Dr. Peniel Joseph on the Power and Importance of History

On September 30, Dr. Peniel Joseph delivered a memorable Hall, discussing his lifelong work as a historian, author, and activist, focused on race and democracy, justice and equity. “The stories we tell ourselves are important,” Dr. Joseph began, “because they become the way in which we understand ourselves and others, and that becomes the way we act, and our actions shape the reality in which we live.”

Professor of public affairs, ethics, and political values at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Joseph teaches courses in social and political policy; is the founding director of the University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy; and serves as Associate Dean for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. His career focus has been on “Black Power Studies,” which encompasses interdisciplinary fields such as Africana studies, law and society, women’s and ethnic studies, and political science.

In Hall, Dr. Joseph shared insights from his most recently published book, The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century. In it, Dr. Joseph claims that this particular moment in American history—from when Barack Obama was elected president, to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, to the killing of George Floyd in 2020—is poised to be the third period of Reconstruction in the United States. The first period of Reconstruction—America’s head-on reckoning with racial discrimination and segregation—followed the Civil War in the 1860s and 1870s; the second is said to have been during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Dr. Joseph shared with students some of the connections he’s drawn across centuries as a historian, and insights he has gleaned from his own journey as a scholar-activist.

“History is our most important teacher and, I would argue, the most important discipline, because it gives context and meaning to all of our other disciplines of study and research,” Dr. Joseph contends. He stressed with students the importance of understanding the full and complete history of the United States, learning the truth about slavery and its lasting legacy of racism in America. He also underscored that history—and the people featured throughout it—are nuanced and complex, that no one person or group of people is entirely heroic or entirely villainous. “History becomes the fuel we use to justify what we want to believe, about ourselves and about our country,” he said, “so we have to work to understand the complete and rounded story.”

In addition to being a frequent commentator on issues of race, democracy, and civil rights, Dr. Joseph is the author of many acclaimed and award-winning books, including The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (which is currently being made into a television streaming series) and also Stokely: A Life, which has been called the definitive biography of Stokely Carmichael, the man who popularized the phrase “Black Power.”

Prior to joining the UT faculty, Dr. Joseph was a professor at Tufts University, where he founded the school’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy in order to promote engaged research and scholarship focused on the ways issues of race and democracy affect people’s lives. Dr. Joseph earned his bachelor’s degree in Africana studies and history at Stony Brook University, and his PhD in philosophy at Temple University.

After Hall, Dr. Joseph continued the discussion in Mr. Heaton’s U.S. History class, and then met over lunch in an open session with students and faculty who wanted to speak with him further about his work, life, and insights. In Hall he both began and closed with a quotation by W.E.B. Du Bois, about “a land of poignant beauty, streaked with hate and blood and shame,” and, ultimately, he hoped that students and adults would leave with this optimistic takeaway: “We have before us now a precious opportunity to choose love over fear.”