A portrait of Hasan Kwame Jeffries

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It's important to study history, the old saying goes, because history tends to repeat itself. If we study the past, we can avoid repeating our mistakes.

When it comes to America's history with slavery, Hasan Kwame Jeffries thinks we still have plenty of reflection and work to do.

"It's not so much about repeating something we think we've gotten over," said Jeffries, an associate professor in the Department of History at The Ohio State University. "I think it's important to talk about the past honestly and candidly so we can stop contributing to inequality that's rooted in the past. Or put another way, and much more simply: It's about stopping what we continue to do."

Jeffries will take a look at what he refers to as the "hard history" of slavery in America during his lecture, "1619: An American Journey: 400 Years of Triumph & Tragedy," at 4 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, in Whitman's Olin Auditorium.

"We're thinking about 1619, but this is about the American journey, and moving beyond these normative narratives that do more to obscure than to inform," he said. "I just want to touch upon the highlights to help us move out of that obscurity so we can wrestle with difficult things, like names and symbols, in a way that is productive, in a way that our communities can be stronger in the end."

Jeffries is a renowned expert on the topic and has taught graduate and undergraduate seminars on the civil rights and black power movement, and surveys in African American and American history. He also works with Teaching Tolerance and is chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board and host of the podcast Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.

His talk is sponsored by the Whitman College Department of History, Whitman Events Board and Whitman Teaches the Movement.

400 Years of Injustice

This year marks 400 years since the first enslaved African Americans were brought to what became the United States. The history of slavery is a story of not only the African American experience, but also the American experience in general, Jeffries said.

"What I want to offer in this talk is really taking a serious look at the past and the present," he said. "The past in terms of what factually occurred, and the present in terms of how we collectively remember and misremember the past."

Race and racism, and its roots in white supremacy, is central to the American experience, and understanding it is key to understanding what's happening in our current society, Jeffries said.

"The only way we can really build and make a better tomorrow is to understand our shortcomings of yesterday and today," he said. "We certainly aren't responsible for anything that came before us, but we are responsible for everything that comes ahead of us."

Jeffries encourages students to learn more about issues of slavery, oppression and inequality. He said he often hears students say, "I feel like I'm not doing enough - what should I do?"

He tells people to get involved where their passion is.

"That's where we need you being a changemaker and a difference-maker," he said. "There's work for everybody to do, but it's not going to be the same work. We don't want everyone moving to the same area, we want them in the area they want to be. I think they can make a real difference."

A Prism of Racism

Racism and how it influences society are not limited to issues surrounding African Americans, but the experience of women, indigenous people and other minority races can also be understood better by understanding the history of white supremacy.

"The prism in which we understand race in America is very much a black-white prism," Jeffries said. The rationalizations and false narratives created to justify slavery are often extended to other groups.

"We come up with all these narratives that then complicate our understanding of what actually happened in the past. We have to peel back these layers to say, ‘OK, let's move away from these false narratives, this purposeful historical amnesia,'" he said.

It's difficult to disentangle false narratives and confront institutionalized and deeply seeded social-cultural beliefs and identities, he said.

"It requires some real courage, but we've asked others to sacrifice more," he said.