Race, Equity, and the Practice of Public History
For decades racism and social inequity have stayed at the center of the national conversation in the United States, sustaining the debate around public historic places and monuments and what they represent. These conversations are a reminder of the crucial role that public history professionals play in engaging public audiences on subjects of race and slavery. This "difficult history" has often remained un- or underexplored in our public discourse, hidden from view by the tourism industry, or even by public history professionals themselves, as they created historic sites, museums, and public squares based on white-centric interpretations of history and heritage.
Challenging History, through a collection of essays by a diverse group of scholars and practitioners, examines how difficult histories, specifically those of slavery and race in the United States, are being interpreted and inserted at public history sites and in public history work. Several essays explore the successes and challenges of recent projects, while others discuss gaps that public historians can fill at sites where Black history took place but is absent in the interpretation. Through case studies, the contributors reveal the entrenched false narratives that public history workers are countering in established public history spaces and the work they are conducting to reorient our collective understanding of the past.
History practitioners help the public better understand the world. Their choices help to shape ideas about heritage and historical remembrances and can reform, even transform, worldviews through more inclusive and ethically narrated histories. Challenging History invites public historians to consider the ethical implications of the narratives they choose to share and makes the case that an inclusive, honest, and complete portrayal of the past has the potential to reshape collective memory and ideas about the meaning of American history and citizenship.
About the Authors
Rachel Clare Donaldson is an assistant professor of public history at the College of Charleston and author of "I Hear America Singing": Folk Music and National Identity.
John W. White, founding director of the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative and dean of libraries at the College of Charleston, is coeditor of Laying the Foundation: Digital Humanities in Academic Libraries.
"Challenging History is a refreshing addition to conversations about Black history in the public history sphere. It challenges us to move beyond simply highlighting deficiencies and inspires solutions. It elevates significant stories, illustrates "real-world" improvements, and makes unflinching assessments—marking where we have been, have yet to go, and how we might get there."—Shawn Halifax, Public History Practitioner, McLeod Plantation Historic Site
"Challenging History is a book for our times. Creatively weaving together diverse case studies, it shows how southern public history is enriched by including the African American experience. In demonstrating how "imagined heritages" frequently distort historical understanding, it insightfully shows the challenges and opportunities public historians face reshaping our collective memory of the past."—Bernard Powers, Professor emeritus of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Slavery at the College of Charleston
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