Continuing her series of conversations with humanities council staff about the role of the humanities with an eye towards the past, present, and future of our country, Federation President Phoebe Stein asked Florida Humanities’ Communications Director Keith Simmons about how public humanities work can move us forward today.
What role do Florida Humanities, the state humanities councils, and the public humanities more broadly have in moving our country forward productively during this time?
SIMMONS: The humanities have a diverse range of tools and techniques to allow Americans to achieve one thing: recognize the fundamental dignity of all people. History, literature, philosophy, and other disciplines demonstrate the power of loving people for who they are, regardless of their social status or achievements. With this knowledge, we can approach conversations with a sense of humility and courage. It takes courage, not only for a Black person to express how they have been hurt or the way a certain behavior is problematic; there must be courage too on the part of white people to hear what has been said and to understand that despite intent, the impact of words and actions matter the most.
State humanities councils promote these efforts in communities across the United States. Our objective isn’t to assume that we have all the answers; we want to work together with libraries, museums, historical societies, scholars, journalists, activists, and fellow citizens to celebrate fundamental dignity; collectively challenge the structures and issues that stand in the way of equality; and promote a true common good which is consistent with our founding principles.
At Florida Humanities, we have two key partnerships we aim to leverage over the coming weeks to deal with current issues. The first is with The Village Square, who we partnered with to create Local Color. It is an ongoing series of conversations on race issues in Tallahassee. The second partnership is with the Peace and Justice Institute at Valencia Community College. We awarded them a Community Project Grant in 2018 to support their work creating community forums to discuss the 1920 Ocoee Massacre.
We are also partnering with Village Square and another organization– Better Angels– to do programs related to our upcoming Smithsonian Museum on Main Street exhibit, “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America.”
We see our partners, whether they are statewide or local in scope, as fundamental to our work at Florida Humanities.
I’d also like to know how your personal connection to and background in the humanities impacts your work in the public humanities.
SIMMONS: My personal connection to the humanities comes from history. One of the careers I wanted to pursue as a child—at least one of the more plausible careers—was to be a history teacher. I loved learning about ancient civilizations, the empires they created, great generals with bombastic personalities, and battles of tremendous destruction. When I attended college at Florida A&M University (FAMU), I started to develop a love for more personal stories. I wanted to know less about the ancient empire and more about the individual lives of people who lived in those empires. Soon, I wanted to know more about the individual lives of African Americans in the United States.
Before, I largely assumed that Black history revolved around two events: slavery and the civil rights movement. But my professors showed me time and again that these stories are infinitely more complex and beautiful than this simple narrative. The years I spent studying history at FAMU and later at the University of South Florida continued to affirm that stories with the capacity to change the world—and most importantly, change us—aren’t only found in empires that are distant in time and geography.
In fact, one of the stories that had a tremendous impact on me is the one I first heard while working for Florida Humanities. Dr. Robert Hayling, a dentist, and leader of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, Florida showed that I can best use my talents and interests to help others. Hearing his story for the first time proved that consuming the stories of others would help me understand that my own story has meaning and is worthy of being told.