Saturday and Sunday Highlights at OAH 2023

April 6, 2023

Saturday was another full day of events at the OAH’s meeting in Los Angeles.

Tours were sold out again on Saturday, as attendees took advantage of the rich history of Los Angeles and its surroundings. A tour to many of LA’s beaches, for example, explored their histories beyond the sun and sand, considering the city’s displacement of Black communities to make way for commercial development.

From left to right, Kara Dixon Vuic, Ty Seidule, David Blight, and Connor Williams.

On Saturday afternoon, a roundtable titled “Making Treason Odious Again,” focused on the Naming Commission, a recent bipartisan federal commission that identified and removed objects and names commemorating the Confederacy in the U.S. military. The panel featured David Blight, Ty Seidule, Connor Williams, and commentator Kara Dixon Vuic. Williams and Seidule reflected on their experiences helping guide the Naming Commission, and discussed their hope that their work would continue distancing the military from the pernicious influence of Lost Cause ideology. Blight offered contextual remarks including discussing changing perceptions of Confederate iconography and the Lost Cause since the 1990s. Williams and Seidule argued that the commission’s success was largely due to growing antiracist moments in the United States over the last decade. While the historians on the commission had drawn upon history to make their case, they had also turned to the present and future. As Williams noted, “history is about who we were, commemoration is about who we want to be.” Becoming a nation reflective of all its members takes effort, as this commission demonstrated. As Seidule put it, “the military changes only when its political bosses or the American people demand change.” In this case, the call for change was enough. Yet as the panelists argued, their work was only the beginning of reckoning with the commemoration of the Confederate past at a national level. Confederate names and iconography remain in many areas of the federal government. Much work remains to be done.

Saturday concluded with Erika Lee’s Presidential Address, titled “Confronting Crises: Asian American Crises for Uncertain Times.” Calling for “bold intellectual reckonings with our past and our present,” Lee explored how historical research and teaching are “necessary weapons” to confront the overlapping crises of our present moment. She pointed out that these current crises are not totally unique, and that we can “draw lessons from past history wars,” embracing fugitive pedagogies as methods of resistance.

Lee’s address focused primarily on the history of the 1871 Chinese massacre in Los Angeles to illustrate her broader points. Those killed in the mass lynching represented ten percent of the Chinese population of Los Angeles at the time, but the massacre has been largely erased from the historical record and public memory. Lee pointed out that the invisibility of this anti-Asian racism and violence reflects the general erasure of Asian Americans from curricula and the academy; she reminded listeners that “history helps define the boundaries of membership” and “who deserves to be given equal treatment.” Thus historical erasure enables and justifies ongoing discrimination and violence.

There are ways to fight this erasure, however. Lee detailed the efforts of the Chinese community in Los Angeles to remember and commemorate the 1871 massacre, both in its immediate aftermath and in the 150 years since. She pointed to promising preliminary developments, like an official apology from the City of Los Angeles in 2021 and the development of educational programs and curricula centered on the massacre. Crucially, Lee argued, this progress did not “just happen,” but rather required “organizing, fighting, and movement building.” For Lee, the students, teachers, and activists involved can serve as a source of inspiration and hope when it comes to resisting oppression, inequality, and historical erasure; at its best, history serves as a “call for action and change,” and she enjoined us all to work together to answer that call.

Image courtesy of the Organization of American Historians‘ Twitter account, @The_OAH

Sunday saw the final panel of OAH 2023, “History on Trial: An American History Forum with Educators.” Open to the public and hosted by the Japanese American National Museum, the panel featured Danny Diaz, Robin Kelly, Karalee Wong Nakatsuka, Orlando R. Serrano Jr., Lynn Yamasaki, and was moderated by David Blight. Together these educators explored teaching and engaging in public history work at a time amidst ongoing “history wars.” The event honored the late Gary B. Nash, president of the OAH between 1994 and 1995.