As I imagine has been a common experience for historians and educators, I have been a bit distracted in the past week by the events unfolding at Yale and the University of Missouri. Consequently, I don’t have much to offer today – everything that desperately needs to be said is being said, not only by commentators, writers and historians but most of all by the students of Yale and Mizzou who are daily enduring the frenzied attempt of white America to delegitimize their concerns, their activism, and their claims about the reality of institutionalized racism itself.
And so I thought instead just to direct your attention to one of the events leading up to the resignation of Tim Wolfe. A month ago, student activists staged a protest when they blocked Wolfe’s car from moving forward during the Homecoming parade by joining together and linking arms. Starting in 1839 (the year the university was founded), each student came forward to relate a historical event that illustrates the deep foundational relationship the University of Missouri, higher education, and by implication the entire United States has with white supremacy. Watching the entire demonstration, and the outpouring of emotion that followed, is well worth your time – as the students illustrations of oppression inch closer to the present, the discomfort of the surrounding crowd grows, and it is an amazing thing to watch the activists push forward with their story as the auditory and physical resistance around them mounts.
Our discipline is currently engaged in a long debate about the meaning of public intellectuals and the responsibility of the historian to create publically accessible scholarship. Watching these students bravely connect the past to the present and personal experiences to policy, it occurred to me that such hand wringing, in light of this, seems a bit myopic. Where are our public intellectuals? They are right here – disrupting the easy and celebratory routines of white Americans’ every day lives with the reminder that, as they eloquently put it, all of this was built on their backs.