TEDxDartmouth 2011- Annette Gordon-Reed: The Continuing Relevance of History – March 6, 2011


>>What you may not realize is that history is incredibly
important. I think — I hope
that most people in this audience know that. But I had the occasion in
the past couple of months to have a couple of people tell
me that history did not matter. I had one person who said to me, somewhat insensitively I would
think, that what I did was sort of like train spotting —
people who watch the trains go by every day, and then note the
number of them and so forth, suggesting that talking about
the past did not matter. And another person who said to
me — a younger person who said, what difference does it
make what happened a hundred years ago? What does it matter
for the here and now? William Faulkner in
Requiem For a Nun said, the past is never dead,
it’s not even past. And actually President
Obama posted that line — paraphrased it in a very
important speech he gave about the history of race in
the United States of America. And I wanted to take that as a
theme, and I mention that as — in the title of my talk,
because I agree with it. I’ve always thought
that history mattered. When I grew up in the south,
which is a place that’s very, very suffused with history, and
lives daily with the effects of history, I couldn’t
help but be moved by — influenced by that
kind of history. Growing up in a place which
was not legally segregated, but when I went to the
theater, my family and I sat in the balcony where
Blacks had sat. When I went to the
doctor’s office, we went to separate
waiting rooms. I always looked into
the White waiting room and they always had
great magazines, and ours, we had no magazines. And that was the
effect of history. It was an outgrowth, a legacy of African channel
[phonetic] slavery in the United States of America. It’s definitely a part of that. And I could never think
that history did not matter, because of those
kinds of things. I could also not think
that history didn’t matter because in my town my parents
decided, for whatever reason, to send me to a White school. I was the first child in
our school district to go to a White school — the
so-called the White school. And that told me that
history was important. I had a sense of myself from
the age of six years old as being a part of history,
growing up in those days when things were changing,
and people were talking about history, talking
about change, changing laws. And as you know, law is
very, very much to — dependent upon history and
precedent, and that the force of law from the Constitution, a document that is very much
a part of American history, and is a part of every
American’s consciousness, that this sort of thing —
this document and the history of slavery was very
much a part — the legacy of slavery was
very much a part of my life. So I’ve always taken for granted
that history was important. I know that we’re in
a particular phase now where we look at the
problems that were talked about earlier today, about
America’s place in the world, being concerned about America’s
place in the world, and thinking that what really matters is
that people become proficient in science, hard
subjects, accounting, the kinds of things — practical
things that people can do, and that’s exactly right. But I think the humanities — and history is a part
of the humanities — those things are critical for
us, to do the kind of thinking, policy, all of those kinds
of things that are gonna take to make America competitive,
and to help us continue to be a great country, it
starts with the humanities, and history is a part
of that, is critical. So this is something that
I’ve always believed. And I’ve lived it, because
most of my work has been in the area of history. I’ve started out
writing about a place that is iconic in
American history. That is to say Monticello,
the home of Thomas Jefferson, where hundreds of
thousands people — hundreds of thousands of people
go to Monticello every year to find out about a great
American who crafted — wrote the Declaration
of Independence, but was also a slave holder. And right there, learning
the lesson of the link between Blacks and Whites, the sort of troubled American
past in this one place. So by going to a
place like that, then most people sometimes can
— you could think of Monticello as — it’s like a — a place
for great gadgets and so forth. But it’s much more than that. It’s a home that talks
about America’s origins, both as a place of liberty,
and as a place of slavery. And I had this focus, thinking
about history, and thinking about race all of my life, and
that’s what led me to writing about Jefferson, and writing
about slavery at Monticello. Because it occurs to me
that a lot of what happens between Blacks and Whites today
is very definitely a product of that time and that
particular moment. You may not realize — one of
the things you may not realize about history is how much
America has always been that dreaded word, a
multi-cultural country. This was never a
nation in its origins that was particularly White — that was totally
White, obviously. Native Americans were here
when the Europeans arrived. Most people think of the
Europeans or I’m not — the history lesson
that I had growing up, we focused on Plymouth
Rock as the place, and people thought
of the Pilgrims. But it begins before then
— 1609 in Jamestown.>>It begins before then if you
talk about people who are — who are not English speaking,
Spanish settlements in Florida. But not long after that, or
in sometimes contemporaneous with the Spanish,
Africans came as well. You think about a place
like Williamsburg — colonial Williamsburg, if — I’m sure many of
you have been there. It’s a place that is in its incarnation now
predominately White. If you walk around Williamsburg,
most of the people there in costume and so
forth are White, and it gives a particular
representation of the past that
is not accurate. In the time period that I write
about, the family that I write about — the matriarch of the
family, Elizabeth Hemmings, was born in the 1730s
