We need to talk about public history’s columbusing problem

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Artists Jacob V Joyce, Buki Bayode, and Sola Olulode working on a large-scale mural depicting women who fought against slavery in Britain. Located in London’s Marcus Garvey Park, the mural is a wall of respect, an art form inspired by the “Wall of Respect,” which activist artists in Chicago painted in 1967 to honor Black historical figures. Muralists throughout the world, including Harlem, have subsequently created walls of respect in their communities. Photo credit: Hammersmith & Fulham Council, Flickr.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of reflective posts written by winners of awards intended to be given out at the NCPH 2020 annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. GVGK Tang was awarded the Historical Research Associates (HRA) New Professional Travel Award. This piece builds on an article that appeared in the June 2020 edition of “Public History News.” 

More often than not, public history is a tool wielded by those in power. Preservation initiatives are used to usher in gentrification[1] Oral history projects steal people’s stories and ideas without recompense.[2] Archival collections cash in on current events for clout.[3]

Who is telling the histories of the pandemic and protests, and how are they being told? Just as the protests are rooted in centuries-old, Black-led activism against state-sanctioned violence, the pandemic has exacerbated issues that low- and no-income disabled people of color have always faced. Only just now has the field—and the public at large—decided to take notice and dialogue around what it means to exist in an inherently anti-Black, racist, classist, ableist system.

Some practitioners might argue that public historians have always concerned themselves with systemic injustice. However, as scholar Nina Vázquez incisively observes, “Just because you are an academic does not mean you are dismantling anything . . . To dismantle something is a lot more than simply discussing it.”[4] After all, public historians are taught to spend more time studying marginalized communities than actively supporting them.

The fallen Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol is loaded onto a flatbed truck to be hauled away after a group led by American Indian Movement members tore it down in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 10, 2020. The act of removing the Columbus statue is a protest against the glorification of colonial violence and white mediocrity. Photo credit: Tony Webster, Flickr.

White middle-class public historians are columbusing[5] activist history-making and grassroots preservation work—treating it as a new frontier to be discovered, explored, and exploited. The recent spate of pandemic and protest collection projects initiated by traditional practitioners erases a rich history of activist-led scholarship and documentation efforts. These new endeavors appropriate ideas, resources, and labor from those who have done this work for much longer, in-community, on a grassroots level.[6] New grants, publications, exhibits, and conferences devoted to these subjects have suddenly appeared. But where were these funds and opportunities when people on the frontlines asked for them?

Confronted with the events of the last several months, non-Black practitioners and organizations have rushed to proclaim their solidarity, without amplifying or materially supporting Black people.[7] They have made #BlackLivesMatter, public statements, and mutual aid funds into a trend—and we’re left to wonder how long it will last. Institutions and individuals engaging in this performative allyship remain silent and complicit—sometimes even critical—of these activisms and the forms they can take.[8] Self-identified allies rarely push for change within or outside of their own organizations. Worse still, they may actively engage in racist rhetoric and behaviors while “presenting themselves as leaders of decolonizing initiatives,” as scholar Sara Ahmed notes.[9]  They might create programming that historicizes issues of race, class, and disability, but don’t commit to helping combat these issues in the present. While various institutions are lauded for diversifying their content, grassroots preservation and storytelling initiatives created by and for marginalized communities—like All That Philly Jazz, Gran Varones, Heaux History Project, We Been Essential, and countless others—seldom receive as much recognition or support.

Likewise, practitioners often confuse organizations claiming to do community-based work with actual grassroots projects—which then face pressures to register as nonprofits or otherwise become palatable to so-called mainstream audiences. For example, the New York Chinatown History Project (originated by community organizers) was transformed into the Museum of Chinese in America (an institution with a multi-million-dollar budget). Similarly, the Anacostia Community Museum has been denied funding due to its size and mission,[10] while staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture shoulder the bulk of diversity and inclusion work for the Smithsonian by providing consultations to other units on how to respond to racist comments, expand exhibit content, start feeder programs, and perform outreach.[11] Furthermore, myriad institutions will foist unhelpful partnerships on community organizations and keep a revolving door of students and volunteers preoccupied with the appearance of service learning rather than invested in the quality and impact of their work.[12]

These processes ensure and enshrine the co-option of grassroots projects by the nonprofit-industrial complex.[13] History-making within these contexts is catered to white middle-class tourists rather than the communities whose histories are being documented. Granting outsiders access to the stories of marginalized people is, at best, unproductive and, at worst, harmful. Bureaucracy and respectability politics censor content.[14] High-profile administrators make six-figure salaries, robbing on-the-ground workers and constituents of much-needed funds.

