By Daniel Lewis
From January 7-10, 2016 members of the American Historical Association, as well as exhibitors, met in Atlanta for the 130th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA). Four ProQuest employees attending the meeting went to a wide range of fascinating sessions. Many of the panel sessions at AHA Annual inspired us to continue working hard to offer products that will empower librarians with resources to inspire research and teaching.
In connection with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in this post, we would like to highlight one of those inspirational panels: “The Future of the African American Past.” This panel was a prelude to a conference that will be held in May 2016 in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the scheduled opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in September 2016.
The panelists at “The Future of the African American Past” included:
- Thomas C. Holt, University of Chicago
- David W. Blight, Yale University
- Johnnetta B. Cole, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
- Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University
- Rex Ellis, National Museum of African American History and Culture
Thomas C. Holt, the chair of the panel, opened the session. Holt talked about how the museum will open at a crisis-induced national moment, as well as a time of celebration with the passing of numerous landmark anniversaries in American history. These anniversaries include the 150 year anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery, as well as the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The next speaker, David W. Blight, of Yale University, also made an inspirational speech. Blight spoke about how African American history includes moments of travail and triumph, loss and victory. Quoting one of his former professors, Nathan Huggins, Blight made an argument for the importance of the study of history. The entry on Huggins in Who’s Who in America contains the following quote from Huggins:
“I find in the in the study of history the special discipline which forces me to consider people and ages, not my own, in their own terms; yet with an informed and critical eye, enhanced by modern analytical tools and the gift of hindsight. It is the most humane of disciplines, and in many ways the most humbling.” [Nathan Huggins entry in Who’s Who in America, 1982-1983]
The next speaker, Johnetta B. Cole, has had a distinguished career in academia and museums and has been the director of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art since 2009. Dr. Cole opened her remarks by invoking the image of the Sankofa, a bird with a long neck who is able to look back in order to go forward. As Dr. Cole said: “You can’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been.” She said that the new NMAAHC “will help us to better understand where we are going because we will know where African Americans have been.”
Annette Gordon-Reed followed Dr. Cole on the podium. Dr. Gordon-Reed is the author of the Pulitzer-prize winning biography, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and a professor at Harvard University. Dr. Gordon-Reed talked about how recent events like the Trayvon Martin killing, and the events in Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina have ignited new discussions of race in America. She said that a museum that deals with questions of African American citizenship is important.
The final speaker was Rex Ellis, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at NMAAHC. Dr. Ellis began his remarks with a fascinating African folk tale about transformative experiences in people’s lives and he emphasized that the experience of visitors at the museum could be transformative. Dr. Ellis talked about the global reach of the civil rights movement in places like Poland, South Africa, and Tiananmen Square. In his wide-ranging talk, Dr. Ellis mentioned repeatedly that the museum would allow visitors to see American History through the lens of African American history and that the museum will allow us to see more clearly what it means to be an American.
“The Future of the African American Past” was a very inspiring session and was of one numerous excellent sessions on the topic of African American history at the 2016 AHA Annual Meeting.
Here at ProQuest, we work hard every day to produce products that will inspire researchers to make new discoveries. ProQuest’s products in the field of African American history are especially strong, including Black Historical Newspapers, History Vault featuring NAACP Papers and other civil rights records, Black Studies Center, Black Abolitionist Papers, African American Poetry, and The HistoryMakers. Learn more about these resources.
Librarians: get ready for Black History Month in February by signing up for free trials.