In June, 2015, when I heard about the nine murders at a bible study class at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I was preparing to get together with friends I sang “We Shall Overcome” with during the early 1960s. We had met as high school students, in seminars and workcamps sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. The older kids in my crowd joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer project in 1964, but even the youngest among us had picketed our hometown Woolworth’s to support the sit-ins at Southern lunch counters. As a fifteen-year-old white girl, I stood on the National Mall in 1963 and heard Martin Luther King describe a dream that I understood as mine, too.
Fifty years later, I retired from my position as a university professor of American history. I had taught some African American history in the US History survey course, but it was not my research specialty. My books and articles about the history of American consumer culture concern the intersection between daily life and the public world. My teaching emphasized that history is not a collection of facts, but a way of thinking about how things change.
I bring these perspectives to this project, “A White Historian Reads Black History.” Responding to Charleston, to police shootings, and to #BlackLivesMatter, I began my series of illustrated talks in February 2016, with “A White Historian Confronts American Slavery.” My talk on lynching launched in October of that year; I have been honored to share the stage for that presentation with poet Marcia Cole, whose artistic and sonic take on the subject complements my intellectual and visual one. My third talk, first offered in October 2017, is about voting rights, a topic on many minds as Americans anticipate the 2020 elections. My fourth, on residential segregation, was first delivered in October 2018. Each talk is illustrated with more than 50 historical photographs, maps, and charts.
My goal is to delve deeper into these crucial chapters of American history than most white people usually do. I believe that history offers a way for us to become honest with ourselves; my aspiration is to be of service to others who, like me, are grappling with contemporary issues of race and racism. In doing this work, I have met many people interested in going beyond simplistic accounts of the past that confirm what they already know.
Mark Greiner, former pastor of the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church, wrote about my first talk: “The lecture so evocatively described our shared history and its ongoing legacies and struggles. Further, you modeled how a white person / scholar can struggle into owned history. You simultaneously ‘performed’ history and solidarity. I was struck that the audience was eager to say, ‘yes, and we need to look at even more history.’ What an affirmation of the rich vein you’ve tapped. Sobered, delighted with and inspired by your work…..”
TO SPONSOR THE SERIES OR A SINGLE TALK, CONTACT SUSAN [AT] SUSANSTRASSER.NET