Reckonings with history are at the center of contemporary public debates in the United States and throughout the world. Protests over police violence and racial injustice and their deep historical roots intensified after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, becoming entangled with conflicts over colonial subjugation in other parts of the world. These movements have toppled historical monuments that lionize slave traders and dictators, removing them from public squares in places as disparate as Great Britain or Ukraine. On multiple levels - communal, national, and transnational - political action overtly invokes the revision, defense, or recreation, of entrenched historical records, for the sake of alternatively empowering disenfranchised constituencies, or silencing them from exclusionary dominant narratives.

This RCHA seminar wants to contribute to renewed debates about controversial, often painful, legacies from the past by showing that these debates have a history and a global range. It will explore present-day as well as past reckonings with history, ranging from the United States and Latin America to Germany, from African countries to post-Soviet successor states and Japan. It will examine calls for reparations for the effects of slavery and neo-slavery in the United States and Brazil, alongside demands for restitution on the part of First Nations, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, and appeals made by countries in the global south for industrialized nations to assume – and chip in for – their historical responsibility for the heating up our planet. The seminar will probe the fractious effects of debates over history as much as it will explore initiatives to carry out historical repair work. Ultimately, the seminar will take up the work of historical redress in the space we share, inviting collaboration with local partners and community members. We hope to discuss and act on the values we want to see reflected in our city and our state’s public messaging, policies, and in the figures and events they choose to commemorate in memorials and monuments.                 

The questions with which the seminar intends to wrestle are existential in nature. Which possibilities does the practice of historical inquiry afford within the dynamics of the current moment?  Is the invocation of history necessarily particularizing and divisive, and does it have to end in “history wars”? Or can it also restore, or indeed generate, internationalist horizons and bring to the fore the trust and sense of joint purpose that are required for national and global communities to effectively function and survive? Should we, as scholars and students of history, act as mediators or referees of popular memory? What does it mean to “step into the past” and what forms of action could calls to “repair” the past entail?