in Williamsburg — in the Williamsburg area. And at that time, half the
population was African, and half White. So you don’t really get a
sense of that when you walk around Williamsburg today, and it can give this
false impression about America’s origins. The wonderful film — or the
somewhat dated film I should say that — oh, I’m saying
this on tape. The dated film that they
show in Williamsburg about these origins,
they’re all — it’s — it’s a place that’s
basically White. You don’t see Blacks
participating, Blacks even walking
around as being a part of the scene in Williamsburg. But as I said, it changes
your nation — your — your notions of what
this country was like in the beginning,
if you realize that Williamsburg was a
place half and half — nearly half and half
Black and White. Africans — people who were not
Creole — who — who were — who were not yet
Creole, people — and that is to say people
who hadn’t learned English, and sort of had an — a
melded [phonetic] culture, many of these people
were African. You could walk around and see
people with tribal markings who were still speaking
their native languages, who were interacting
with English people who were not Americans yet. These were all English people, African people of
differing groups. The other thing to think
about, Africans not as a — a country, Africa is not a
country, it is a continent. And within that continent
there are — [ Applause ]>>– there are — there are — there are many, many different
languages, different peoples who have different cultures. And they all came together, and they’re in this
particular place, and they are becoming America — becoming Americans
during this time period. It took a while for Black and
Whites to become Americans, but it’s a process that — that Blacks and Whites
went through together. And I think it’s
very, very important for people to understand that. There is a — a sense
that there is some — something to be gained
by portraying America as foundationally White. I mean, you know, saying
that well this is — that Blacks sort of showed
up at some point later on, and because they were not a
part of the power structure of the society, they did
not write the Constitution, they were not part of the — they did not write the
Declaration of Independence, they were not part of
Congress, any of those kinds of things, it didn’t matter. But culture is very,
very important. And this is what history —
social history tells you, that Black and White
together made a society, helped to make this
country in ways that make us who we are today. Now not all of this is good,
not all of this is good, because of the encounter
between Africans and — and the English started out
as one of a power struggle — a tremendous power imbalance. It was also during that time
period that what it meant to be Black was defined,
and what it meant to be White was defined. And you know — you can probably
guess what those definitions were — whiteness as power, blackness as relative
powerlessness. And I think those attitudes — those legacies of
slavery are still with us. We’ve tried very, very
hard to work them out — work the kinks out in a way,
but they’re definitely with us. And that is what my
work has been about. I started out with this problem
of thinking about history, and the way historians
wrote about slavery. How do you take the
words of enslaved people who are telling you what
happened during slavery. And the particular story that
I focused on was Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and the story
of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, and the
way historians had treated that subject over the years, not because I thought
it was earth shattering, I mean the idea that
enslaved woman had children by a slave master is pretty —
is pretty banal in the south where I grew up —
I grew up in Texas. Now some people don’t think
that’s the south, but — [ Laughter ]>>– but Texas is the south,
particularly east Texas. Anyplace where they
have plantations and cotton is the south. And growing up in that area,
going to family reunions, seeing people around, the
reality of mixed race — mixed race nature of the African-American
community was always present to me — present for me and
other Blacks, probably in a way that it wasn’t for Whites. So it never struck me as a
terribly important thing. But what was important
was how the words of African-Americans
were treated in history. And what I wanted
to do was to try to expose the double standard,
I thought, where the words of Blacks — the people who
were the objects of slavery — were not taken seriously, and
the words of Whites were taken as — as the final
word on things. So it was really about using
history as a way to talk about — to — to expose this, to ask the question does
this still happen today? Is this a part of
our understanding of the way we interact with one
another as Blacks and Whites? And I do think that that
legacy of slavery was something that I saw in historical
writing, and it was something that I wanted to
bring to the fore, and to have people discuss —
not did Tom and Sally, you know, what was the nature
of their relationship, but how do we talk about it.>>And I think that that
was very, very important. While I was working on that it
also occurred to me that one of the reasons that people
could dismiss the words of enslaved people was that
we didn’t know anything about the Hemings as
individuals, that people think of slavery, and most people
think of cotton fields, right? Antebellum period, Gone With
the Wind, a sort of dialect, a way of speaking, a way
of carrying themselves that was monolithic, and
not seeing enslaved people as individuals. And there I also thought
that that was something that continues today as well. Black people, from
my perspective, if you look at popular cultures
— movies, television — there are two or three
types of Black people. And you know what
the Black person — my son said to me one time, he said you always know what
the Black character is gonna do. You know what the Black
character’s gonna say. There’s the sassy Black friend
