[Since I’ve been on sabbatical this Fall, in place of my usual semester recaps series I’ll be recapping some of the many book talks I’ve gotten to deliver over the last few months. Leading up to a special weekend post on what’s next for We the People!]
On inspiring takeaways from two events at which I was fortunate enough to get to share my voice and ideas.
In the last week of October, I had the chance to take part in two compelling and important public scholarly conversations. My friend and online collaborator Matthew Teutsch has recently begun work as the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center in Georgia, and he invited me to take part in this year’s symposium, sharing my take on Smith and exclusion/inclusion alongside scholars Tanya Bennett and Patricia Bell-Scott, documentary filmmaker Hal Jacobs, and graduate student (and inaugural Piedmont College Smith Scholar) Emily Pierce. And four days later I was headed down to Southeastern Louisiana University to take part in the National Women’s History Museum’s “Determined to Rise” program for the centennial of the 19th Amendment—my Saturday Evening Post column on women’s suffrage led to my invitation to this event by museum Director of Education Lori Ann Terjesen and Education Programs Manager Liz Eberlein, and I was honored to share my thoughts on exclusion, inclusion, and the suffrage movement alongside fellow scholars Samantha Cavell (our host at Southeastern), Elizabeth Hornsby, and Alecia Long.
Those two events and conversations were impressive and important on a number of levels, but for this series and space I want to focus on takeaways for me related to We the People and my continued thoughts on exclusion, inclusion, and America. For one thing, as I said at the symposium, if I had known about Lillian Smith a couple years ago I would have worked to find a way to include her in the book, as both her critiques of exclusionary attitudes and her modeling of inclusive alternatives are as clear and convincing as any I’ve encountered in American writing and thought. But more broadly, preparing my talk on Smith in the context of those concepts helped me think through a connection of this project to another historical and cultural trend about which I’ve written a good deal over the years: the late 19th century rise to national prominence (and eventually dominance) of the white supremacist Lost Cause narrative. As Albion Tourgée put it in 1888, American literature had already by that moment become “not only Southern in type, but distinctly Confederate in sympathy.” For whatever reason, I hadn’t quite made the link between that trend and the many ways in which exclusionary narratives became more nationally dominant in that same era, as with the rise of the first immigration laws. But thanks to Lillian Smith (and Matthew), I’ve started to develop that connection, and I think it will continue to yield further analyses of these interconnected American myths.
Another late 19th century American trend was the growth and amplification of the movement for women’s suffrage. And as I argued at the “Determined to Rise” panel, that movement toward inclusion was both subject to exclusionary backlash (especially in the rhetorical and physical violence directed at the suffrage activists) and featured its own exclusionary discriminations (especially directed at women of color). Moreover, the thoughts and perspectives of my fellow panelists helped me continue developing links between those tensions and concurrent histories like the rise of the Lost Cause narrative—such as in the career and perspective of Georgia activist Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the US Senate and a champion of women’s suffrage and rights, but also a virulent white supremacist who gave one of American history’s most blatant speeches in support of the lynching epidemic (in August 1897, amidst the period of the most frequent such acts of racial terrorism). Exclusion and inclusion are not simply contested American views, they also (if not always) coexist in the same moments, the same histories, even the same communities. Which makes it that much more important to remember and engage those stories, as well as the voices of figures and writers like Lillian Smith who resisted exclusion and modeled inclusion.
Next talk recap tomorrow,
PS. Ideas for other places I could talk or write about We the People? Lemme know, and thanks!
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