Ultimately, rendering marginalized communities the subjects of your research doesn’t absolve you of your privilege or complicity in an inherently anti-Black, racist, classist, and ableist system. In fact, it exacerbates the problem. At present, white middle-class practitioners who have no personal experience with these subjects—such as preservation in crisis, racism in the field, or decolonization—are being invited to instruct others on how to pioneer new frontiers of grassroots history-making. But their scholarship appropriates our unpaid intellectual and emotional labor.

Decolonization has been increasingly reduced to a woke synonym for diversity and inclusion—one that centers the efforts of white savior-scholars. This misuse distracts us from problematizing the very spaces public historians occupy and the projects we originate. As scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue, “When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it re-centers whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation.”[15]  Decolonization means creating work by and for our communities. Decolonization means dismantling institutions and redistributing their wealth. Decolonization means reparations[16] without reconciliation—because colonial violence is irreconcilable. Decolonization is meant to perpetually disrupt settler “innocence” and “normalcy.”

I have been asked how supporting marginalized communities can help the public history field. Instead, why don’t white middle-class public historians ask how they can support marginalized communities? If you’re pitching or being solicited for publications, if you’re being invited to present or host workshops, if you’re receiving (and not necessarily even applying for) grants to launch these new projects—don’t. Offer these opportunities to somebody who’s already doing the work. Contribute to mutual aid and solidarity funds,[17] or use your time, labor, skills, and privileges to support low- and no-income, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and disabled people.[18]

~GVGK Tang is a public historian and community organizer with a background in transnational queer politics. Connect on Twitter @gvgktang.


A highly contested subject, preservation allows for the officious co-option and exploitation of marginalized histories to appeal to tourists and new residents. Conversely, gentrification can also lead to the demolition of historic sites and the erasure of marginalized histories. For more information, please refer to Faye Anderson, “Blackfishing Marian Anderson,” Anderson@Large, April 19, 2020; Faye Anderson, “Preservation Month 2019: Gentrification and Displacement,” Anderson@Large, May 05, 2019; Christopher Petrella, “Gentrification is erasing black cemeteries and, with it, black history,” The Guardian, April 27, 2019; Jack Denton, “Is Landmarking a Tool of Gentrification or a Bulwark Against It?,” Pacific Standard, July 3, 2019.


For a historical example, consider the United States government’s employment of majority white interviewers to collect memories from previously enslaved people. The white gaze set upon Black histories led to misinterpretation and racist characterizations, as well as criticism of Black interviewers as “biased.” For more information, please refer to Rebecca Onion, “Is the Greatest Collection of Slave Narratives Tainted by Racism?, Slate, July 6, 2016.


Eira Tansey’s blog, No one owes their trauma to archivists, or, the commodification of contemporaneous collecting,” June 5, 2020, was recently circulated by NCPH. While it pertinently addresses a long history of archivists’ lurid consumption of marginalized histories, its argument relies upon the adaptation of trauma-informed care to archival methods and diverting more resources to employ traditional practitioners stationed within institutions. This argument centers the improvement of a broken system while neglecting a long history of community- and activist-led documentation and preservation efforts. It doesn’t address archives’ colonial origins—their role in controlling information and (re)producing state-sanctioned violence. For more information, please refer to Jarrett M. Drake, “I’m Leaving the Archival Profession: It’s Better This Way,” Medium, June 26, 2017.


Nina Vázquez (@NinaVzqz23), Twitter, April 19, 2020.


