For the latest entry of our blog series introducing the board members of the new Cambridge University Press journal, Modern American History, Adriane Lentz-Smith shares how she came to study history and discusses how historians can reach a wider public.

Adriane Lentz-Smith is Associate Professor of History at Duke University, where she holds secondary appoints in Gender, Sexuality & Feminist studies and African & African-American Studies. The author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I, she teaches courses in twentieth-century United States history, African-American history, and the history of America and the World. She is currently working on a book, tentatively entitled “Afterlives: Sagon Penn, Violence, and the Twilight of Civil Rights.”

Why do you study modern American history and not something else? 

I had fantastic history teachers in secondary school who taught me that historical thinking is critical thinking: this in spite of the fact that I lived in a suburban Atlanta town where folks obsessed over the romance of the Old South while remaining studiously silent about Jim Crow and black freedom struggles. Studying modern American history helped me put my hometown in perspective – to see its willful re-narrations and erasures as ways to claim and secure power – and exploring the recent past continues to give me a sharper understanding of a world ever under construction. Plus, the twentieth century has large-scale drama; it’s fun to write about.

What are some of the challenges facing the field today?  In what new directions might the field go?

Historians are writers, mostly, and we write long form pieces at a time when much of our public – policy makers, students, the general public – want quick nuggets of information. Fewer and fewer folks want to dwell in complexity, ambiguity, or difficulty; yet many people traffic in narratives of history writ as grievance or loss, community making, or mythos. So our challenge is to woo folks into deliberation and nuance by offering them books, podcasts, documentaries, etc. that are accessible enough to engage but challenging enough to make them think about thinking.

This requires emphasizing craft and imagination, embracing capaciousness rather than obsessing over method or sub-discipline. Pose an interesting question and set out to explore it.  Don’t mistake rigidity for rigor. Remember that men have gender and white people have race and that subject position will inform politics high and low. Then, go forth and conquer.

If you could have been present in any “room where it happened,” what would you have witnessed?

The 1964 Democratic National Convention, listening to Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Powerful testimony about police brutality under Jim Crow and a stark reminder of the work yet to be done, it should have brought everyone to their knees. That, or I would have wanted to be at Wattstax in 1972.


Modern American History’s first print issue will appear in 2018.  To sign up for content alerts click on the bell symbol in the top right corner of the MAH homepage.  Follow us on Twitter @ModAmHist.  Article submissions and 250-word proposals for special features can be sent to mahist@bu.edu.


Main Image Credit: Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party supporters gather outside the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964.  Photographed by Warren K. Leffler.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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