Don't Mourn, Organize!: Histories of Resistance, Resilience, and Possibility

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.

We are living through an historical emergency—a moment of many, overlapping crises. Mass incarceration, family separation, rising authoritarianism and violent white nationalism, permanent warfare, poverty, and catastrophic climate change drive a politics of panic and cruelty, as well as fatigue and despair.

It is a moment in which American historians have been called upon to explain the significance of recycled slogans such as “America First” and to debate whether the term “concentration camp” accurately describes the country’s human cages. The American Historical Association was recently compelled to issue a public statement condemning the “deployment of histories invented in the interest of bigotry, violence, and division.” Our crises have deep historical roots, and they are now bearing awful fruit.

This disturbing context is inescapable, and for many of us, it overwhelms our non-professional lives. It also shapes our scholarship, our teaching, and how our students interpret each.

Our panel asks what can history offer us in such desperate and dispiriting times and, most fundamentally, what roles can historians play in building a better future?

If there is a silver lining to our bleak present, it is that history is full of precedents. Struggles for justice have always been inherently unequal contests – clashes between the powerful and the powerless. Movements for change have faced staggering odds, their demands routinely dismissed by contemporaries as impossible and utopian. At times, however, actions from below have won unlikely victories, big and small, transforming the inconceivable into the inevitable. Even dismal circumstances have produced the seeds of change that panelist Annelise Orleck calls “flashes of hope.”

In their research, the panelists examine these moments and actions through many lenses, including organizing efforts by low-wage workers around the world, campaigns against high-stakes standardized testing, community-based anti-poverty initiatives, and the recovery of forgotten connections between seemingly disparate movements.

Panelists are also notably engaged in both activism and organizing, as well as activist-scholarship, including countless pieces for popular publications and books written specifically for young people and for educators.

Drawing on their scholarship and their experiences, panelists will discuss the acts of extraordinary bravery, ingenuity, and solidarity in our past that have countered hopelessness and engaged everyday Americans in efforts to create a more just and humane world. They will discuss the unpredictable nature of history and the hope that exists for the future that we must build.

This panel will not solve our collective problems, but it may help us to better engage them – together.

Posted: November 7, 2019
Tagged: Conference, Teaching, AfAm, Women's History, Previews