“Historians and the Enterprise of Defense: Restoring Black Voices to American History”: Annette Gordon-Reed and Kerri Greenidge in conversation

Regis M. Fox, Kerri Greenidge, and Annette Gordon-Reed

By Casey Petty

On a windy Saturday morning in Key West, from the stage of the Butler Coffee Amphitheater, the focus of the seminar shifted to discussing black voices in American History—a history that’s both triumphant and tragic, full of people with the stories they tell (if permitted). It’s with the latter in mind that Regis M. Fox guided her conversation with historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Kerri K. Greenidge.

Noting a departure from their typical writing styles in their newest novels, On Juneteenth (Gordon-Reed) and Black Radical (Greenidge), Fox asked the authors to delve into the literary conventions they used to tell the story. Gordon-Reed began by expressing the joy she felt to return to a form of writing more closely resembled to the works of her youth when she had wanted to become a writer. Her story is as much a part of the book as it is about the state of Texas. Gordon-Reed said also in jest, “Freedom from footnotes was nice, too.” Greenidge stated a similar notion, that she too wanted to be free to write history as a story and came to embrace her lyrical style in serving her ends—a historical work “referenced [with supporting documentation] but done creatively.”

The two novels also share locations that are well-known in American history (Boston and Texas). Fox wondered how the authors went about writing these familiar places in a new way. Greenidge said, “Really pay attention to place.” She went on to explain the nuanced differences of the black story depending on the location and political climate of that time. Gordon-Reed’s treatment of Texas dealt with the gender of the state—a predominate persona that’s white, masculine, and male. This led her to confront the question “How do you reckon with being a black person and being a Texan?”

Then, the discussion shifted to Black resistance as Fox asked the women to speak on the issue. For both historians, their responses stressed the need for contextualization that Gordon-Reed described as the need to “recreate the world they live in.” She stated in regards to resistance and the little ways slaves intentionally sabotaged and slowed down the processes of their masters. “Whatever people can do, will do, and we should honor that.” Greenidge emphasized the importance of growing historical perspective for readers with considerations like “Put yourselves in their shoes” and “What options were available?” Most importantly, Gordon-Reed cautioned against only having one view in which to examine resistance. She explained that resistance is typically seen as male through the “prism of violence,” but this is only one facet. “If you only recognize it as violence, you’re going to miss a whole lot.”

Fox segued into the writing of the counter-narrative from there suggesting American history tends to focus on a few big names demarcating an era and asking what can be done to avoid oversimplifying history. Greenidge began by describing the usefulness of the archives to look for “what’s being said and what’s not being said?” She explained how you can use this information to ask why a voice or perspective is missing. She said, “You can use personal letters to explore the relationships” and added that black newspapers are a great resource too, because you can “hear [missing voices in] interviews from people” who wouldn’t be featured in the mainstream news of the day. Gordon-Reed also expressed the consequences of binary thinking as “losing the flavor of history.”

Interestingly, as the discussion ended and Fox turned it over to the audience, the conversation turned to the bigger issue that seemed to be the elephant in the room, What can be taught in schools? Many educators have been feeling (or in some cases, instructed) that the whole issue of slavery can’t be taught. There are a myriad of reasons for this (all unique depending on who you talk to), but the end result is the same—students may be given partial or prescribedversion of history. Gordon-Reed called that a “type of indoctrination” and reminded educators that “America has a history of slavery and land dispossession. We can’t forget that.” Greenidge also assured the audience that this kind of history “infantilizes students” and they’re “able to handle more than you than you think.”

Yes, it’s political and it can be hard, but who decides what is taught and what’s deemed too sensitive? These are not just issues of history, but of censorship and free speech. In Ancient Greece, Socrates was executed for asking too many questions, his ideas disrupting the established order. Today, Greenidge stated that “The moment is new, but you’re not the first.” How will we score the verdict?

Casey Petty is a middle school humanities teacher from Oregon who claims “teaches history and geography by day and wrestles his toddler children into pants kicking and screaming by night, and writes middle grade/young adult fiction somewhere in between with the help of his supportive wife, Ciera. 

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