If GRRM Can Present Complex Stories, So Can We

Upon finishing Slavery & Public History I felt incredibly frustrated with Pitcaithley & Levine’s chapters, which focused primarily on the Lost Cause movement and their gnat-like ability to annoy public historians.

Interestingly, Pitcaithley and Levine suggest two different techniques to deal with the controversial Lost Causers. Pictcathley advises that, “… because both [professional and amateur historians] share a passion for history and an interest in its relevance to contemporary society, perhaps it would be worthwhile if they could engage in civil conversation.”[1] Levine, on the other hand, proposes that public historians should not invest the energy to engage with Lost Causers as, “No matter how many fallacies are exposed, however, and no matter how many hard facts are put in their place, the most dedicated Black-Confederate devotees will not change their opinions.”[2]

Reflecting upon Slavery & Public History as a whole, it does seem as if Levine’s solution of giving Lost Causers the cold shoulder may be the optimal choice for the time being. The articles by Nash, Vlach, & Melish indicate we have a lot of work to do within our own ranks before we begin lecturing outsiders. A group of professionally trained group of historians refusing to “tell it like it was” is far more harmful than a bunch of untrained Civil War revisionists.

Furthermore, these craven professional historians provide lackluster reasons for presenting a watered down version of history. They either assume the general public is too daft to understand the material, are unwilling to spend the time to perfect the interpretation’s wording and research, or simply want to avoid confrontational e-mails and tweets. While I realize funding probably plays into at least two of those reasons, it seems to me that presenting a generic, whitewashed history is extremely self-centered and lazy. If the popularity of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones proves anything, it’s that the public is ready and willing to invest the time to understand complex stories and characters if we can facilitate an engaging way of presenting the information. In an ideal world, building a rapt and loyal audience would in turn help earn more funding.

My eternal grumpiness aside (I always feel like I come off as weirdly aggressive in these posts. My apologies.), as a young historian I was left curious whether using the media as leverage to replace outdated interpretations was common place. Or is it more common to face situations like Melish’s Patriots’ Park example where the change just takes a lot of time and revision?

P.S. – Thought you folks might enjoy this semi-relevant sketch by the comedy duo Key & Peele. Heads up, the language might be inappropriate for a workplace.

[1] “’A Cosmic Threat’: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War.” In Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton, by Dwight T. Pitcaithley, 186. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

[2] “In Search of a Usable Past: Neo-Confederates & Black Confederates.” In Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton, by Bruce Levine, 211. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Collaboration, Slavery, and History Education

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory

James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton

(These are just some of my thoughts, but I also thoroughly enjoyed chapters four, six, and ten!)

Throughout the process of reading this book I felt saddened, indignant, angry, hopeless, hopeful, and did I mention angry? Maybe angry is too harsh a word, but over and over I thought, “Why won’t you talk about this? How dare you leave this out or cover this up! How can we hope to understand our past if we pick and choose what we will and won’t preserve?! How dare you!” Anyone else? (Mind, I am not sure who the ‘you’ necessarily is in every case). Has anyone else read or heard of A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn? Some of the stories of sites and histories covered in this book reminded me of his approach to sharing our past. While reading Zinn I was continuously angered and saddened as I discovered pieces of my past that were kept from me through a public education system that deemed them ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unimportant’. My reaction to most of the chapters in this book was similar, but I’m now angrier because these places and histories are supposed to be run by people who should know better! “Historians are custodians of the past; we are preservers and discoverers of the facts and stories of which people imagine their civic lives.” (Chapter 2, p. 34).

I thought Blight did an amazing job of truly outlining the difficulties of discussing slavery and managed to come to a great conclusion with those words. “‘If you don’t tell it like it was,’ he said, ‘it can never be as it ought to be.’ Whatever else we do about the legacies of slavery [or any topic] in our history, our institutions, or our lives, we can do no less than heed Fred Shuttlesworth’s plea.” (Ch. 2, p. 45). The chapter by Nash on the Liberty Bell gave me hope and highlighted an excellent, if trying and difficult, example of working in collaboration to tackle the hard topics of history. The fact that the NPS has a General Management Plan that calls for that collaboration raised my spirits. I really liked the quote from Kenneth Moynihan at the end of the chapter that stated, “an ongoing conversation that yields not final truths but an endless succession of discoveries that change our understanding not only of the past but of ourselves and of the times we live in.”

