PublicHistory The Future of the African American Past

AHA Session 218
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Grand Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
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

Session Abstract

In summer 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will open its doors as the last museum built on the National Mall in Washington, DC (unless the now shuttered Arts & Industries Building is turned over to a new museum initiative). Although it will be the first national museum devoted specifically to African American history, the integration of African American history into our understanding of the nation’s past has enabled the director of NMAAHC to speak authoritatively of the museum as “America’s story.”  Public and scholarly engagement with the African and African American struggle against slavery and the achievement of freedom has deepened over the past generation.  Indeed, Americans and others around the world turn to the histories and cultures of the African Diaspora for inspiration.  But the context for these interests has changed.  The narratives of slavery, emancipation, and the Civil Rights Movement, and the themes of oppression, struggle, and liberation still resonate deeply and command considerable attention from historians.  But what comes next?  What issues are the next generation of historians likely to explore?  What themes are most likely to engage the millions of visitors to the museum in the next 25 years? 

“The Future of the African American Past” is the title of a conference that the AHA and NMAAHC are organizing for the opening of the museum.  It will take place in May 2016, and has been conceptualized as a “next generation” sequel to a comparable conference co-sponsored by the AHA at Purdue University in 1983.  This panel is meant as a preview to that conference, and to the opening of the museum itself.  Lonnie G. Bunch, Johnnetta B.Cole, Annette Gordon-Reed, and David W. Blight will discuss the goals of the new museum within the context of recent and future directions in the study of African American History. Thomas C. Holt will chair.  Bunch is the Director of NMAAHC.  Cole is a member of the museum’s advisory council, and the director of the National Museum of African Art.  Blight, Gordon-Reed, and Holt have served as informal advisors, and combine distinguished scholarship with extensive consulting with museums and historic sites relating to African American history.  Holt’s long career of scholarship in this field includes a major role in the 1983 conference Purdue.

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