In the age of twenty-four hour news cycles, Zoom rooms, and “googleability,” processes of circulating information and engaging in public dialogue has been accelerated to unprecedented levels. While there are risks associated with living life online, whether to youth mental health, data privacy, or consuming or contributing to the spread of misinformation, we are also discovering—and building upon—different ways of relating to one another, to memories of the past, and our shared futures.
With more instantaneous opportunities to connect across time and distance, many of us are witnessing (and participating in) colossal shifts in communication. With an enhanced ability to document and disseminate, communities are shedding brighter light on the multiplicity of perspectives that connect us; telling new iterations of old stories; and questioning dominant cultural and historical narratives. Likewise, with access to more information and perspectives, we are able to ask deeper questions of ourselves, others, and the systems—social, political, and economic—that organize and “define” our lives:
Whose stories, memories, or myths have been centered in our society? Whose voices have been prioritized, protected, and preserved? Whose voices have been silenced and whose lived-experiences excluded? What is needed to tell a more truthful history of our nation?
As Americans return to their schools, desks, and day jobs after a “Thanksgiving” break, it is important to reflect and reconsider the historical roots of this federally recognized holiday. By confronting conditioned racial biases and centering Native perspectives, the humanities can begin to move beyond the myths of Thanksgiving and into a more complete American history. But how might historians, educators, and everyday people commit to continuing these critical conversations year-round?
Annie Evans, Director of Outreach and Education for the New American History Project at the University of Richmond spoke to this topic at the 2022 National Humanities Conference. During her session “Imagining a New American History,” Evans presented a variety of Open Educational Resources and inquiry-based strategies for teaching a more honest history of America. Here, she shared a variety of tools for data visualization, multi-media connection, and mapping inequality through geographic information system (GIS) technology.
“You know, some people have questioned us, but what we’re trying to do is find new and more engaging ways to teach American history—to engage students, teachers, the community, and the parents of those students in an honest dialogue about American history, geography, and civics,” said Evans.
In addition to the New American History Projects’ American Panorama, Evans shared other innovative resources such as the BackStory archive from the public radio program produced by Virginia Humanities between 2008-2020, and the Bunk History initiative. As demonstrated by Evans, Bunk is a real-time curation of media including articles, essays, maps, videos, conversations, digital visualizations, and podcasts that examine what is happening in the present, and then relate it back to the past.
Through a manual tagging system, staff carefully connect new daily content with material from their archive that share some sort of intersection: a fundamental theme, idea, person, place, era, and more. They even have a “meanwhile” tag to direct readers to other historical events that were happening around the same time.
The site’s navigation and “collection” features are designed for students and teachers to use as a tool for engagement, connection, and reflection in group or individual settings. “By highlighting some of the many points of connection between these overlapping stories and interpretations, we hope to create a fuller and more honest portrayal of our shared past, and reveal the extent to which every representation is part of a longer conversation.”
Humanities councils across the states and territories are also engaging the practice of expanding history and exploring critical intersections in their communities. This year, the Delaware Humanities’ 2022 Joseph P. del Tufo Annual Lecture featured prolific organizer and community leader Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson. Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ A More Perfect Union initiative, the lecture focused on “Intersectional Rural Identity” and how the power of rural community is oftentimes overlooked in the shaping of a state’s larger identity.
An Affrilachian (Black Appalachian) woman from the working class who was born and raised in Tennessee, Ash-lee Woodard Henderson is the first Black woman to serve as Co-Executive Director of the Highlander Research & Education Center in New Market, TN and is an active member of multiple leadership teams in the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). When discussing her work at the Highlander Center, Woodard Henderson shared, “there’s such a radical legacy of resistance that was in no small way Black-led and multi-racial that I think this country has a lot to learn from in a 21st century context.”
Throughout the lecture, which was structured as an audience-led event, participants focused on recognizing, empowering, and activating the intersections of identity and experiences among them. In doing this, they also explored what it means to preserve rural culture, combat stereotypes, and celebrate the lived experiences of rural community members that aren’t often recognized (LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, youth, economically vulnerable, etc.).
Building on similar themes of community empowerment and collective identity, New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH)’s Community History program focuses on broadening history by sharing stories that have been undertold, forgotten, or erased from history.Through the program and with funding from NJCH, local organizations are able to create their own public history projects in consultation with their communities. The program consists of learning sessions, one-on-one meetings with program staff, and developing unique, community-based history projects in a collaborative cohort environment.
As described by program facilitator Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfen, community history projects are involved in both preserving and deconstructing the past in order to build a new path forward. “Through many different perspectives and diverse methods, cohort participants have paid careful attention to the needs, interests, histories, present(s) and futures of their communities, [using] the tool of the humanities to cultivate representation and a sense of belonging,” said O’Brassill-Kulfen
This year through the program, The New Jersey Orators (NGO) conducted an Oral History Pilot Project with the goal of demonstrating real-life application of oral history civic engagement. Through the pilot project, young New Jersey Orators bridged connections between the past and the future by sharing (and preserving) first-hand accounts of elderly community members from the civil rights era. Between February 2021 and December 2022, high school Orators are documenting oral history interviews with four elderly New Jersey seniors over the age of 90 about their life experiences during that time. Some of the participating seniors include Mrs. Ida Anderson, a lifelong member of the National Council of Negro Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Mrs. Anna Booker and her husband Charles, also active members of NAACP, who filed suit against the Plainfield School District under the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.
“I always knew about Brown vs. Board of Education, and this experience allowed me to get a closer look at the case,” said Chelsea Young, one of the orators. “I really appreciated learning about this case from my own hometown and seeing, not just history from a general perspective, but from a place that’s close to me and how I am directly impacted by Mrs. Anna Booker and Mr. Charles Booker’s hard work.” Now a freshman in college, Young is studying policy and law.
Beyond the humanities council community, other organizations in the field are also considering how “history” is made and asking similar questions through their work. This year, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) released their new project, Reframing History, which provides a report and toolkit of evidence-based recommendations for how to communicate history. Watch an engaging conversation from earlier this year about this initiative at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Additionally, in partnership with Fairleigh Dickinson University, the American Historical Association (AHA) set out to explore how the American public defines “history.” Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, their 40-question survey asked participants “where [they] access history, which sources of history are perceived to be reliable, their historical learning experiences, attitudes toward historical revision, correlations between civic engagement and an interest in history, and the perceived value of history.” Read more and view the survey results.
As demonstrated by council programs like Community History or A More Perfect Union, past events and how we collectively remember them shape our present moment and national identity. Reflecting on our personal and public understandings of the past and reconsidering the process of history-telling are worthwhile endeavors. By utilizing digital platforms to preserve and disseminate undertold or misrepresented stories, we are collectively shaping the future, and therefore, history too. Through the humanities, we are able to honestly explore intersections and celebrate differences of identity and experience throughout the history of America.
Written by Jazzy DiMeglio