"Why this topic?": Inspiration and growth through writing history
15 July 2015 – Peter Blackmer
As I scrolled through my list of unread emails a couple weeks ago, I paused on a subject line that was at once nostalgic and saddening: “A Celebration of the Life of Dr. Vivian O. Windley.” Dr. Windley was a well-respected educator and highly regarded volunteer at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Although we did not know each other personally, some brief remarks that she and another volunteer made to me in 2009 regarding a request for oral history interviews have profoundly influenced my understanding and appreciation of writing history.
I began an internship at the Schomburg as I was writing my senior thesis for my history major at Wagner College. This thesis focused on exploring the socio-economic and political landscapes in Harlem preceding the rebellions that took place in 1964. Although I was unfamiliar with public history as a discipline, I knew I wanted to engage with individuals that were impacted by these historic events.
As a young white man from outside the historically Black communities I sought to engage with, I was conscious of my outsider status in Harlem and concerned with the politics of writing about their experiences. In conversations with my mentor at Wagner, we discussed featuring oral histories to promote my role as a facilitator, rather than as a proprietor of these narratives. My supervisor at the Schomburg and I sent out a letter to the volunteer list in search of narrators, and while I was met with enthusiasm from some respondents, I received two emails that were a bit jarring to my youthful sensibilities as an aspiring historian.
Looking back, I should not have been surprised. The letter we mailed was fraught with problematic phrasing, particularly the following statements:
… [Peter] is interested in exploring some oral histories of the riot… He also plans to incorporate first hand accounts of the rioting, and the effects that the riot has had on the Harlem community.
While I could describe in great detail everything that I now find objectionable about my letter (particularly considering the mainstream media’s coverage of the rebellions in Baltimore), one volunteer summarized these objections quite adeptly in her response:
…Communities of African-Americans, wherever they live, have been studied ad nauseam, often by people from outside our communities who have little understanding of who we are as a people. Our triumphs and achievements are seldom highlighted in these ‘studies.’… I would hope that Harlem is not seen through the prism of a riot or a period of upheaval.
As I have re-read this poignant response over the last few years, it has become clear that this educator was not necessarily directing her concerns at me, but at a litany of outsiders from academia who have historically “studied” and misrepresented Black communities. Of course, I did not initially appreciate this response in such a light, as I was not yet cognizant of my place as a historian within the context of relationships between academy and community.
It was through a public history course I took at the University of Massachusetts that I finally had the “Aha!” moment that lay dormant in these communications. That semester, Robin D.G. Kelley was a Writer-in-Residence at UMass and visited Marla Miller’s class, “Writing History,” where he took the time to engage with each student regarding their primary research focus. When I shared my dissertation intentions, Dr. Kelley suggested that rather than focusing on the systemic forces of oppression acting upon Harlem communities, that I instead focus on the ways in which these communities organized to challenge the power structures that created and maintained these forms of oppression. This approach would both emphasize some of the “triumphs and achievements” of these communities and utilize the narratives of Harlemites to develop a more sophisticated analysis of political organizing in the urban North during the civil rights movement.
After class that day, I reflected on Dr. Kelley’s advice, and my mind rushed back to the email from Dr. Windley when I first started this project in 2009:
… ‘WHY THIS TOPIC?’ How will this exploration of oral histories of the riot enrich your experience as a graduating college student?
This response, which I had initially perceived as a personal affront, had now been given life anew as a challenge to enhance my work as a historian and educator. I realized my exploration of the narratives of the “riot” in Harlem was not providing enriching contributions to my scholarship, nor the historical records of these Harlem communities. More troubling, though, I was perpetuating the ahistorical, yet often told, narrative of these communities through the “prism of a riot.” Lastly, I then understood that by seeking out narratives in the manner I had, I was not providing an avenue for shared authority of this history but rather exploiting the voices of Harlem residents to support analyses I had already constructed.
In concluding her email, Dr. Windley wrote,
Let’s hope Peter, that your thesis will make a positive contribution to your intellectual growth and increase your understanding of the Harlem community and its people.
Little did Dr. Windley know that the most significant contribution to my “intellectual growth” would come not from my extensive research on this topic but from the critiques she and her colleague offered.
As I have undergone this personal and intellectual growth over the past few years, it is encouraging to see similar developments beginning to take root in popular understandings of contentious events that have been occurring nationwide, most recently in Baltimore. As we have seen, citizens of Baltimore push back against interloping media outlets and demand the centering of their voices and narratives; public historians have been engaged in important work to support visible platforms for these voices to document and define the terms of the narratives surrounding these events. As public historians, let us continue this significant work of engaging with these highly visible events, not as “prisms” through which to understand the deeply rooted power contestations taking place throughout our nation, but rather as opportunities to encourage popular “intellectual growth” regarding the continuing interplay of race, power, and protest.
~ Peter Blackmer is a PhD student in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst, where he also serves as an instructor and academic advisor. He is originally from Syracuse, NY, and earned both his BA in history and MS in education from Wagner College in Staten Island, NY. His dissertation focuses on community-based political organizing in Harlem preceding the 1964 rebellions to challenge popular narratives of “urban unrest” and the civil rights movement in the North.