Campus News

Studying history to navigate the present

Recently retired history professor Genna Rae McNeil offered a robust syllabus during the 2021 Sonja Haynes Stone Memorial Lecture.

McNeil smiling at podium while she greets attendees at the 2017 African American History Month lecture. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
This year’s Stone Lecture was virtual. In the photo above, Genna Rae McNeil greets attendees at the 2017 African American History Month Lecture. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Genna Rae McNeil, professor emerita of history, encouraged her audience to study the work of African American historians in order to find ways to move American society forward during the 29th annual Sonja Haynes Stone Memorial Lecture on Nov. 9. The Stone Lecture is an annual program hosted each fall by the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture & History, named for the beloved faculty member after her untimely passing in 1991. Previous Stone lecturers have included Angela Davis, Edwidge Danticat and Nnenna Freelon.

McNeil said she was “honored and humbled beyond adequate expression” to give the 2021 Stone Lecture. She was friends with Stone, who came to Carolina as an assistant professor in 1974, the same year McNeil joined the faculty.

The lecture, titled “‘It’s in Your Hands’: Lessons from History and Critical Race Theory,” could be viewed as a parting syllabus from McNeil, who retired from Carolina on July 1, after 36 years in the College of Arts & Sciences’ history department.

“I’m under no illusion that seeing and facing the truths about the lives and struggles of oppressed people and the ills of this American society will bring forth the changes necessary to rid the nation of systemic racism and economic exploitation and set it on a straight path to a society that guarantees freedom and justice to all,” McNeil said. “But what I know for certain is that James Baldwin was right when he declared, not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

She drew on her decades of teaching for the talk, she said, to “incorporate basic insights and truths derived from a race-conscious study of history and the rule of law in the United States.” She noted that “critical race theory scholars have provided a language and insights that facilitate learning for whites as well as people of color, in that it does not begin with statements of personal guilt, but rather provides a lens through which people are able to see the big picture of the injustice of a system that so many have incorrectly believed actually operates generally, by some even-handed rule of law.”

McNeil bolstered each of her three main points with examples and encouraged her listeners to seek out and study the work of African American historians, intellectuals and historical figures. She listed dozens of names, including her mentors John Hope Franklin and Mary Frances Berry, and included a full list in her final slide.

Her first lesson encouraged the student to seek out primary sources. History is not just events in sequence, but how people actually lived. And here she provided a method. “You do not discover truths about the past without a willingness to commit yourself to discipline and deep study of documentary firsthand accounts, what we call primary sources,” she said. These include “oral histories, interviews, every possible source of intentional or unintentional evidence, whether it be legislation, a court decision, a newspaper, planned interviews published in a magazine, a best-selling novel or personal letters, a diary, a song, an artist’s sketchbook.” And in the 21st century, these also include emails, social media posts and other digital sources.

McNeil’s second lesson was that remaining silent is not a neutral act. “Silence and silencing further support subordination of the oppressed, stunt growth and sustain the structural inequalities of the system,” she said. “Silence in the face of exploitation or racism or sexism or homophobia or bullying makes you complicit in the culture of oppression of fellow human beings,” she said. “Any silencing of others who attempt to speak on such is as harmful as silence.”

Third, studying is important, but it is not enough. “Analysis without action makes a person complicit in the maintenance of the status quo,” she said. “I taught my students that they should remember that in reading about persons and groups in the past, it is important to see people living their lives as you and I do with similar challenges,” she said. “Because in doing so, we respect the complexity of the human experience.”

McNeil closed with questions to the audience. “What kind of history will you make with your life, and what kind of society do you want to live? What kind of society do you want to leave for coming generations?” she asked.