Two important history conferences were held this weekend: the Future of the African American Past Conference, hosted by the American Historical Association; and the Memphis Massacre Conference, commemorating the events of 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. Both conferences were important for two broad reasons. One, they both indicate a continued interest by some historians—especially those focused on the African American experience—to speak to the public about history. Second, they both speak to Emily Rutherford’s concerns about opening up intellectual history to groups traditionally marginalized within the field. An intellectual history from below, as it were, would provide the fodder for more questions to be asked within American intellectual history. As this week’s conferences prove, a general concern about history from below—and its connections to current events from below—engulf the historical profession in new, and intriguing ways.
The project of history from below has been with us for at least the last fifty years. Revolutionizing the fields of social, cultural, and intellectual history, the historical profession in the United States continues to wrestle with the broad themes of race, class, and gender. Both the weekend’s conferences were part of this tradition. They both offer lessons for us to consider as we continue the debate over where intellectual history can go from here. The Future of the African American Past Conference was a follow up to a 1983 conference at Purdue University, which produced the 1986 collection The State of Afro-American History. This year’s conference was an exemplar of a conference concerned with a wide ranging field like African American history—with support from the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Endowment for the Humanities, they were able to bring in many of the top scholars in African American history.
Browsing the various papers given at the conference, you get a sense of how historians are continuing to re-evaluate what constitutes African American history. The topics covered included the internationalization of African American history, questions about black identity and historical context, and the intersections of race, class, and gender within the African American community. The conference’s attempt to think out loud about where the field of African American history can go reminds me a bit of last year’s Association for the Study of African American Life and History conference in Atlanta, along with this year’s African American Intellectual History Society conference in Chapel Hill. All three conferences provide evidence that the field of African American history is still healthy and vibrant, with scholars who want to push the field in even newer directions.
The Memphis Massacre conference also displayed the vibrant nature of African American history, albeit in a different context. Focused on the Reconstruction era and public history, the Memphis Massacre Conference was a wonderful example of how historians can speak to the public about history, memory, and modern social issues. I hope to see more conferences like this about the Reconstruction era as more anniversaries come up from that time period (as I also mentioned last week). But both conferences should also spark thinking about how to answer Emily Rutherford’s provocative—and much needed—questions about how to reform the field of intellectual history. Such a conversation will not be fast or easy. Nor should it be. But as the conferences above show, plenty of good and stimulating history will come out of these debates about the future of intellectual history.