Early American history buffs should note two upcoming dates on their calendars: On May 2 and 4, Professor Pier Gabrielle Foreman, a renowned scholar, educator and author, will give two public lectures on Northwestern’s campus. She will also lead workshops for faculty and graduate students through May 6. Foreman is a professor of English, African American studies and history at Penn State University, where she holds the Joseph Paterno Family Chair in Liberal Arts.
On May 2, Foreman will be joined by Danielle Bainbridge, assistant professor of theater at Northwestern’s School of Communication, to discuss her work as the founding director of the Colored Conventions Project website. The title of Foreman’s speech is “The Colored Conventions Project, Digital Humanities, and Black Interventions in the Past and Present.” The conversation takes place at 4 p.m. in the McCormick Foundation Center Forum Auditorium, 1870 Campus Drive.
On May 4, Foreman will speak about the importance and power of digital archives in her talk, “Go Back and Get It: Black Loss, Black Recovery, Black Resurrectionary Poetics.” In a Northwestern news release, Foreman said digital archives, like Black poetry, “reach back to the past and structure neighborhoods of meaning that bring home lost records and loss records to those who recognize them. In doing so, they trace how cultural descendants go back to lost sources, using innovative methods and resurrectionary poetics to sit in conversation with Black historical hauntings and to make space for — and to make peace for — our living dead.” This talk will begin at 5 p.m. in the McCormick Foundation Center Forum Auditorium.
The Colored Conventions Project website documents nearly 70 years of African American men and women participating in more than 200 political meetings, both nationally and at the state level, from 1830 through the 1890s. These meetings were called the Colored Conventions, and it was part of a movement for African Americans to get organized and campaign for their civil and human rights. The project’s website includes historical exhibits and teaching guides to help bring this history into high school classrooms. Additional Colored Conventions are still being uncovered and rediscovered.
In an interview with the RoundTable, Foreman said she grew up on the South Side of Chicago and in Venice Beach, California. Her parents were intellectuals. Her father, a poet, led the Chicago poetry slam team to the finals several times (she believes the team’s name was the Green Mill, after the famous jazz bar) and her mother “was deeply interested in local, national and international change.” They encouraged her to think deeply, broadly and creatively about all issues, Foreman said. Their influence infuses her academic research, writing and teaching.
Her interest in the Colored Conventions, in searching for records and diaries that told the story from the view of the participants, might have been destiny. As a poet’s daughter, Foreman grew up hearing about the importance of the griot (pronounced “gree-oh”). A griot is a leader, the keeper of the flame for oral histories, in particular a West African storyteller and historian.
Foreman recognizes the importance of oral histories and creative histories – she calls them “historical inheritance” – and the need to include them with the work of scholarly historians. “Public history is a way to communicate to the larger public,” she said, “and we’re deeply committed to doing that work along with the building of collections, the preservation of documents and the work of creating scholarship from those documents.”
‘History isn’t progressive’
Once she realized that she only had a smattering of the actual records from the Colored Conventions, Foreman said her instincts and experience demanded she take a deeper look. She explained, “If this one document is here, and it looks as if it is one of many, even though we don’t have the records that have been preserved, let’s go look for what has been absented, what has been dismembered from the historical record. There are so many absences of Black history and African American history as it is preserved through repositories, digital collections and archives.”
Despite having records from hundreds of Colored Conventions and knowledge about the Black leadership organizing them, the historical movement has been “overshadowed” by the abolitionist movement, according to Foreman. Reading the notes from the various conventions can lead to mixed emotions: Black Americans are still dealing with the same issues today.
“We’re really interested in Black-led movements that speak not only to the end of slavery, but to the very issues that are on the table for organizers today,” Foreman said. “Educational justice and access voting rights. What happens when we don’t have juries of our peers and juries who don’t value Black life? What happens around labor justice issues and equal pay? What happens when the state is either sanctioning violence against Black communities and Black individuals or ignoring the violence that is continually inflicted on Black communities and individuals?
“These are the issues that show up over and over again in the convention minutes – in addition to stopping slavery, until 1865.”
Foreman spoke to the RoundTable exactly two weeks after Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as the next U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Memories of that politicized confirmation process were still fresh. “We need to grapple with the fact that history isn’t progressive, that things don’t get better because time has changed,” Foreman said. “Things get better because of deep, continuous, complex engagement with justice issues, and that people need to be willing to comprehend and have policy be responsive to the real conditions which we have inherited. And those conditions are not just in the past, that they accrue over time.”
She added, “Without continued real change, 100 years from now we’ll be dealing with the same issues.”