Tuesday, November 17, 2015
November 17, 2015: SHA Follow Ups: Special Sessions
[This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend my first Southern Historical Association annual conference, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Thanks to a We’re History piece of mine, I was invited by Elaine Frantz Parsons to take part in a wonderful panel on the Reconstruction-era KKK. In this series I’ll follow up both that panel and other takeaways from this great conference!]
A couple highlights from the conference’s rich, provocative, and complementary special sessions:
1) The SHA conference opened with a Thursday evening plenary panel on the concept of integrated justice after Civil Rights—movements and activisms for justice as indivisible, across all the different issues and identities that are too often treated as distinct or even competing. Chaired by scholar and filmmaker Michael Honey, the panel featured Greta de Jong speaking about racial and economic justice movements, Adolph Reed on the need to rethink race and justice in America, Judge Jed Rakoff on the legal and justice systems in the 21st century, and Julie Saville on ethos and friendship as models for integrated justice. As someone centrally concerned with cross-cultural American histories and identities, I found Saville’s frame the most striking, particularly when I think about some of the exemplary cross-cultural American friendships to which we could turn for models: Ely Parker and Lewis Henry Morgan, to name only one example. But we can’t idealize such relationships without engaging with the darker side of our histories and current society as well, and this panel moved between those different modes very effectively.
2) That plenary panel had been organized by SHA President Barbara Fields, and was complemented by her sweeping and stunning presidential address the following evening. As I mentioned to a colleague after the talk, Fields’ address felt like a career culminating reflection on her own life and identity, her inspirations from her graduate mentor C. Vann Woodward, her huge range of scholarly subjects (slavery and segregation, the Civil War, environmental and economic histories, American myths and narratives, and much more), and some (if not indeed most) of the dominant and defining issues in American histoy. Yet at the same time that Fields’ address felt reflective, it also felt urgently invested in the present and especially the future, and in considering precisely what historians and public scholars can do (and what we can’t) to impact them. Like the plenary panel, Fields’ tone shifted from pessimism to optimism, often in the same moment: such as her breathtaking final lines, in which she recognized that much of our current moment could be seen as inevitably moving toward destructive futures and yet quoted Woodward to note that perhaps our job is to resist the inevitable. At a time when it’s difficult not to feel pessimistic for all sorts of reasons (I write this post in the shadow of both the Paris terrorist attacks and the bigoted and divisive responses to them by far too many), Fields offered not a salve for that perspective, but a vital engagement with and response to it.
Next SHA follow up tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?