Social Activism, Hamilton, and Puerto Rico
The 2018 OAH Annual Meeting (#OAH18) on the theme “The Forms of History” reminded historians of the different shapes the discipline can take and how this variety influences the public sphere. Every panel I attended addressed contemporary American life and how history can and should become more of a mainstay in political, social, and cultural discourse. Along these lines, as evidenced by the numerous live tweeters and the new Amplified Initiative, which digitally recorded most of the panels, there is a widely understood drive among historians and other scholars to reach beyond college campuses to make knowledge more accessible to a larger audience. Attendees to this year’s conference also pushed the discipline to provide frameworks for contemporary politics as well as models of responsible citizenship.
A common thread running through the entire conference was an interest in studying social movements of the past to provide guidance for the present. This interest was well represented by the panels, “Taking Control of Capitalism in 20th-Century Chicago” and “Bridging Race, Ideology, and Strategy: Coalitions from the Long 1960s to the Reagan Years.” These panels covered a wide range of topics, from the founding of radical “Third World Colleges” in the 1960s Bay Area to organizing among the unemployed in 1930s Illinois. Providing a pertinent example, Allyson Brantley (University of La Verne) reviewed the movement to boycott Coors Brewing Company. Despite the strength and diversity of the boycott which at one point included trade unions, anti-racist organizations, and LGBT groups, by the 1980s Coors managed to break the coalition by diversifying its image and appealing directly to minorities—especially by funding LGBT pride events.
Jon Shelton (University of Wisconsin, Green Bay), who commented on the Chicago panel, laid out an important consideration for weighing the overall impact of past activism, by asking “How malleable has capitalism actually been?” and “How much should working people concede?” Emily K. Hobson (University of Nevada, Reno), who commented on the latter panel, proposed a similar query, “How do we measure social movements beyond a framework of success or failure?”—an important reminder that historical actors often never accomplish exactly what they set out to or what we as historians would want them to accomplish. Both summaries pointed to a shared optimism that many in the United States are again pushing for social justice and looking to the past for guidance. Given the recent marches for gender equality and responsible firearm legislation, alongside massive statewide teachers’ strikes in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, there is no shortage of diverse movements for change.
Often, however, providing historical lessons to a wide audience requires creativity and flexibility. This was the guiding principle at the heavily attended session, “‘What Did I Miss?’: Historians Discuss Hamilton.” During this session, David Greenberg (Rutgers University), Renee Romano (Oberlin College), Claire Potter (The New School), and Patricia Herrera (University of Richmond), discussed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit musical Hamilton and its effect on the public consumption of history. As Romano pointed out, Miranda’s portrayal is now what many young adults first associate with the nation’s founding. How should historians interact with a musical that both inspires a deep interest in American history, but also limits a comprehensive understanding of the era? Potter pointed to online communities of Miranda’s fans and insisted that scholars “need to take social media seriously.” Herrera likewise sounded the alarm by arguing that while Hamilton is diverse in its casting, it is not “representative” of many marginalized voices of the early Republic. Enslaved Africans, native peoples, and women remain underrepresented in Miranda’s work. Still, as all of the panelists reiterated, it is a good thing for any telling of history to become a global phenomenon. Even if popular portrayals of historical events are not pristine accounts, they provide a crucial opening for historians to contextualize and provide a more nuanced history of that era.
Complementing the call for history to be both inclusive and diverse was a session on “Why Puerto Rico Matters to Historians of the United States.” Chair Van Gosse (Franklin & Marshall College) and panelists Lisa Materson (University of California, Davis) and Margaret Power (Illinois Institute of Technology) discussed Puerto Rico and how the island often “falls through the cracks” of Latin American and American history. Puerto Rico, they argued, is an integral piece of American history that needs to be widely countenanced by scholars of the United States. Both Materson and Power specifically highlighted Puerto Rico’s role in the history of American feminism. Power argued that the release of the birth control pill for personal use in 1960 could not have occurred without the forced sterilizations and testing of Puerto Rican women in decades prior. Materson added that it was in part these injustices that drove American civil rights activist Ruth Mary Reynolds into the cause for Puerto Rican independence and the global anticolonial struggle. Given the failure of the current U.S. government in managing and distributing disaster relief, the panelists did not need to remind attendees of the disastrous consequences of forgetting Puerto Rico.
As mentioned, the conference dealt with the past but kept a close eye on contemporary political developments. Donald Trump was a frequent topic of conversation at many panels. Andrew W. Kahrl (University of Virginia), Jason Sokol (University of New Hampshire), Sarah Milov (University of Virginia), and Brett Gadsden (Northwestern University) discussed Lily Geismer’s (Claremont McKenna College) 2015 book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party. Geismer’s book, published just prior to the 2016 election, focused on the “high-tech corridor” along Route 128 north of Boston. Geismer argued that the 128 corridor—known for being upper middle class, white collar, and overwhelmingly Democratic—was representative of post-1970s liberalism and its transformation from an ideology dedicated to tackling structural inequalities to a system that protected individual liberties while stopping short of ambitious social reforms. The roundtable, fittingly titled “Don’t Blame Us . . . Again: Historical Perspectives on the Democratic Party and the Rise of Trump,” put Geismer’s argument in conversation with current political trends.
The panelists agreed that most contemporary Democratic politicians must develop a strategy to tackle “income inequality and mass incarceration.” To prove this point, Kahrl discussed wealthy townships in Connecticut that, by the 1970s, voted Democratic, but remained strongly in favor of local zoning ordinances that prohibited poor (and often minority) people from moving in. While Kahrl’s study was admittedly local—similar to Geismer’s study—he claimed it represented a national trend of Democratic voters becoming “cool with inequality.” Gadsden and Sokol backed Kahrl’s assessment and made calls to further “historicize” American liberalism and its relationship to reform. Specifically, Gadsden called on scholars to reflect on the extent to which the Clinton administration is “responsible for the carceral state.”
Milov’s presentation focused on Charles Morgan, a former civil rights activist and attorney. Although Morgan began his career as a forceful advocate for progressive change, he finished his professional life as a defender and lobbyist for Big Tobacco. Milov argued that Morgan’s trajectory represented a “pseudo-populist rebellion” to an encroaching system of “lifestyle liberalism.” This style of liberalism, Milov said, put a greater emphasis on punishing unhealthy habits—smoking, in particular, but also the consumption of sugary or fatty foods—and alienated large swaths of the often poorer working class who were more likely to engage in these behaviors. Milov related this push for greater bureaucracy and government regulation of private consumption as part of the development of the contemporary Democratic Party.
Although historians interested in shaping public discourse have always paid close attention to contemporary events, the trend toward engaging with the public sphere using different “forms of history” has become particularly pronounced since the 2016 election. This year’s conference, while wide ranging as usual, emphasized conversations about how historical scholarship can best reach a wide audience and how that interaction can foster an engagement with democratic institutions, give a voice to the forgotten, and stoke movements for economic justice. Responses to the musical Hamilton prove that Americans can love interacting with the past in productive ways. Historians at the OAH conference seemed universally to recognize that the discipline can encourage this trend by becoming more accessible and relevant. This does not mean that historians will ever stop publishing academic works, but it does mean that historians increasingly are becoming more civically minded and looking beyond the university to bring their expertise into public discourse.
Andreas Meyris is a PhD candidate at George Washington University, specializing in transatlantic working class politics during the 1920s, and was an #OAH18 social media correspondent.
To read more about #OAH18, check out our daily highlights and award winners. As part of the Amplified Initiative, select panels from the OAH 2018 Annual Meeting were recorded and will be available online.