Studying the past can help shape a better future, panelists say
Discussion of race in American features ’New York Times’ columnist Jamelle Bouie, civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill, and Baltimore Museum of Art director Asma Naeem
In 2020, Johns Hopkins University launched the Hard Histories at Hopkins project to uncover how racism and discrimination had historically impacted the institution. Established in the wake of revelations that university founder Johns Hopkins held slaves , the project blends research, teaching, and public discussions in order to create a repository of scholarly engagement and interpretation.
As part of this ongoing work, Hard Histories hosted a panel discussion on Thursday, Sept. 7, entitled "Reckoning with Racism, Forging Just Futures." The event was moderated by Hard Histories director Martha S. Jones and featured a distinguished panel-New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill, and Baltimore Museum of Art director Asma Naeem. The event also included opening and closing remarks from John Guess, Jr., a 1971 Hopkins graduate who was the first Black president of the university’s student council and now serves as CEO of the Houston Museum of African American Culture.
The discussion focused on how understanding American history can help create a better future, especially in regards to racism.
"There are things we’re doing [and] we don’t even know why we’re doing them," Ifill said. "Perhaps if we understood where it came from, we also can say ’no more.’"
As a civil rights lawyer, Ifill’s work constantly intersects with stories of racism and discrimination. But rather than being discouraged by these "hard histories," Ifill said, she finds inspiration in them.
"I get tremendous strength from those experiences of the past," she said. "I’m a student of Frederick Douglass. I’m a student of Thurgood Marshall, of Charles Hamilton Houston, of Constance Baker Motley, of Pauli Murray. These are people who... were reading the words of the Constitution, and they were creating and finding meaning in them, but [what they were imagining] was not a country or a world they had ever seen. ... And yet these people, ordinary people, created in their imagination what they believed this country could be."
Understanding history also helps Ifill keep things in perspective. Like those who came before her, she acknowledges and accepts that many of her goals will not be achieved during her career.
"We have to not be so self-absorbed that we think it doesn’t count if it doesn’t happen in our lifetime," Ifill said. "The test is not whether you get to see it. The test is whether you have created enough of a foundation that can be built on, that you have run the part of the race that was assigned to you, that you have passed the baton sufficiently and pressed it firmly into the hand of the next runner, and then they can run their race."
Bouie seconded many of Ifill’s ideas, reflecting on his work at the New York Times, CBS News, and Slate Magazine. He said he realized early in his career how important history was to the field of political journalism and opinion writing.
"For me, specifically, it was the events of 2012, 2013, and 2014," Bouie explained. "Micheal Brown in Ferguson in particular. These things, in order to explain them to an audience or to explain them to readers, you can’t just take them at face value. You have to tell a larger story about how you got to that place. Why is it that this small town in Missouri, which is predominantly Black, has an entirely white political class? Why is it so segregated? Why is St Louis so segregated? These are historical questions that demand historical answers."
According to Bouie, understanding the past is a crucial step in imagining a better future.
"A lot of Americans are just out of the habit of thinking expansively about what their country could be," he said. "Trying to see through the eyes of someone in the early 19th century who did have an expansive vision... is practice for us to do it ourselves."
The panelists also discussed the role of self-examination in their work. Naeem, for instance, shared how self-reflection shaped her career into what it is today. Before living in Baltimore, Naeem was a prosecutor in New York City. Over time, she realized that she hated how narrow-minded her job forced her to be, a revelation that she’s brought with her to the BMA.
"[Discussing art] can’t be a one-sided conversation," Naeem said. "You can’t talk about our African art collection without talking about the current issues that we’re all reading about in the papers. You cannot talk about the ways in which our contemporary art collection is expanding and sharing new stories without talking about the ways in which art history only propelled one view of genius. ... If we begin to examine who we are in museums, you will see there is a hierarchy of knowledge and a hierarchy of values, and the work that we here at the museum are trying to do is dispel those hierarchies."
Naeem added that no matter how difficult this self-examination can be, her love of art keeps her moving forward.
"The way in which artists dare to create a world that we couldn’t even imagine and expose histories that we didn’t even know existed always invigorates me," she said. "The ways in which they use their bodies, the ways in which they express themselves and test the limits of what we think is ’good taste’-that’s powerful."
To wrap up the event, Bouie reminded attendees not to be afraid of pushback. Backlash, he argued, is proof that an idea has power.
"No one reacts that fiercely to something that doesn’t have a foothold. In my mind, so much of the backlash reflects the fact that the work of historians and activists and journalists has actually had an effect," Bouie said. "The important thing for us to do is be working and preparing ourselves for when the opportunities arise to push justice forward."
Hard Histories also hosted an event on Friday, Sept. 8, entitled "Conversations, Community, and Change." This series of roundtables was live-streamed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and explored how different Baltimore institutions research their own pasts of racism and discrimination.
The Hard Histories project is conducted out of the university’s SNF Agora Institute.