By Omar Eaton-Martínez, 2020 AASLH Program Chair

The American Association for State and Local History will present its 2020 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on September 23-26. Deadline for submissions is December 9.

AASLH is now accepting proposals for sessions and workshops.

What Kind of Ancestor Will You Be?

This question serves as our theme for the 2020 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas. Richard Josey, founder and President of Collective Journeys, AASLH Council Member, and Vice Chair of the AASLH Diversity and Inclusion Committee, first posed this question to us at an AASLH 2017 panel on diversity and inclusion in Austin, Texas.

Our role as members of history communities comes with a responsibility to advocate for the unheard and the unseen. Arturo Schomburg, the black Puerto Rican historian, writer, activist, and bibliophile for whom the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is named, was motivated to “stand in the gap” for black people when his schoolteacher told him black people have no history. He went on to build one of the most prolific collections of books detailing the rich history of the continent of Africa and its growing diaspora. His legacy was to confirm the humanity of a people by disrupting the “single story” that still attempts to dehumanize them today.

We have the chance to dislocate dominant culture and tell stories from multiple perspectives by being co-stewards with the communities that we serve in the spirit of equity and inclusion. Our history communities get to provide transformational experiences which allow the world to understand the value of all humanity.

Our sector should strive to be the types of ancestors that changed the course of history by how they stewarded it. What will historians, history professionals, and history lovers say about us? Will they say that our generation was the one to lift the veil of division? Will they say that our generation focused on community interpretation that emphasized bringing proximity to differences as opposed to isolation?

One of our African American ancestors, James Baldwin, said this about history: “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it, in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

The single narrative in Las Vegas has always centered around gaming, gambling, and permissive culture. This belies the deep history of this city of nearly two million at the tip of southern Nevada. As the city has grown, so have the needs of the people that live here. A desire for more “authentic” entertainment and cultural offerings has driven the development of new institutions centered around the history and lives of the people that live here, while embracing the traditional role of Las Vegas. The city has matured beyond the simple designation as an adult playground into a truly international city.

With the growth of the city, its inhabitants and history practitioners have begun to ask What Kind of Ancestor Will You Be? Las Vegans and Nevadans are answering that question by protecting and preserving our stories outside of the single narrative that so many have come to recognize. The history and museum communities have worked to help tie incoming Nevadans to their new home and gain a better understanding of the efforts taken to build a city in the middle of a desert. What parts of our history deserve to be saved?

A new awareness of the importance of historic preservation has led to many neglected structures and their stories being preserved rather than imploded. New national monuments have preserved over 320,000 acres of land with over 200,000 years of geological, paleontological, and cultural history. In response to unprecedented challenges related to a changing climate, the people of Las Vegas have addressed the challenge head-on by reducing water usage by 36% over the past fifteen years, despite a population increase of 660,000. Local Native American tribes have taken control of their energy futures, leading to the closure of coal-fired energy plants and the development of solar projects that will keep the region powered for over twenty-five years.

Our theme is not just a question. It is a clarion call to our professional community to consider our work in the temporal continuum of the past, present, and future. Now ask yourself: “What kind of ancestor will you be?

Deadline for session proposals is December 9.

Learn more about submitting a session and how to submit online.