Columbusing,” Macmillian Dictionary. Critics of this term argue it obscures Christopher Columbus’ genocidal violence. For more information, please refer to Noah Berlatsky, “The Real Meaning of Columbusing,” Splice Today July 16, 2014.


Examples include Ayling Zulema DominguezBlack Women RadicalsCollective ResistanceJacob V JoyceLouie A. Ortiz-Fonseca, and countless others.


For more information, please refer to Holiday Phillips, “Performative Allyship Is Deadly (Here’s What to Do Instead),” Forge, May 9, 2020; Kaisha S. Johnson, “Enough Already with the Statements of ‘Solidarity,’ Arts World,” Medium, June 5, 2020; Joi-Marie McKenzie, Guggenheim’s First Black Curator Calls Museum Out For Institutional Racism And Hypocrisy,” Essence, June 4, 2020.


Kimberly Jones, “How Can We Win,” David Jones Media, June 1, 2020; Emilio Crow, “An Open Letter to Critics of Mutual Aid,” Coalition To Re-Organize Workers, May 17, 2020.


Sara Ahmed (@SaraNAhmed), Twitter, June 23, 2020.


Robyn Autry, “‘The rats are still with us’: Constructing Everyday Life at the Anacostia Museum in Washington, DC,” Museum & Society 14 (2016): 168. See also Portia James, “Building a Community‐Based Identity at Anacostia Museum,” Curator: The Museum Journal 39 (1996): 19-44. Structural inequalities at the Smithsonian Institution manifest in historical limitations on collecting at the Anacostia Community Museum and in present-day limitations on collecting at other units dedicated to the histories of marginalized people, including the Latino Center and the APA Center. These units have the most consistently inclusive programs and exhibitions and employ more people of color in decision-making positions while working with a smaller percentage of the overall budget.


Esther J. Washington and Anna F. Hindley, “‘Race Isn’t Just a Black Thing’—The Role that Museum Professionals Can Play in Inclusive Planning and Programming,” Journal of Museum Education 42 (2017): 2.


Service learning centers the volunteer experience over the needs of those supposedly being served. These partnerships offer “feel good” experiences and photo ops in a culture that rewards virtue signaling. Outsiders can neither offer nor sustain long-term, community-based solutions for structural issues. This problem has been described as “McService . . . quick fix service, happy meal community service, or service in a box” by sociologist John W. Eby, “Why Service-Learning Is Bad,” Agape Center for Service and Learning, Messiah College (1998).


For more information, please refer to INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).


Chiraag Bhakta, “The Whitewashing of ‘#WhitePeopleDoingYoga,'” Mother Jones, October 17, 2019.


Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization 1, no. 1 (2012): 3.


For more information, please refer to “Land Reparations & Indigenous Solidarity Toolkit,” Resource Generation; Da’Shaun Harrison, “It’s More Than A Check: Understanding Reparations,” Wear Your Voice, April 1, 2019.


Please consult this list: https://airtable.com/shrjtU5S7NqEimdnt.


Regan De Loggans, Let’s Talk Mutual Aid (Brooklyn: 2020); The DiDi Delgado, “10 Ways To Pay Reparations If You’re a Broke Ass White Person,” May 17, 2019.

  1. Adina Langer says:

    GVGK, I want to thank you for challenging me to think more critically about my position as a white, middle-class, public historian during this time of tremendous disparity in experience. Your analysis has helped me to confront my assumptions and my instincts, and has made me more deeply aware of the filters that mediate communication and create barriers to understanding. I hope our paths will cross in real time/real space someday.

  2. Dennis says:

    What about academics or scholars who view activism as a bad idea, because they believe that — by involving themselves too personally with the very subjects they study — objectivity, dispassionate analysis, accuracy (whatever you wish to call it) might be jeopardized?

    Many historians, archivists, or curators feel it is their job to observe, catalog, store, retrieve, and interpret, but not to interfere.

    I think the above viewpoints are understandable, but can they be reconciled with a more activist approach? Need activism compromise objectivity, or is objectivity an outmoded ideal?

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