by N. Valerie McLaurin
At the Source Awards in New York City in 1995, Southern rap duo Outkast took the stage to accept their award for New Artist of the Year (Group). Met with boos from the Northern audience, André 3000, half of the now iconic duo, appeared unphased and informed the crowd that whether or not the greater hip-hop community wanted to accept it: “The South got somethin’ to say.” This prophetic moment from my childhood came to mind when I started thinking more deeply about the definition of public history.
As a young person aware of the criticisms and stigma attached to identifying as Southern, hearing André 3000 express that the Southern US has a story to tell the rest of the world, and that whether or not that message is immediately recognized as valuable has no bearing on its inherent importance, would stick with me for the rest of my life. Later, the concept of “shared authority” that I learned in my Intro to Public History class reiterated the gut feeling I got from André 3000’s speech. In the rap community, and in the realm of academic history, there are gatekeepers. But this does not take away from the fact that those on the “outside” should also be listened to, respected, and recognized for owning their own histories and their own experiences.
In “Defining Public History: Is it Possible? Is it Necessary?” Robert Weible grapples with the various definitions of what exactly “public history” means. He writes, “when all is said and done, public history may even be like jazz or pornography: easier to describe than define, and you know it when you hear it or see it.” He goes on to write that “the discipline’s practitioners are educators who neither deny their expertise nor keep it to themselves.” To me, this definition is reminiscent of André 3000’s proclamation at the Source Awards. He was an expert in his own lived experience as a Southerner and asserted that, and as a musician he shared his narrative storytelling perspective on Southern life with whoever picked up a copy of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.
There are many nuanced stereotypes that follow Southerners, like being less formally educated and living a slower (often interpreted as duller) pace of life. Public history helps us to navigate such clichés, because it breaks through the barriers of formal academia and opens the doors of historical knowledge and knowledge production to the greater public. This brings me to the next artist I would like to discuss from the South, Ment Nelson.
Nelson was born and raised in South Carolina and was even a hip-hop artist himself before he began to focus on visual art through drawings and paintings. His art is sometimes realistic and sometimes abstract, but always inspired by his Lowcountry surroundings that hold generations of history and imagery. Arguably his most iconic piece of art is taken from an illustration of his grandmother fishing, which has been made into hats that are often sold out on his website. His simple Twitter bio echoes a sentiment that André 3000 established decades ago: “I make it cool to be from South Carolina.”
Both André 3000 and Ment Nelson are self-taught artists, and in the spirit of shared authority, public historians in their own right. They both identify and claim their self-taught/learned expertise over the history that surrounds them and share their unique interpretations and perspectives rooted in Southern culture with the world, and we are all better for it.
Lyon, Cherstin, Nix, Elizabeth, and Shrum, Rebecca. Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.