Friday, April 3, 2009

The positive sides of presentism

Jim Stewart from Macalester College, this morning's keynote speaker, echoed Jill Lepore and others I've heard at the conference who have spoken about how public history and public historians tend to question the historical rule of thumb about not allowing present-day agendas and allegiances to inform how historians understand or interpret the past. Speaking on "Abolishing Slavery in Lincoln's Time and Ours: The Legacies of American Slavery and the Challenges of Human Trafficking," Stewart made a case for using historical knowledge to inform what he sees as a contemporary anti-slavery movement that is still just in the process of coalescing into a broad public project, within which the "millenial generation"--those born around the turn of the 21st century--are already among the most active. Stewart raised good questions about intellectual and social responsibilities, the nature of broad coalitions of social movements, and the importance of media in reaching and engaging particular audiences in a wired and global society.

Those interested in pursuing the ideas and issues raised in Stewart's talk may be interested in an upcoming conference, "Bearing Witness: Ending Slavery," an international forum to be held in Newport, Rhode Island in October 2009, and organized by Connecticut's Beecher House Center and the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation in Hull, UK. More information will be forthcoming on the websites of those two institutions closer to the October 15-18 date.

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