Johnson and other AHA members, worked to identify streets and places that fit the removal criteria.
In cities across the world, neighborhood matters—and the CCSRC understood that renaming needed to be meaningful within neighborhoods. The process of identifying potential names, then, involved researching where people lived, worked, and went to school. Allen Toussaint, for instance, lived on Robert E. Lee Boulevard, the street that will soon bear his name. Representatives of the commission visited each neighborhood to hold public conversations to ensure all voices were heard.
In cities across the world, neighborhood matters.
Those conversations could be very difficult. Connor described one conversation in which a constituent argued that enslaved people hadn’t contributed anything to New Orleans’s history. Another participant’s language was laced with racial epithets and stereotypes. Still, Connor emphasized, it was critical to have such conversations, “especially with people you don’t normally talk to.” From the beginning, the CCSRC emphasized hard facts about individuals’ actions when arguing either for removal or replacement. Through those conversations, they were able to teach people why convenience or nostalgia shouldn’t rule. The CCSRC gathered more than 1,200 public comments during these sessions and through submission forms; all were included in the commission’s report so the city council could read them when making decisions.
Renaming, the panelists emphasized, must not lead to merely cosmetic changes; the process itself must involve the community and deep research. It was in part that process of community consultation that led the AHA to send a letter in March 2021 expressing support for the CCSRC, describing its final report as “a remarkable document of collaborative historical research.” The AHA’s letter, Adams told Perspectives, “made clear to New Orleans City Council members, as well the Planning Commission, that the work of historians and other scholars on behalf of renaming was of the highest scholarly quality and firmly in the mainstream of American historical practice.”
With its emphasis on clear criteria, collaborative historical research, and meaningful community involvement, the New Orleans street renaming process stands as a model for other cities undertaking this work. From the outset, the commission asked, “How can we use the process for people to understand each other better?” Get people to talk to one another, Connor emphasized. “That is how change is made.”
The Historians’ Place in Public Debate
On Saturday morning, “Advocating for History Education: Insights for Historians,” chaired by Kathleen M. Hilliard (Iowa State Univ.), provided context for the recent “divisive concepts” legislation and encouraged discussion about how to teach and advocate effectively in the current environment.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries (Ohio State Univ.) kicked off the panel, explaining that this is not the first time the United States has faced a conservative backlash about how history is taught: “You have to understand the origins in order to fight it effectively. None of this is new, but the moment is different.” Jeffries dug into the legislation’s short-term origins, describing how the reactionary white response to recent antiracism movements led to the emergence of critical race theory (CRT) as a political tool, then how the ideas behind it trickled down to the local level, causing an outbreak of concern among white parents.
For example, parents in Tennessee objected to a picture book about Ruby Bridges, largely because of the depictions of angry white people yelling at the young Black girl as she arrived at school—an image nearly identical to photos of the event. AHA executive director James Grossman remarked that if he were teaching, he would confront the discomfort head-on by starting with those photos: “Are you uncomfortable?” he would ask students, then point to the six-year-old in the picture: “Are you more uncomfortable than she was?”
This approach would likely be impossible under “divisive concepts” laws. Such legislation is already having a chilling effect on public school teachers, causing some to remove topics like racism and slavery from their lesson plans. This, Jeffries said, is a great loss: “It is our job as educators at every level to make sure our students understand the past. Why? So that they can make sense of the present, so that they are prepared to meet the challenges of the future.” According to Grossman, the AHA is creating toolkits to help teachers to teach sensitive history without worrying about their jobs. As opposed to approaching this history as divisive, these kits will emphasize the idea that “there can be no healing until you understand the disease.”
According to Leland J. White (National Coalition for History), whose presentation was read in absentia by Grossman, these bills “are designed to limit discussion in the classroom, even those that masquerade as defending free speech.” He directed the audience to AHA letters to legislators explaining the harm these bills would do to students. (Here Grossman added that the AHA is happy to write to legislators in any state considering such legislation—just ask.)
“None of this is new, but the moment is different.”
White offered advice for tactfully countering the arguments of people concerned about CRT in schools. If you approach with “the intent of diffusing or disarming, rather than converting, the chances of success are way better. Create an open dialogue for future discussion and come across as reasonable to people who are concerned but not dogmatic.” White added, “Every person to whom you can explain what revisionist history is, you have done a good deed. You do not want to go to a doctor who does not practice revisionist medicine.”
White also reminded the audience: You are a constituent, a voter, and potential supporter. You are entitled to make your case to legislators. Set up a meeting with the staffer who handles education issues. Be prepared, concise, and polite. And “don’t trust the media coverage—read the legislation. Media coverage will simplify and leave out the complexities.”
