Africa in Global History: A Colloquium on the Work of Joseph C. Miller

Looking forward to participating in this upcoming (Oct. 26) Harvard colloquium on the work of the great Africanist Joseph Miller of UVA, spearheaded by my wonderful new MIT colleague Kenda Mutongi.  You can find the final program at this link and also just below:

final miller program

Race in Boston (and Newton)

Two real-world anecdotes from my life today:

1. I am playing tennis at the local clay courts with a friend, whose family comes from subcontinent.  Four Caucasian males on the court next to us are finishing a doubles match.  One of said males, with whom I had been chatting earlier (but whom I had met only that morning), tells me as he is preparing to leave the court that “at least you guys don’t need sunscreen.”

2. About an hour later, I am driving my son and one of his friends home from another friend’s birthday.  I strike up a conversation with my son and his friend about — what else? — the Fortnite craze taking over our nation (see, e.g., this apologia).  I ask my son’s friend what his favorite skin is.  (In Fortnite, a “skin” is a costume or outfit that you can buy to dress up your combatant in the game.)  Answer: “white.”  (I did a quick check to confirm that in fact Fornite does not actually market “white” skins per se — which one could be excused for thinking might actually be a possibility in this day and age.)

Some context: I live in Newton, which is an overwhelmingly white, generally prosperous town.  If you haven’t had a chance yet to read the superb Boston Globe series “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality,” by the Globe‘s legendary Spotlight team, do yourself a favor and read it.  As journalism goes I thought it was among the most probing series of articles I have read on this topic, and for Boston area residents it is an eye opener.  For example, the story by Andrew Ryan on the Seaport district really shows persuasively how the combination of real estate developers intent on creating an “upscale” neighborhood, a tendency to revert to a handful of big players in the construction industry instead of reaching out to minority-led firms, and a city government unable to exert any real influence over the development process despite massive public investment in the district has created possibly the least diverse neighborhood in greater Boston  And the series reveals any number of other disturbing, even shocking factoids, e.g.: the median net worth for whites in the metropolitan Boston area is nearly $250,000, but a mere $8 for African-Americans.  (I too had to read that one twice to make sure I read it correctly.)  For those of us in the higher education business, the article on the relatively small enrollment of African-American students at Boston area colleges is particularly disturbing.  Some of the demographic and economic figures highlighted in the series have not changed greatly since the Globe did an earlier, similar investigation into race and racism in Boston in 1983.

So the entire series, as well as the 1983 reports (not easily tracked down, alas) are worth a close look.  I used it this semester in a course I teach on “Race, Crime, and Citizenship in American Law” and I will almost certainly do so again.  Back in March, I had the chance to sit down with two of the journalists who worked on the series (Ryan and Adrian Walker) along with their editor Patricia Wen, in the form of a panel conversation at the annual meeting of the Kendall Square Association (whose new president, C.A. Webb, is fabulous and has a real commitment to this issue).  One of the attendees made the point that Andrew Ryan’s story about the Seaport district could also have been written about Kendall Square.  The KSA has organized a series of small group followup dialogues among its members to continue the March 29 discussion.

The Spotlight series made me feel quite differently about what it means to live in the Boston area.  I still love this city, but I understand better now why so many people continue to find it difficult to call Boston home.

MIT and the Task of History

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to participate in one of the most interesting and important dialogues I have been involved in as a historian.  The occasion was the second of a series of forums on the “MIT and Slavery” project, an investigation of MIT’s relationship to slavery that MIT’s President Rafael Reif commissioned at the end of last academic year.  The project has been spearheaded by my colleague Craig Wilder, who had the brilliant idea of creating an undergraduate research seminar (along with MIT archivist Nora Murphy) to undertake the investigation.  The first forum in the series featured Craig and Nora as well as T.A. Claire Kim and a genuinely spectacular cohort of undergrads, who spoke on that day with a composure and degree of insight one would expect to see from an advanced historian (video here).  The second forum, in which I was joined by Craig and MIT SHASS Dean Melissa Nobles as well as historians Tanalís Padilla and Lerna Ekmekçioğlu, was a follow-up response to questions from the MIT community about the purpose of studying this chapter of MIT’s past.  The panel opened up onto a broader discussion of “the power of historical knowledge to make a better world,” from which I learned a great deal (not least by way of the lively Q&A with the audience that followed).  A video recording of the event can be found here, and a news summary here.  The event was organized by Emily Hiestand of the MIT SHASS Dean’s office.

ASLH call for proposals extended to April 3

The next meeting of the American Society for Legal History will be held in Las Vegas from Oct. 26-29, 2017.  The deadline for panel and paper proposals has been extended to April 3.  Please consider submitting a proposal, especially if you have not yet participated in an ASLH meeting.  The CFP is here.  Some financial assistance is available for participants, especially graduate students, who need funding support in order to attend.

Newton Family Singers “One Voice” concert April 9

Dear Boston-area friends,

I have been on a social media diet for the past few weeks that will continue into April but want to alert and invite you to our upcoming Newton Family Singers concert on April 9, benefiting the Best Buddies organization.  We are seeking sponsors for the concert to support the work of Best Buddies; for more information, please see here, and for the sponsorship form please see here.  Thank you very much for your support and hope to see some of you at the concert!