Wednesday, July 26, 2017
July 26, 2017: Talks and Events: The Stowe Prize
[On Tuesday July 25th, I’ll be talking to the Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society on the topic of “Remembering the Salem Witch Trials: The Limits and Possibilities of Public History.” So this week I wanted to highlight five recent talks and events I’ve given or been part of—please share your own experiences in comments!]
On two of the many inspirations I took from Bryan Stevenson’s Hartford remarks.
In early June, I had the great good fortune to attend the 2017 Stowe Prize gala and dinner, where the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center’s semiannual Prize for Writing for Social Justice was presented to Bryan Stevenson for his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. (I’m not sure there could be a more pitch-perfect trifecta of writers, public scholars, and activists than the last three Stowe Prize recipients: Stevenson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Michelle Alexander.) The entire event was one of the most inspiring evenings I’ve ever spent, from the location (in a tent erected between the Stowe Center and the Mark Twain House, in Hartford’s historic Nook Farm area) to every single person with whom I had the chance to chat (such as Emily Waniewski, formerly a Stowe Center staff member who is now the Programming Director for Hartford Performs; or Katherine Kane, the Stowe Center’s tireless Executive Director). But most inspiring of all were Stevenson’s remarks, first in an interview session and then at the dinner itself, and I wanted to highlight here two standout ideas from his comments.
Stevenson spoke at length about two of the topics that are nearest and dearest to my heart: how much Americans do not remember our histories, particularly our darkest ones; and the vital need to counter that trend, collectively and comprehensively. Those two threads are the central subjects of my latest book, about which I had the chance to chat briefly with Stevenson at a reception prior to dinner. But Stevenson engaged more overtly with a side to these topics I hadn’t considered as fully: the accusation that focusing on such dark histories means “blaming” certain Americans for the horrors and oppressions of our past. His answer to that charge was the most clear and powerful I’ve ever heard: he argued that the goal here is not to blame anyone, but rather to liberate everyone. That is, we’re all limited by both these histories and (especially) our inability to remember and grapple with them; and thus if we can truly do those latter things, we will all be freed to move forward into a more unified and hopeful future as a result. I’ve certainly tried to argue for that optimistic, forward-looking goal of these historical engagements, but Stevenson’s emphasis on liberation was a new frame for me, and a hugely compelling and inspiring one. I look forward to incorporating it into my own future!
If that idea of Stevenson’s represented a new angle on a topic I’ve long considered, the other one I want to highlight here was more genuinely new to me. Stevenson was asked in the Q&A portion about whether he supports reparations for African Americans; he said that he does, but his argument for how that controversial idea could be enacted was one I hadn’t quite heard made in this way before. I won’t be able to do full justice to his ideas here, but the short version (which I hope I’m getting right) is that he supports a community building form of reparations, one that would apportion money to cities and communities (such as our host Hartford) and use it to build and strengthen civic resources such as the public schools, housing and neighborhoods, health care and social services, and so on. I grappled in this post with the idea of communal reparations in the form of educational and commemorative projects (which in that case had fallen frustratingly short of the promised support), and in this one with whether and how such ideas might be applied to African American reparations. But I’ll admit that I hadn’t really considered this other option for communal reparations, one that likewise goes beyond payments to individuals but considers a different and more immediate way of supporting and funding community initiatives. As with everything Stevenson said at this wonderful event, this idea gives me a lot to think about, and hope for.
Next event recap tomorrow,
PS. Events or experiences you’d highlight? I’d love to hear about them!