Pathways to Democracy: Preparing for the 2021 Call for Proposals
“Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” With these bold words, Nikole Hannah-Jones began the lead essay of 1619, the New York Times special issue examining the legacy of slavery in America.
The essay goes on to shift our gaze from the people and sites that symbolize democracy— George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the White House, the Capitol—and instead to center the unfree men, women and children who worked these men’s properties and built these symbols of freedom. Even more, Hannah-Jones argues, the contributions of enslaved Americans go far beyond the material wealth they created and the monuments they built: Black Americans are and have always been “foundational to the idea of American freedom.… It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”
As a historian, I found this piece and the entire 1619 issue inspiring. It did what so many of us try to do in our own scholarship: it demonstrated how the past sheds light on our present and how to imagine a better future. As I think ahead to the OAH in Chicago in 2021, I find myself asking what will invigorate us as a profession? How might we too engage in a more capacious understanding of democracy? Given today’s climate, where the very institutions of democracy are being challenged as never before, what is the role of history, and what is our role as educators in fostering participatory social movements and political transformation? Do we need different tools today in order to teach, write, and engage with the public? What do we do as historians to protect and nurture democracy both inside the classroom and outside it, in our collaborations with non-profits, community-based organization, museums, artists, and more? Our call for papers, organized under the theme “Pathways to Democracy,” is an invitation to reassess or roles and reinforce our roadmaps for civic engagement—and to envision democracies that live up to their promise.
In response to your calls for more creative types of sessions and more opportunities for dialogue, we have opened up more types of panels, including lightning rounds, workshops, roundtables, debates, chat seminars, screenings, and more. We encourage you to try out these new formats. For more detail and an extended list of session types, see the call for proposals—and if you have a vision for a session type that is not on this list, we encourage you to propose it.
The 1619 project has offered us one example of work that crosses the boundaries of historical journalism to embrace art, fashion, music, sports, podcasting, and more. I am hoping that the OAH meeting will be a similar space for wide-ranging conversation, cross-field collaboration, experimentation, and learning. I hope you will be bold!