Roundtable Decolonizing U.S. History: The United States and Decolonization at Home and Abroad

AHA Session 239
Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 2
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Sheraton Ballroom III (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Mark Philip Bradley, University of Chicago
Race and Class
Brenda Plummer, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Puerto Rico
Lorrin R. Thomas, Rutgers University-Camden
Indigenous Peoples
Daniel M. Cobb, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Human Rights
Bradley Simpson, Princeton University

Session Abstract

Historians have long studied the United States’ influences on the world and, more specifically, highlighted its role in the global process of decolonization. Yet, in many instances, decolonization’s impacts on U.S. history remains absent from the mainstream domestic narrative. This global process has greatly shaped U.S. daily lives, society, policy-making, and the construction of U.S. history in general. Above all, the postwar round of global change in human affairs challenged U.S. conceptions of human rights, citizenship, immigration, diplomacy, and culture. Americans—whether they were conscious of it or not—were connected to anti-colonial communities and subsequent transnational networks. This said, U.S. history was not exceptionally harbored from global independence movements, the collapse of European empires, and the ensuing postcolonial struggle against Western interventions in the “Third World.” What is more, non-American, “Third World” peoples actively engaged with Americans of all walks of life as the latter negotiated the U.S. order of things.

Chaired by Andrew Rotter, Charles A. Dana Professor of History at Colgate University, this roundtable—which is co-sponsored by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR)— reunites historians from various sub-fields of U.S. history in an effort to suggest how we can decolonize the field in order to incorporate decolonization’s role, and therefore continue the globalization of U.S. history and counter the power of U.S. exceptionalism. Panelists include Brenda Gayle Plummer, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Daniel Cobb, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Lorrin Thomas, Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University-Camden; Bradley Simpson, Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at Princeton University; and Maurice Jr. Labelle, doctoral candidate in History at the University of Akron.

Brenda Gayle Plummer will begin the roundtable by discussing how decolonization abroad forced U.S. officials to alter the frame in which they encountered the civil rights movement at home. As many Americans protested against Jim Crow rule, the U.S. government maintained its power on this constituency by invoking class differences—rather than increasingly problematic and outmoded race-based explanations. From there, Dan Cobb will explore how decolonization encouraged Native Americans to globalize their struggle for indigenous rights. Above all, Native groups tapped into a pre-existing, global network in an attempt to legitimate their causes. Lorrin Thomas, for her part, will talk about the ways in which decolonization shaped Puerto Rican lives, the emerging independence movement, as well as the status of Puerto Rico as a U.S. “territory” during the Cold War. Brad Simpson, thereafter, will turn to the global human rights revolution of the 1970s and its impact on U.S. society and diplomacy. Finally, Maurice Labelle will offer a culturalist interpretation of the tumultuous historical relationship between the United States and decolonization. Above all, by exploring the imperial politics of U.S. history-making, Labelle will seek to explain why decolonization remains predominantly on the margins of U.S. nation-state history.

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