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Holloway reflects on most recent book covering Black history in US

Rather than attempt to convey all of Black history, University President Jonathan Holloway wrote "The Cause of Freedom" with the aim of encouraging people to ask their own questions and seek out additional information. – Photo by Nick Romanenko / Rutgers University

There is no one true way to convey Black history, said University President Jonathan Holloway.

The telling of Black history hinges upon a historian’s choices regarding sources, voices to highlight and angle of approach, he said. Holloway met with such choices in his latest book The Cause of Freedom, which presents a history of Black people from 1619 Jamestown to the Black Lives Matter movement within 121 pages.

One choice for the book, he said, was to give less space to prominent figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and more to Black historical figures beyond Martin Luther King Jr. These voices include abolitionist leader David Walker, renowned contralto Marian Anderson and feminist scholar Anna Julia Cooper, who coined the book’s title.

Holloway also said given the length of his book, he focused not on communicating the entirety of Black history, but on encouraging people to seek more information beyond the history he conveys. This led him to pose several guiding questions in the book’s introduction that he believes lie at the heart of the Black experience in the U.S.

“What does it mean to be a human? What does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be civilized?” Holloway said. “These are seemingly simple questions that, once you start to poke around, using African American history as a vehicle, you realize are really complicated.”

He said these questions invite readers to view recent events in U.S. history from a different perspective and guide them toward asking questions of their own. As a professor, Holloway said, he taught students to recognize in the news how history repeats itself from year to year as a living document.

He said the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests may have seemed new, but the killing of George Floyd and others that led up to the movement came from an old, shameful part of Americans’ national heritage rooted in racism.

At the same time, people engaged with old practices, such as registering to vote, with new urgency, as seen in the 2020 presidential and Senate election results, suggesting the U.S. may have entered a new way of thinking, Holloway said.

“For me, the big question is, how sustainable was last year in terms of that organizing energy, or the sense of outrage or the sense of commitment to do something that affects broader change,” Holloway said. “And (it’s) just too soon to know.”

He said the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has caused a shift in people’s mindsets. Due to the difficulties it has brought on many, he said it has made people recognize the struggles that many groups in the U.S. experience on a daily basis and made them want to understand the context. Last year, Holloway received various responses to a post-Emancipation Black history course published online that he had taught as a professor several years ago.

“People started to express hunger for more information, (due to) the uncertainty and the confusion and the violence that we were seeing in a new way last year,” he said. “So I think this is a moment where, with the right energy … and right level of curiosity, we can change the quality of the conversation in this country.”

Holloway said people are currently still trying to make sense of the present moment, and he believes his book provides a sense of how the U.S. got where it is today.

“I would love people to have (a) more honest sense of the past because it'll help them have a more honest sense of the present and of the future,” he said. “So that's how the book, I would hope, could be of service in some regard.”

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