A Recap of 2018 CLAW’s “Freedoms Gained and Lost” Conference

A Recap of 2018 CLAW’s “Freedoms Gained and Lost” Conference

The 2018 Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) conference is in the books. Reconstruction-era scholars, museum professionals, and non-academics converged on the city of Charleston for an insightful and productive conference. Though the chronology debate remains unresolved, the 2018 CLAW conference was one of the most important conferences on Reconstruction in recent memory. With so many panels, plenaries, and public history events, I share a few highlights below.

Plenaries and roundtables served as generative spaces for discussing the issues, challenges, and opportunities for Reconstruction Studies. After the wonderful dedication of the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868 marker, the plenary on W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction provided the opening salvo for the rest of the conference. Brian Kelley considered the work as the starting point for future directions of Reconstruction Studies. Heather Cox Richardson characterized the massive tome as a political document and a meditation. On the other hand, Thavolia Glymph offered the text as a call to action, indictment, and a monument to African Americans. Following this stimulating opening roundtable, Bruce Baker asked that we grapple with the major question of “Who was Reconstruction For?” in his keynote address. The Saturday plenary brought together Eric Foner, Kate Masur, Michael Allen, and other key individuals involved with the creation of the Reconstruction Era National Monument. The remarks of Mayor Billy Keyserling of Beaufort, South Carolina, drove home the site’s importance. It allows local residents, white and black, to “know the truth,” use history as a vehicle for reconciliation, and answer “why has Reconstruction been muted?”

Two intriguing panels explored the possibilities yielded from an international perspective of Reconstruction in the Atlantic World. These panels demonstrated some of the benefits of moving toward an international history of Reconstruction, to borrow from Don Doyle’s wonderful paper title. Comparative frameworks of slavery have been instructive for understanding the institutions, motivations of enslavers, modes of resistance, and even the experiences of the diverse enslaved communities. Can Reconstruction provide an appropriate comparative framework? Or does a Reconstruction framework have any utility for understanding its legacy within a global African Diaspora, as suggested by Alison McLetchie? Does an international perspective simply provide unintentional fodder to individuals desiring the overturn of current Reconstruction Studies toward a Neo-Dunning School? While I am not sure what this direction will do for the overall field of Reconstruction Studies, I know that these scholars are actively addressing this aspect of Luke Harlow’s introduction to the JCWE’s “Future of Reconstructions Studies” forum.[1]

After spending time with these non-academics throughout the 2018 CLAW conference, I renew my call to Reconstruction scholars to enter the fray of public engagement as we contemplate the future of Reconstruction Studies. Multi-disciplinary and intersectional narratives demonstrate our relevance to popular audiences. Public schools remain an important site in the struggle for creating a better society. Yet, our work does not reach the predominantly black and brown communities educated within the system. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Henry Louis Gates are addressing the needs of individuals who are seeking to correct their K-12 education and/or the misinformation circulating on the internet (i.e. Black Confederates and most recently, Kanye West). AAIHS’s Black Perspectives, the Muster blog, Twitter crowdsourced syllabi, digital humanities projects, and even the new Reconstruction Era National Monument are solid attempts to reach these audiences through accessible scholarship, advisory roles in exhibitions, documentaries and textbooks, public lectures, and writing the occasional op-ed. To echo Kidada Williams, the field of Reconstruction Studies requires “more narrative histories of African Americans in the whirlwinds of freedom” that span time and the “geographic divides while covering a variety of subjects for African Americans across the nation and world.”[3]

We, as Reconstruction scholars, must be intentional in our chronologies, audiences, and scholarship. The conference demonstrates the need as well as the rewards of historical consulting on museum exhibitions, public lectures outside of the ivory walls of the academy, and writing accessible scholarship. It is hard work. It is, however, necessary. The important question that must guides our reflection on the future of Reconstruction Studies is “whether or not we are ready and willing to come through.”[4]

Thanks to Adam Domby and other CLAW organizers for providing a space for new scholarship, approaches, and essential conversations for addressing the scope, content, and future directions of Reconstruction Studies. I am excited to see how these conversations turn into action whether its public engagement or engaging scholarship. In short, the Reconstruction confab in Charleston was a resounding success.

Now, the real work begins.

 

[1] Luke Harlow, “Introduction to Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, The Journal of Civil War Era, accessed May 15, 2018, https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/. This forum also appeared in the March 2017 issue.

[2] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1244-1291.

[3] Kidada E. Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, The Journal of Civil War Era, accessed May 15, 2018, https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/maintaining-a-radicalvision/.

[4] Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom.”

 

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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