Friday, April 3, 2009

Bearing Witness: Revisiting Public History as Service

At last year’s annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, the organizing theme that resonated across sessions was service. Who is it that we serve and how can we best serve them. This morning, keynote speaker James Brewer Stewart, suggested one possible answer: by bearing witness.

Stewart spent most of his career as a traditional historian, trained to be suspicious about scholarship that might distort our understanding of history by “making the past about the present.” However, over the course of his career, he came to recognize, in the words of William Faulker, that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past. Culture radiates outward, from past to present, and history can provide valuable insights about how best to address complex social problems.

Stewart's focus is the global slave trade. He observed that the contemporary problem of slavery might be solved, in part, by a re-configuration of historical memory. In early 19th century America, slavery was a crucial public issue. Respectable gentlemen counted slaves among their assets. Politicians, the press, and the clergy debated the morality of slavery, and well-meaning individuals posed numerous partial and gradual solutions to the moral dilemmas that the institution illuminated. Abolitionists, unwilling to accept the slow pace of change, demanded the impossible: immediate and total freedom for all enslaved people. Today, slavery –illegal and indefensible—has been driven underground. It is nearly invisible to average Americans and absent from political discourse.

Popular histories of slavery have been dominated in recent years, by a focus on the success of abolition. The Underground Railroad provides a vehicle through which the story of slavery has become palatable because it emphasizes individual courage and leadership and downplays the extent to which slavery dominated American political and economic life. Stewart challenged his more traditional minded colleagues to engage actively in the transformation of this popular narrative, in order to embrace a more useful the past. Nineteenth century abolitionists were audacious and relentless in their demand for an end to slavery. They provided platforms from which former slaves could speak for themselves, attracting empathy and leading the charge toward freedom. Historians might play a similar role, documenting and amplifying the voices of individuals whose lives have been directly affected by the contemporary slave trade.

Of course, Stewart was preaching to the choir.

In a variety of sessions that followed his talk this morning, public historians described their work in empowering a variety of collaborators to engage in the business of history. Public historians from inside and outside of the academy are amplifying the voices of indigenous peoples across Canada, farmers in the southern Maryland, and residents of Mill Towns in New England, allowing them to define the questions worth studying and the resources worth protecting.

Public historians are indeed in a unique position to hear and echo the needs of diverse publics, and we have a clear understanding that our work serves a larger political purpose. Our collaborative form of scholarly inquiry allows us to bear witness to pressing social issues, and our work helps lend legitimacy to the voices of vulnerable or under served communities.

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