Grossman then turned to the audience. “Our sense is that no one knows what's actually being taught. Would it be useful to find out?” Audience members offered a range of anecdotes, including a historian from the Chicago suburbs, who shared that their daughter “took a world history class that was 90 percent western European history. The AP US History class started at 1492 and ignored Indigenous history.”
These anecdotes matched Jeffries’s own experiences. “But they’re learning something—they’re picking up on narratives. The myths are still there.” In K–12 education, Jeffries explained, “We start by teaching them to identify with the slave owners, and by the time we want to have a nuanced conversation about slavery it’s a huge contradiction.” As a result, when students arrive in college history courses, a lot of relearning has to happen.
The discussion shifted to the COVID-19 pandemic, which audience members agreed could not be ignored in addressing this issue. With students learning from home, parents have realized their kids are learning different history than they did, which can cause concern and confusion. Conservative commentators such as Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro were also discussed as influences on viewing diverse, inclusive history as a performance of “wokeness.”
“What I’m hearing is that there’s a distinction between what kids are learning versus what teachers are teaching,” Grossman summarized. “The legislation is about what teachers are teaching. Then there’s the question of what parents think is being taught and what they want to be taught, which is what they were taught.”
Jeffries left the audience with a final piece of advice: “The language you have to use shifts with your audience. The message doesn’t. But the language does. Teaching history accurately and honestly is all we want to do.”
Based on the “drops” or posts of a person known only as “Q,” QAnon is a movement whose believers insist on the existence of a wide-ranging demonic, Democratic ring of child abusers who control the federal government of the United States. They expect an imminent apocalyptic battle, led by former president Donald Trump, and resulting in the capture and public hanging of this shadowy cabal and their supporters.
In “Historians Take(s) on QAnon, Part I: Religious History and the Roots of QAnon,” Rachel Hope Cleves (Univ. of Victoria), Thomas Lecaque (Grand View Univ.), Benjamin Park (Sam Houston State Univ.), and Stephanie Richmond (Norfolk State Univ.) discussed the deep historical underpinnings of this movement, with each focusing on a specific slice of time.
Lecaque explored this violent worldview’s medieval roots, focusing on the development of blood libel—that a secret Jewish cabal organized the murder and exsanguination of Christian children as part of an unholy ritual—as a precursor to both the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and to the current Q conspiracy. Richmond particularized this legacy to the American experience, noting that 19th-century US politics often revolved around conspiracy theories. When John Quincy Adams became president thanks to a vote in the House of Representatives in 1824, his opponent Andrew Jackson decried the “corrupt bargain” of backroom political operatives. In the middle of the century, anti-Catholic conspiracy theories aimed at Irish immigrants depicted nunneries as sites where both women and children suffered horrendous abuse. Even Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party used conspiracies of a proslavery cabal as a popular rallying cry.
Finally, Park examined the anticommunist conspiracy theories of the 1960s. Promoted through organizations such as the John Birch Society, such theories encouraged evangelicals to re-engage in politics to safeguard democracy from a fictive communist menace, setting the scene for the current political environment. A second panel focused on the “save the children” aspect of QAnon conspiracy theories was canceled.
Throughout their presentations, panelists emphasized both the diversity of QAnon sects derived from these historical influences and the shared expectations that nevertheless continue to unite them. Yet it seems that poultice of a professional corrective, the picking apart of a broader historical legacy of which QAnon is only the most recent iteration, can provide little assistance in fighting against the movement. If it were otherwise, that legacy would not be nearly as deep as it is.
Busy Teachers, Hot Topics
As a high school teacher, AHA council member Katharina Matro (Walter Johnson High School) knows firsthand how difficult it can be for educators to stay up to date on the latest historical research and debates. “When I started teaching, I was so busy and overwhelmed,” she said.
This is where the idea originated for a new kind of annual meeting session, “A State of the Field for Busy Teachers.” Each year, this session will feature two parts: a keynote by a research expert, followed by a discussion led by a high school teacher and community college instructor.
The inaugural “State of the Field” session tackled the US Reconstruction era. David W. Blight (Yale Univ.) gave a prerecorded keynote about how he teaches the subject in the college classroom. Blight presented four big questions that faced Americans at the end of the Civil War: Who would rule in the South? Who would rule in Washington, DC—essentially, who was going to control Reconstruction? What were the dimensions and the meanings of Black freedom? And was the United States going to have a restoration of the old or a reinvention of the new?
“Reconstruction was soon to be a kind of agonizing referendum on the meaning of the war they just fought,” Blight said. “What cause had actually won and what cause had actually lost? The survivors on both sides would still inhabit the same land, and eventually the same government. How do you make the reconciliation work with the emancipation of the war?”
