I recently attended the annual conference for the National Council on Public History in Nashville. It was a lot of fun, and that might be a bit of a surprise since I get the feeling that many academics hate conferences. This was my first conference, ever. As the inaugural conference in my life, I feel bad for my future self at future conferences because I highly doubt they will be as special and fun as this one.
Nashville is an interesting city. It is apparently up and coming. Like my experience in Cape Town, I could see the visible signs of a city at the cusp of a cultural renaissance. Maybe I shouldn’t say cultural because that would insinuate that all the hipsters are bringing culture. As we all know, hipsters don’t bring culture, they appropriate it. I suppose the right word is revitalization. Downtown is nicknamed SoBro and NashVegas, which is very appropriate. I walked tons on the “strip” on my first day. It was a Monday, but it was still very lively. At almost every single bar there was live music. I walked around for a bit on Saturday afternoon and it was terrible. It truly lived up to its NashVegas nickname. There were tons of drunken young tourists everywhere. It’s okay to experience that for a quick minute, but it gets irritating. I stayed in East Nashville because I did my research, and it was thee place to stay. As much as I hate hipsters in LA, Claremont and LBC, I had to seek them out in Nashville. They offer cute cool shit. There were tons of cool bars, coffee shops and restaurants. I had ceviche at one of these cool places. I have to say it was mighty tasty. I am a certified Mexican; I know what I’m talking about here. More than that, East Nashville was pretty.
Nashville itself was really cool. I had preconceived notions that I am ashamed of, but I think most Californians are guilty of it, perhaps, Californians who haven’t ventured to that part of the country. I really had no cohesive idea of what cultural identity Nashville had. I didn’t expect it to be as cool as it was. I am still unsure what role Nashville has in its Southern identity. From the conference, I got the feeling I only experienced the superficial tourist side of it. Which is fine because there is absolutely no way to deconstruct or take in the underlying racial tensions, economic divides or the encroaching gentrification in six days. These issues exist and they will always exist in major cities.
What I did experience on a personal level was how white the conference was. This is how I feel: I like my rainbow sprinkled donuts. The conference was like one of those donuts but with just peanuts on it with a colored sprinkle here and there, that only got there by accident. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone or me. It is a fact that color fades away as people climb up that academia ladder. To experience it was a startling reminder of that. I’ve always had a complexity due to my short stature, brown skin and thick body. Tall, white, slender beautiful women and men easily intimidate me. I’m slowly decolonizing my feelings. And I purposely say decolonizing because this thought has been engrained on our brown and black minds. This colonial rooted mindset that we are less than. This is why race matters, because some of us still suffer from the mental bondage that Frederick Douglass was completely aware of. It might sound extreme, but this history exists. It’s political. It’s emotional, and it’s personal.
I sat on a panel about attaining public history jobs. I sat there thinking, “think of a question think of a question think of a question.” Not because I really wanted to find out how to get a job in Manhattan and become BFF’s with the panelists, who looked like a younger and hotter version of Sex and the City, but because I looked around and there weren’t many people of color. I was probably at the wrong panel. I don’t know who’s who at these things, so if the description was cool, I was there. I did end up making a comment and it was well received and I got a much-needed boost in my public historian ego. That was a positive thing. I just really wanted to see someone who looked like me leading a panel. I wanted someone like me to address the very real issues of how it feels to be a person of color at a university/institutional/historical setting. I wanted someone like me to speak about what I am getting myself into, and at the end say: ITS OKAY, WE GOT THIS. I obviously can’t say those things because I am not there and it will be years until I am there.
The final panel I attended was a student panel addressing the intersection of public history and activism as it related to the Ferguson events. It was an inspiring talk. Students talking to students. Activists talking to activists, or believers, at least. The most important concept I grasped is that we need to push the limits of conversation. Race fucking matters. It does. No question about it. It matters. When someone says: “I don’t see color. I don’t see race” I hear: “I am ignoring your history. I am ignoring your cultural identity because I don’t want to deal with the complexity of those things. I refuse to be aware of you and myself. “ Another important concept from that panel was the importance of organization. We cannot change the system if we are not organized. Organized doesn’t mean picking a leader and following him through. The 21st century model of movement and change is collaboration. That epiphany was inspiring.
Right after that panel, I met with a professor from Arizona State University who is also a board member for the council, and a Chicana. I rarely realize the gravity of the people I make connections with. I can be a little naïve about these things, but it’s worked out well so far. I tend to have great connections with people who are genuine and have a real passion for movement, change and collaboration. This professor was certainly one of those people. We instantly clicked. We clicked about all the issues I was thinking and feeling. Most importantly, there was an organic feeling to this conversation. We threw words around like, infiltration. We talked about organization and movement. We talked about being tired of talking. This was the cocktail table plan: Infiltrating the system, to change the system. Becoming more visible, more vocal, and more annoying (ha!) to get our brown points across. Ending the discourse and being proactive about the issues. Mobilizing and organizing a collective of willing and committed students, intellectuals and academics.
This was all inspiring. I left Nashville with a completely new vision and ambition. During my flight, as I was reading about the war of 1898 between Spain and the US for Cuba, I came across some of the early history of resistance movements in Cuba. I read words like, collective, movement, militant, and infiltration. That’s when it hit me, intellectual militancy. That is where I want to go. I don’t want to change the system with violence. I don’t want to assimilate when I’m in the system. I want to assault the system with my vision because I have a voice, and I know it is important. And I know there are many many more brown girls who feel the same.