Loyal to Their Own Cause: African American Public Memory, Commemoration, and Contestation

AHA Session 114
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Boulevard A (Hilton Chicago, Second Floor)
W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Audience

Session Abstract

Loyal to their own Cause: African American Public Memory, Commemoration and Contestation is an exploration of how African Americans have been publicly memorialized in the contested physical landscape of the United States thereby critically engaging memorialization in both the North and South. The controversies surrounding the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Durham, Baltimore and various other southern locales last year has sparked conversations about how legacies are commemorated in contested spaces and thereby represent contested loyalties. Historically the South has been situated as a terrain fraught with racial violence and trauma where contestation associated with race has often led to blood shed. Contrastingly, the South is simultaneously situated as a homeland and a place of comfort. Engaging the South as a site of both collective pleasure and pain for African Americans, panelists seek to further examine the troubling of dominant and often limited southern narratives about African Americans throughout history. Relatedly, panelists seek to transgress narratives that frame the South as the predominant space for scholarship on early African American History by exploring the North as well as a contested space. Prior to the twentieth century Great Migration to the North, the North was a space of dynamic and complex African American life. Further, the lives of enslaved and free African Americans in the North during enslavement deserves further study. The history of African American life in the North during and after enslavement was also a site of pain and pleasure which is exemplified by the violence of Northern slavery and twentieth century urban race riots coupled with the opportunities that the North presented for African Americans fleeing the South during enslavement and Jim Crow.

Understanding the distinct contours of how African Americans have been memorialized highlights the intersection of race, gender, class, and space in public history. Panelists will examine the trajectory of African American commemorations from the seventeenth century to the modern-day, through their discussion of the roles of enslaved men and women in the North through an examination of current public historical interpretation in New England, freedmen and freedwomen as memory crafters of the Civil War, the commemoration of African American student activism at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and African American women’s memorialization in the 1970s. In short, this panel seeks to make three notable interventions. We seek to showcase efforts by Black southerners to commemorate their past and contest White southern public memory because White Southern nostalgia or the lost cause is but one type of loyalty. African Americans are also committed to their own narratives and memory. Secondly, we seek to examine African American commemoration as a gendered process. Lastly, we seek to examine both commemoration in the North and South in order to produce rich scholarship and public history that is more reflective of true African American life. Timely in nature, we assert that to understand American historical memory we must reconsider African American public history through an examination of contested memory and spaces throughout the United States.

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