A key to teaching Reconstruction, he said, is to “help your students grasp the significance of the 14th Amendment in trying to keep us a nation of equals in a society where millions of us don’t want to be.” He concluded, “If we want to understand this United States, which isn’t very united right now, we have to go back to Reconstruction.”
Reconstruction’s legacies are difficult for most high schoolers to grasp.
The discussion was led by Matro, Chris Dier (Benjamin Franklin High School), and Shawna Williams (Houston Community Coll.). Opening the conversation, Dier “found it interesting that [Blight] called Reconstruction a redefining moment in American history, but it’s one of the most undertaught parts of history.” In Dier’s experience, Reconstruction’s legacies are difficult for most high schoolers to grasp. He starts by asking students if they have ever heard of Reconstruction. “Some historians call Reconstruction the first Civil Rights Movement. If we don’t teach it to students, or reduce it to tidbits, I think it devalues students in many ways,” he said. Williams agreed that the topic is essential to US history survey courses, which typically end or start in 1877. “I always make sure to include it, no matter which half I teach,” she said.
Audience members eagerly discussed the nature of the failure of Reconstruction and shared ideas on how to engage students in a topic they often know little or nothing about. Ideas included exploring postwar Republican attempts at one-party rule, the rise in white supremacist organizations, the Panic of 1873, the concurrent revolution in Mexico, and the question of how democratic it is to enforce so-called democratic laws using military force.
Audience members also expressed concerns about how to teach the white violence of the period. Although there are many interesting primary sources, educators “didn’t want to rely too much on descriptions of violence and trauma.” Dier warns students they will hear about violence and trauma and gives them the choice to opt out. Williams described an assignment using slave songs that encourages students to place themselves in the time period. For Reconstruction, this means engaging with the period as a source of violence—not solely from racial tensions, but from the lingering trauma of war as thousands of surviving soldiers were dispersed across the country. An important thing, said Dier, is “to try to approach it from a human perspective.”
“History is not a thing told to make us feel good or bad,” Williams said, paraphrasing historian James Loewen. Helping students engage with the big, hard questions of Reconstruction is the best way to help them understand the facts of the period.
The AHA Council’s Research Division organized a series of panels at the annual meeting on collaboration. “Beyond Zoom: Research and Audience in the Digital Age” featured four historians with very active social media presences: Matthew Gabriele (Virginia Tech), Lisa C. Moore (Amistad Research Center), Benjamin Park (Sam Houston State Univ.), and Varsha Venkatasubramanian (Univ. of California, Berkeley). In short initial statements, Gabriele, Park, and Venkatasubramanian discussed how social media can be leveraged to further a historian’s career. It might, for example, allow scholars who are the only members of their subfield at an institution to access a broader community or provide a means to promote an in-progress work. Additionally, Moore, a reference archivist, explored how the emphasis on digitization during COVID has affected archivists, archives, and researchers. It is now necessary for archivists to have much greater flexibility in how they curate and control access to collections as well as a better knowledge of their institutions’ digital holdings, and archivists now often expect to act as on-site proxies for remote researchers.
There is no shortcut for the investment of time and engagement.
The subsequent discussion was wide ranging, covering when to enter an online debate, individual objectives for being online, and the differences between presenting one’s work in a physical versus digital environment. According to the panelists, a strong online presence could be immensely beneficial for a scholar in the early stages of a project, allowing them to present and refine aspects of their broader argument for critique. Another central point of the discussion was audience size and engagement. High levels of audience engagement could be useful—the easy quantification of impact appeals to administrators, and engagement is a good way of assessing what an audience is interested in. But they also come with caveats; presenters cautioned attendees to use their own judgment in evaluating online feedback.
The panel concluded with how to engage with a specifically digital space when it comes to promoting traditional scholarship such as academic books. Park and Gabriele noted that, in their experience, an online audience responded to the energy level and enthusiasm of a presenter much more than a traditional one. Further, they emphasized that scholars cannot rapidly build an audience; there is no shortcut for the investment of time and engagement, and public-facing scholarship is not an on/off switch. In short, they argued that, despite many popular protests to the contrary, “Twitter is real life,” and should be both understood and treated as such.
Interested in more about collaboration in research? At AHA22 Online, check out “Beyond Collaboration,” another session in this series.
In previous years, we have ended this article with a look forward to the next annual meeting—and we do indeed hope to see you at the 2023 meeting in Philadelphia! But the AHA22 programming isn’t over yet. With more than 200 sessions taking place as part of AHA22 Online, there’s so much more to learn about, discuss, and take away from AHA22. Online sessions will take place from February 21 to 27 and will be recorded to be viewed on demand. Registration at the in-person meeting includes complimentary registration for the online sessions, and it’s not too late to register as an online-only attendee. Learn more at historians.org/AHA22Online.
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