Reflections on Ferguson and the Value of Historical Context

This guest post on Ferguson is one of a series of posts on subjects discussed at the 2015 AHA annual meeting. The author, Sarah Fenton, has taught American history and literature at Lake Forest College, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University, where she earned a PhD in history in 2005. Sarah moved to London in 2006 and became a contributing editor to the American Historical Association. She is currently finishing a book on American Literature and the Civil War.

For those of us who study a past long passed, attending an AHA session whose subject is as raw and ongoing as “Understanding Ferguson: Race, Power, Protest, and the Past” can elicit considerable admiration and nagging uncertainty. Admiration because the energy in the room is high, the panelists electrifying, and the belief in history’s importance voiced powerfully and often. Uncertainty because if heard too many times, “history matters” has the ring of a truism. That history itself matters, no one who convened at the midtown Hilton in early January had any doubt. That historians matter—or rather, how they have and should—is another problem entirely.

What made maps and tables illustrate trends whose origins and impact can be hard to convey in words alone, uncovering chapters in the story of greater St. Louis lost in most reports on Ferguson last fall. Decade by decade, Gordon showed us neighborhoods segregated by race and wealth as “private and public strategies of exclusion overlapped and reinforced one another.” As black flight followed white, inner city poverty moved from the city’s near north side to its inner suburbs. “We’ve made some gains on wages and income,” Gordon concluded, “but the wealth gap is growing, and that is all about housing.”

What distinguished Gordon was a deft use of difficult tools and a clarity of emphasis (housing) amidst reams of data; what united panelists Khalil Muhammad and Heather Thompson was a shared subject (policing, criminalization) and philosophy (that historians, in Thompson’s words, “have an obligation to weigh in on these discussions”). Muhammad summoned E. Franklin Frazier’s legacy to show how easy it is for evidence to go unheeded when historians fail to take a seat at the policy table. Appointed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to investigate causes of the 1935 Harlem riots, Frazier’s report cited “injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation” of the neighbourhood. Sound familiar? The report, Muhammad says, “gathered dust on a shelf in city hall,” only to see its insights “rediscovered” in every comparable commission that followed. From the 1968 Kerner Commission in Chicago to the Christopher Commission’s report on policing in Los Angeles in 1991, identical themes emerged without “sticking,” by Muhammad’s reading, fading from public view as the crises they helped cause subsided. In the space left where a sustained public discussion belonged, “a myth of post-racialism” (Thompson’s phrase) took root instead.

But the events in Ferguson last year—not only the death of Michael Brown, but the failure to bring the officer responsible to justice; the outpouring of grief and frustration that followed; the ferocious state response to community protests—induced a sickening sense of déjà vu in observers nationwide. Thompson regards thatsense as not just feeling but fact: “we have indeed been here before,” and the narrative that historians are left countering “is that there’s something weird about this, something exceptional.” “Ferguson matters,” Thompson argued, “because it changes the national dialogue … . It matters because it has reminded us—and we always knew this as historians, but it has reminded us ascitizens—of the really important lessons that we must pay attention to from the past if we will have any hope whatsoever of understanding where we are today and what we might do differently in the future.”

Thompson thanked her fellow panelists for providing “deep historical context,” and by my count context was a word used 29 times in two hours. It is a term common to historians, invoked frequently in conversations about what we do—historians provide context. Panelist Jelani Cobb added another dimension to that term by asking that we regard it not merely as something historians provide for the participants in an event, but remember as well “that people enter something with context of their own.” Listen to Ferguson residents, says Cobb, and you’ll hear a timeline that extends back well before the afternoon last summer when Officer Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. The people Cobb spoke with “were much less likely to talk about what happened between those two individuals” on Canfield Drive than to take issue with a decade of school closures, the destruction of a housing project, or the practice of raising municipal revenue through traffic fines and parking enforcement. Others extended that timeline back further still to explain (this to a professional historian) “the importance of the Dred Scott decision in Missouri, and how that connected to what happened in Ferguson.” Cobb also spoke directly to the discomfort felt by historians more at home in an archive than a protest, and those who worry that studying history is a pursuit best kept separate from participating in or reporting on it, describing himself “as someone who has one foot in the past and also who is chronicling things in the present.” Rather than muddying his view of either, he feels “able to understand the past better via the work I’m doing in the present and then understand the present better, as historians must, via the work we do in the past.” Cobb’s enviable ability to plumb the past such that its stakes for the present become abundantly clear make his dispatches from Ferguson a model of the work Thompson and Muhammad would like to see more of.

The session’s final panelist, Marcia Chatelain, embodies that ideal as well, as a teacher—a vocation she interprets with its broadest possible mandate. If there were ever an historian who put her money where her mouth is, it’s Chatelain.Her emphasis during the panel was on communication. Look to see what she’s done before and since and you’ll find just that: Chatelaincommunicates—with grade school teachers from Utah, with Girl Scouts and incarcerated children, on PBS, and with a universe of faculty looking for ways to talk and books to assign via #FergusonSyllabus.So what if one’s role as historian, teacher, reporter, and participant is sometimes “awkward”? Chatelainis the patron saint of the awkward, the kind of gifted teacher who can discuss the direst of circumstances with such generosity of spirit that painful questions give way, if not to solutions, then at least to a wedge in the door. Teaching Ferguson is “really a civics lesson” in which Chatelain has found failures, to be sure, but also “a lot to celebrate,” including “a critical mass of scholars of color.” Chatelain would have historians of all stripes “model” conversations about injustice for those unaccustomed to having them. “Students need to be able to fumble through this,” Chatelain insists—learning not only the facts but that “this is what people do in the world. Engaged people talk about things.”

To say that “history matters” is not then to say that historians do. But if next year’s annual meeting includes a panel on a comparable topic and the conversation has moved haltingly forward, we might say—with admiration to spare and nagging uncertainties answered—that both are true.


 

If you missed it, you can view the session, “Understanding Ferguson: Race, Power, Protest, and the Past,” on C-SPAN, as well as read the Twitter feed from the panel on Storify.

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