American History · complex past and present

trip to Oklahoma reenergizes

I just visited Southwestern Oklahoma State University. I was there to present two keynote addresses on two separate days at a joint meeting for the state’s professional historians and undergraduate and graduate members of Phi Alpha Theta, the honorary society for college students interested in history. As true last week in Montgomery, AL, where I presented at our state archive, I addressed our complex shared past and present as offered in my recently published book with a bit of hesitation. As I have often shared, it’s hard to discuss things that don’t easily align with the larger and well-circulated narratives.

Here I am with SWOSU History Chair John Hayden, Associate Professor of History Sunu Kodumthara, and grad students Kyra Schmidt and Victoria Stambaugh.

And yet I found myself, as true last week, having rich conversations with scholars and student-scholars about this very thing. With political positions uttered or not, there seemed to be some willingness to at least hear the narrative unfolding in my book.

Me and some of the amazing history students at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.

On the flight between Oklahoma City and Atlanta, I saw a documentary about the Chinese cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble, a multi-cultural group of musicians. At some point in this film, perhaps while the plane was heading toward Arkansas, I read subtitles that basically said if you find what it is that you want to do and do it authentically then everything in your life begins to make sense. I loved hearing that.

My favorite quotation from the film’s trailer “Everybody is afraid, but [if[ you can make a connection to another human being, you can turn fear into joy.” I liked that, too.

I turned 50 this year. I am slowly seeing that the best gift before me is the chance to create conversations between unlikely bodies. Each day I have a little more courage, the sort that poses tensions with stronger women before me, among them ones appearing in a book I will soon review. It was written by Catherine Clinton, a well-known historian. In it, the reader is presented with all kinds of strong women, most of them in the South, who did unlikely things during the Civil War.

Clinton’s book addresses the voices around during the Civil War that still need to be heard.

They sat on varying political sides. What bubbles up most as I make my way through the final chapter is how many of the women presented wanted to be heard. These days so many people want to be heard as I said at the meeting that was owed largely to having met SWOSU Associate Professor of History Sunu Kodumthara at the Western Association of Women Historians (WAWH) in Denver last year where my book won the Barbara “Penny” Kanner prize).

I take it all in as I try to share cautiously, but deliberately and authentically, on the many platforms before me. Thank you, Oklahoma, for that energy (in addition to my colleague Sunu, special thanks to her SWOSU fellow historians Becky Bruce,  David Hertzel, Fred Gates, Laura Endicott and John Hayden, and SWOSU President Randy Beutler). I can’t wait to return.

There are so many incredible stories there including ones concerning the dwindling schools and small graduating high school classes. I’d love to do a short film on this issue. As I stood in the Oklahoma City airport where I saw signs touting the state’s national merit scholars, I was even more curious about the students in those small graduating classes. I wonder whether difficult circumstances force some to dig deeper to overachieve against great odds. This is an idea worth thinking through. While I do, I’ll remember the souls met, among them historian John Maple, Chair of the History and Political Department at Oklahoma Christian University. What a human being!

PS Most of this post was written with an eclectic mix of music heard in an Atlanta’s Hartsfield  coffee bar. But the best music came from Brooks Brothers where I saw a young woman employee singing and dancing to “There’s Hope,” an India Arie tune. What a needed affirmation right now. PSS It was so cool seeing my University of Alabama colleague Hilary Green as we flew back through Atlanta. We traveled to Birmingham on the same plane. I look forward to presenting art with her this coming Friday in our university’s Ferguson Center Art Gallery. The faculty curated exhibit is called “Breathe.”

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