Through history, we face the future

Editor’s note: This column first appeared Feb. 21, 2019 in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

By Donal O’Shea

The gathering of the Florida Conference of Historians at New College this weekend and the events commemorating Black History Month — both at New College and elsewhere in the community — remind us of the centrality of history in equipping students for the present.

That centrality comes not from philosopher George Santayana’s oft-quoted maxim that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, although that teaching captures an important truth. Rather, it comes from two other gifts that flow from the study of history: data and identity.

The past is the original big data set. Examination of it allows us to explore the range of human behavior and the failures and triumphs of human institutions: schools, businesses, churches, nations, cities and environments that we have created. Likewise, knowledge of the past allows us to identify with and create the multiple identities we carry. Historians debate whether their discipline belongs to the social sciences or humanities, a distinction that loosely mirrors the emphasis on data and identity.

Both aspects of the study of history are on display at the Florida Conference of Historians. The talks that deal with the subset of data that consist of Florida’s past include: “Gainesville’s Role as an Epicenter of the Women’s Liberation Movement,” “Congressman James Haley and the Tampa Riots of 1967″ and “We Can Do It: A Community Takes on the Challenge of School Desegregation” (in Alachua County). Examination of the past with a view to understanding the range of human behavior is front and center of the session “The Extremes of Human Behavior During and After World War II.” Other sessions such as “Identity and Authority in the Ancient World” and “Memory, Identity and Politics in Africa” explore the creation of identity.

The richness and sweep of the events celebrating Black History Month at New College defy easy description. Aimed at a more general public, those events have provided a breathtaking insight into the history and culture of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, which in turn affords us all a better understanding of our nation. They have ranged from a joyous opening dance workshop, a striking analysis of the different functions served by hip-hop lyrics, a fascinating study of black British migrants to Cuba in the first half of the 20th century informed by letters from private company archives, and a deeply moving staged dramatic reading of “The (M)others,” a play using the actual words of mothers of victims of police violence to describe how that violence has torn their family apart.

And that’s not all. As I write, I was looking forward to a panel discussion conceived by the Boxser Diversity Initiative exploring the language of racism. This weekend, a talk in conjunction with the Equal Justice Initiative and the Florida Conference of Historians will detail the making of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice outside of Montgomery, Alabama. That site commemorates the more than 4,400 African-Americans who were murdered by white mobs from 1877 to 1950. Next week, Charlottesville (Virginia) City Councilor Wes Bellamy will come to New College to read from “Monumental: It Was Never About a Statue,” his personal account of the city’s 2017 effort to remove Confederate statues from municipal parks and the ensuing attacks by white supremacists. In his memoir, he writes: “My city was in the midst of a change that the world would see.”

Earlier this week, it became apparent to all that our city, Sarasota, also is in the midst of change. We drew national attention when vandals spray-painted #MeToo on the Unconditional Surrender statue that recreates the iconic photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II. While I deplore the defacement of public property, the act signified the shift in what is acceptable today from what was acceptable in the postwar era, a shift attributable in part to the success of the #MeToo movement in highlighting the history of sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated against women.

In the words of American author Robert Penn Warren, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”

Agreed. And this month of February offers members of our region the opportunity to learn and benefit from some of the less well-known parts of our shared history.

– Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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