OAH historians say events of the past year show they were right to emphasize freedom as the theme of the 2019 annual conventionHistorians in the News
The late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a 2007 essay in the New York Times in which he argued, “[A] nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.” In the aftermath of the presidential election of 2016, the 2019 Program Committee selected “The Work of Freedom” as the theme for the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians. The stunning defeat of Hillary R. Clinton, the first woman to receive the endorsement of a major political party for president of the United States, was fresh in our minds. We were also keenly aware that the election of Donald J. Trump as president would have profound ramifications for American freedom and democracy for years to come. As Barack H. Obama departed the White House as the first U.S. president of African descent, we were also cognizant of Trump’s pledge to undo the liberal social policies of his administration. But we were even more impressed by the intersection of the nation’s shifting politics with the impending 400th anniversary of the first African people to land in British North America.
As a nation of indigenous people and immigrants, defined by profound ethnic and racial diversity, we were mindful of proposals for a wall that would enclose the southern border of the United States, check efforts to forge a broader and more inclusive immigration policy, and step back from the ongoing human quest for freedom beyond our shores. These initiatives belie the increasing transformation of the United States from a predominantly Euro-American people to a new more global and multiracial nation. At the same time, some poor and working-class whites seem determined to redefine themselves as members of an oppressed minority partly at the hands of ascendant people of non-European descent. Accordingly, we crafted a call for proposals that would explore our theme, “The Work of Freedom,” creatively and as broadly as possible from the arrival of Europeans in North America who encountered original inhabitants during the colonial era through the recent ascent of diversity as one of the nation’s most compelling interests.
Since issuing our call for proposals in May, a series of developments in U.S. political and social history underscore the profound timeliness of our theme. These events include prominent cases of domestic terrorism in Texas, Nevada, and elsewhere; the violent and explosive events of Charlottesville, Virginia; the upsurge of grassroots movements calling for the dismantling of previously widely revered but discriminatory, inflammatory, and socially divisive monuments from New Orleans to New York (including most notably the Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims, called by some the “Father of Gynecology”); and the widespread unmasking of systematic sexual harassment of women through movements such as #metoo. Some of these may threaten to rend the fabric of the American nation; others call into question the capacity of the United States to claim leadership in the world. Without doubt, they capture the ongoing and important work of freedom, as well as continued and profound resistance to that work, reinforcing the Program Committee’s conviction that “The Work of Freedom” is the most significant challenge of our time....
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