Choosing Challenging Bookends: The UMass GHA Conference & Jeanne Theoharis on Rosa Parks’ Story

Left to right: Marwa Amer, Dr. Jeanne Theoharis, Erica Fagen, Jacob Orcutt, Katherine Garland, and Karen Sause

By Katherine Garland, M.A. Student, Department of History

Lately I have been thinking a lot about bookends. No, I do not mean the kind that keep my copies of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom from falling off of my bookshelf. I mean bookends on the ends of historical stories. When my advisor and I meet to discuss books about early American religious history, we often end up talking about beginnings and ends. When comparing books on similar subjects, we note how historians play with the time period, starting and ending their stories in different decades in order to emphasize different ideas. Those bookend dates are not arbitrary; they deeply influence the text’s meaning.

When I tell the story of the UMass Graduate History Association’s 10th Annual conference, “History in the Making: Pivotal Moments in Public Understanding,” I will need to think hard about where to place my bookends. For me, the conference did not start and end on March 29, 2014 — the actual date of the event — it started months before that, perhaps last April when I accepted the position of GHA secretary, or perhaps in the fall when planning began in earnest. My story contains months of fundraising, organizing panels, communicating with conference participants, and planning meals. And that was all before the actual conference. On the conference day, we set up food, attended informative and thought-provoking panels, and enjoyed Dr. Jeanne Theoharis’ keynote speech, “Hidden in Plain Sight?: Rosa Parks and the Black Power Movement.”

I list all of that in order to emphasize that bookends matter. Perspective also matters, as my story is not the full story. The panelists, panel chairs, keynote speaker, UMass history grad students, and attendees would probably all place their bookends at different moments, depending upon when they learned of the conference and how they participated. These different beginnings and endings change the interpretation.

Of course, there is not much at stake in telling the story of a UMass graduate history conference. Although it was a big moment in my life and a lot of good conversations and networking happened over the course of the day, different perspectives on the conference do not change our understanding of American history.

This is not true for Rosa Parks’ life story. As Dr. Theoharis reminded us in her keynote address — based on her NAACP award winning book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks — the bookends that we place on Parks’ life are integral to our understanding of her as well as of the Civil Rights Movement writ large. So many of us learn about Parks in our elementary school classes. We are told that on a day in December 1955, Parks was tired and refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, an action that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

This elementary school narrative begins too late, and ends too early. Parks’ life and activism did not start and end in 1955. The traditional narrative ignores the fact that Parks was well practiced in activism; her refusal to move that day was not a spontaneous decision. The typical story also ignores that Parks moved to Detroit and continued to participate in the Civil Rights movement and other activist movements until her death in 2005.

Expanding the account to include Parks’ entire life creates a messier narrative. When her tale ends after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the story is a happy one. Parks was part of a successful movement to desegregate buses in the United States. Expanding beyond that time forces us to deal with the fact that Parks lost her job because of her activism and moved to Detroit in search of new work. It asks us to consider sides of Parks that we do not typically encounter, such as Parks’ relationship with Malcolm X (whom she considered a personal hero), and her involvement in anti-Vietnam protests. We need to understand Parks’ full story from her perspective. Parks was more than the mild-mannered seamstress who was tired on the bus — the icon she has become in popular memory.

In the conference call for papers, the GHA committee wrote, “Writing for a broad audience has many challenges. How do we approach pivotal historic events that continue to affect our understanding of the past?” Although panelists throughout the day answered this question differently, Theoharis provided an answer that will stick with me for awhile: we need to think purposefully about where we begin and end our stories of these events, and from whose perspective we describe them. Sometimes we may be tempted to place our bookends in certain places in order to make our stories happy and tidy. However, the past was not necessarily happy or tidy. Telling a more complete story from the perspective of the people who were actually involved in the events is the most powerful way to teach the public today about the events of yesterday. We need to have enough faith in ourselves as historians that we can make more complicated narratives understandable and interesting to the public. It worked for Theoharis; her book on Parks is a New York Times bestseller! Let’s continue to pick challenging but truthful bookends for ourselves in order to encourage the public to think deeply and critically about the past.

1 comment
  1. Histories of the Shakers, which I studied for my dissertation, also have different takes on them based on when they begin and end. For a long while, the beginning bookend were the legends the Shakers told about their early history, the later bookend was about 1875, when the first of the early Shaker villages was disbanded. The constructed narrative was: glorious beginning, a golden age, and then . . . little else that mattered. Considering that half their history was in the “nothing much that mattered,” you can imagine the distortions this caused.

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