In June, 2015, when I heard about the murders of nine members of a bible study class at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I was preparing to get together with many of the people I sang “We Shall Overcome” with during the early 1960s. We had met in Pittsburgh as high school students, in seminars and workcamps sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. The older ones in my crowd joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer project during the summer of 1964, but even the youngest among us had been picketing 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 was mine, too.
I retired from my position as a university professor of American history fifty years later. I taught some African American history in the US History survey course, but it was not my specialty. My books and articles concern the intersection between the public world and the private one we inhabit in our daily lives. 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.
In response to Charleston, to police shootings, and to #BlackLivesMatter, I am offering a series of illustrated talks, “A White Historian Reads Black History.” I first delivered “A White Historian Confronts American Slavery” in February, 2016. “A White Historian Confronts Lynching” launched in October. My next talk, beginning in October, 2017, will be about voting rights, a topic on many minds anticipating the 2018 and 2020 elections. Others in the works are about residential segregation and race riots.
My goal is to delve deeper into these crucial chapters of American history than most of us usually do. I believe that history offers a way for us to become honest with ourselves, and my aspiration is to be of service to others who, like me, are grappling with our contemporary issues of race and racism.
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, OR IF YOU HAVE IDEAS FOR FUTURE VENUES, CONTACT SUSAN [AT] SUSANSTRASSER.NET