— sassy Black female friend — girl, you know you don’t
need to be doin’ that. She’s the friend of
Julia Roberts or someone. And you have the Black guy who
is, you know, maybe selfless in some ways, who’s too
brave, I mean ’cause he — he’s always a computer
specialist a lot. You — there — there’s — there are these things that
the person’s gonna do — these sort of [inaudible]
that — that are there that — that sort of — that
Black people are symbolic, not individuals. And what I’ve tried
to do with history, and what I think history — is exciting about history
done the right way is to bring individuals alive,
to talk about the Hemings as individuals, not a
slave girl, not a slave man or enslaved woman, but
as people, Sally Hemings, Betty Hemings, her brother
James, all the kinds of things that talk to them and — talk
about them and were with ways and all the types of things that
you expect and sort of assume that are part of individuality. And so I thought from — that history was a
vehicle for doing that. Knowing how important
it is, knowing how just as we are the sum total
of all of our experiences, that society is the sum total of
all the things that we’ve done and that have happened in
the past, all of the things that have influenced us. I sort of moved away a bit
from my comfort zone in writing about slavery, and trying
to work all of this stuff out in the time of slavery, and
sort of presenting this family so that people could think about
them as individuals and people, and hoping that that would make
them think about Blacks today, the descendants of
enslaved people as people, to bring that to the fore. And talking about another
period in American history that was sort of the end
result of what did not happen with the founding generation, that is to say solving
the problem of slavery, and writing about the
period of reconstruction. I’ve been writing about that
recently, and forced to think about this, because this too is in some ways I think even much
closer to where we are today in — in sort of — as a
society, and the kinds of things that we’re grappling with. A time that Thurgood
Marshall said was the time of lost opportunities. When there was an
opportunity, a chance to sort of change the lives of Blacks
after the end of slavery, to bring them into full
citizenship, here was a moment when that could have been done. And Marshall in a descent
[phonetic] [inaudible] opinion in his descent. He said if we had taken
care of things in the 1860s, the way they should
have been taken care of, things would be different today. We wouldn’t be dealing with the
problems that we have today. So history, as the
shaper of the — of the present and
of the future, history as a contingent thing
— now go — go back to the — to the Faulkner quote
a moment before — that I mentioned before,
the past is never dead. It’s not even dead,
it’s not even past. There’s a way of
conceptualizing the past that is called memory
versus history. History is what academic
historians do. Memory is the sort of
collective feelings and the collective thoughts
we’ve had that we get from our grandparents and
our great grandparents, and our understanding
about the world. That’s separate from history. That is supposed to be much
more detached in a way. We can never have
complete detachment, but you strive for
it in history. And it’s a way of presenting
a story of a country, of a nation that
everybody can share. Memory is something different. It’s much more personal,
it tends to be much more — it can be casual or not in the
sense that it is unimportant, but casual in the sense that it’s not always
well thought out. And I was thinking about this
because we are in a moment now that is very much read
on [phonetic] I think, where memory is very much a part of the way people
respond to the past. And we are now at the
[inaudible] of the centennial of the — of the start
of the Civil War, which is for some reason
recognized much more in the south than
it is in the north. You would think — think — you’d think the people
who won would want to talk about it more. But this has been one of
those things where the people who lost have spent
much more time, and have been much more active
in putting together committees and so forth to commemorate
this, even though many, many northern soldiers
died in that war as well, and should be remembered. But memory — the memory
of what that war meant, and what reconstruction
meant, all those kinds of things are very,
very important, and we have competing memories. So what you may not realize, and
what — what I want you to — to — to realize now, to
think about is when you read over the next year about these
commemorations, all these kinds of things, think about
history versus memory. Think about the importance of
history as a vehicle for telling who we were, not so that we
will be hostage to the past, but as a way of making sure
that we know who we are, so that we could go
forward in the future. If you think about a
person that you meet — think about in your own life,
if you wanted to know someone, if you wanted to be helpful to
someone, if you wanted to — to become a — an important —
important part of their lives, how would you do that? You’d want to know
something about them, you’d want to have their story. And I think it’s important to do
that for the nation, as I said, not so that we’ll be
hostage to the past, but so that we will know how
to be useful for the future. Thank you. [ Applause ]

Comments 2

  • Wonderful!

  • It is interesting to realize African Americans (besides Native Americans) have been here the longest. Other groups,Irish ,Italian and Asian that came later have mostly been able to assimilate principally from interbreeding and the loss of whatever cultural stereotypes were associated with the group (mainly an accent). Of course there are more mixed race people now (a good thing) so hopefully race will someday disappear . I wonder if there have been any studies on the percentage various races mix?

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