Netherlands American Studies Association
Fall Event 2015
“From Reconstruction to Ferguson:
150 Years of African-American Civil Rights, 1865-2015”
Friday, 6 November 2015
On 6 November, Americanists gathered in Leiden for the NASA fall event, a symposium entitled “From Reconstruction to Ferguson: 150 Years of African-American Civil Rights, 1865-2015.” Organizer Damian Pargas of Leiden University began the day by explaining that the symposium’s topic was easily chosen, since this year marks the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 13th amendment. The keynote speaker was renowned professor of American History Adam Fairclough, whose talk was titled “From Radford Blunt to Barack Obama: 150 Years of Freedom?” He argued against a conventional scholarly interpretation of the Reconstruction period, specifically the Reconstruction amendments, as having laid the foundations for the Civil Rights Movement. This interpretation, Fairclough argued, confuses causation with context, since political change does not derive from the Constitution. Rather, political and legislative change reflect changing attitudes in a society, as they did in the US on account of the Civil Rights Movement. Adam Fairclough’s talk was impressive and wide-ranging, showing his command of African-American history after an academic career that spans nearly four decades. With his surprising and innovative argument, Fairclough was able to grasp the audience’s attention and set the tone for a great and inspiring symposium.
Rooted in personal experience and cultural analysis, Mark de Vries’ presentation “Privilege and PC: A Transatlantic Perspective on Structural Discrimination” offered a lucid and insightful comparison between the discourses around race and racism in the United States and the Netherlands, especially in recent years as Dutch self-identification as tolerant is being questioned. Expounding on concepts like political correctness and white privilege, Mark De Vries argued that Dutch society lags behind the US in its racial discourse, but stressed that he does not believe this implies that the US is more advanced in eradicating racism.
In her presentation “The Right of Quality Education as a Civil Rights Issue: The Algebra Project and the Grassroots Struggle to Uplift the American Poor,” Utrecht scholar Laura Visser-Maessen traced the grassroots background and success of the Algebra Project, which introduces African-American students to algebra. In her poignant argument, Laura Visser-Maessen argued that the project not only improves students’ academic performances, but also that the project makes students socially and politically conscious.
Finally, in a presentation of her Ph.D. dissertation “Cops, Critics and Confrontation, ” Michelle Knight of the University of Groningen problematized the polarization in the discussion surrounding police brutality. She observed that in dialogues between police and police critics, there was a power equilibrium that allowed continuing instances of police brutality to be met with victimization of an entire race and the demonization of the police force. After providing these premises, Michelle Knight concluded that in order to stop the perpetuating discussion among the police and police critics, a mediator had to be found.
As promised by the title, the symposium reflected on African-American history from Reconstruction to the present day, including legal, social, and cultural history, broad strokes and individual figures, and even a global dimension in Adam Fairclough’s argument about the Civil Rights Movement and Mark De Vries’ analysis of the Dutch debates about ethnicity and racism. All in all, the symposium was a great success with almost fifty people in attendance, the majority of them students. The day ended with an opportunity to discuss and debate over drinks.
Report written by the StudentNASA board