Chapter three, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue” caused a loud and rather heated outburst as I read about the research on history education. Did anyone else lose it there? Teachers with inadequate or no training in history?! The following percents of students were taught by teachers without even a minor in history: 88% in Louisiana, 83% in Minnesota, 82% in West Virginia, 81% in Oklahoma, 73% in Pennsylvania, and 72% in Kansas! WHAT?! How have we as a society, allowed sports to become more important than adequate education for our children? Do we believe that history is a secondary subject unworthy of our attention? I absolutely love the point this chapter makes about our failure to educate our youth. “Public education prepared children to think about slavery and race in ways consistent with the assumption of white supremacy built into twentieth-century American law and custom.” (p. 52). Recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere elucidate the fact that we are now reaping the consequences of this miss-education. “Gettysburg National Battlefield, for example, mentioned neither slavery nor slaves with regard to the war. Significantly, at that time Gettysburg was attracting almost two million visitors yearly. The pattern of ignoring slavery was widespread within the national parks.” (p. 54). As trivial (and possibly ironic given my statement about sports above) as it may seem, the reference that immediately popped in my head when I read this was a scene from Remember the Titans. One hundred years after the battle of Gettysburg, the fear and hatred and racism of slavery’s legacy separated adolescents before they knew one another. It still separates us and if we continue to refuse to engage in dialogue about the tough pieces of history, we will never learn and we will continue to fail our children.

P.S. I meant to put this on here too.

Embracing the hard topics

I devoured this book. Most readings in Graduate school focus on theory and methods, so when we get to read one that has a historical narrative, I get really excited. I also learned a lot in this reading! For example, although I knew that George Washington owned many slaves, I had never heard the individual stories of Oney and Hercules. I knew nothing about the Liberty Bell’s history, and very little about Thomas Jefferson’s exploits. I enjoyed each chapter, but I was most drawn to John Michael Vlach’s chapter about his collection of D.C. photographs at the Library of Congress.

As a high school history teacher, I am constantly faced with navigating taboo or uncomfortable subjects. Students love to talk about the hard stuff and they do not shy away from it (unlike many adults that I know). I found the tumultuous reception of “Back of the Big House” frustrating and confusing. At first, Vlach described the removal of the collection with only a cursory explanation of “there were cries of protest by a number of the library’s African American employees” and he failed to give any specifics about the reasons. I think he did this on purpose to convey the confusion and surprise that surrounded the removal. What was the problem? What were they protesting? I was shocked to later find out that the main complaint from those African American employees was that they did not want a reminder of their painful past in their less-than-perfect work environment. Because the complaint was racially charged, the library’s management removed the collection quickly, without considering the validity of the complaints.

I constantly strive for inclusion, tolerance, patience, and understanding of diverse backgrounds in my classroom. However, I do not shy away from hard topics and I’m surprised that the Library of Congress would do so. I really appreciated the  quote from Washington Post critic, David Nicholson, who said, “To deny slavery is to deny the suffering of those men and women who were powerless to prevent their bondage… (and the protesters at the Library of Congress were) using their ancestors’ suffering to extort concessions from a majority white institution; (essentially using) cultural blackmail.”

Slavery is a difficult topic to present and museums and institutions could easily mess it up. But ignoring it and shuttling it off to a dark basement is just as bad (if not worse!) than bad interpretations.

Lessons learned from Collective Memory

Reflections on Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory

James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton’s book is a balanced, and sobering, look at America’s most paradoxical reality: the nation was founded on principles of freedom, yet from the outset, many Americans engaged in slavery. More than this, the Horton book painted a picture of the societal angst that exists even in 2015 about race and the vestiges of slavery’s effects on all Americans – black, white, and otherwise, as we know from recent events such as Ferguson. I learned a lot about slavery from this book, especially because as a western American from mostly white states of Idaho and Nevada, I think we have been sheltered from the story of slavery. Every time I am in the east, I learn more deeply disturbing facts abut the reality of this horrible practice, and the scars that it left. This book puts it all out there and brings it into contemporary times, threading the huge job public historians have in interpreting difficult topics (“tough stuff”). There were so many truths about the interpretation of collective memory that I will write way too much on this!

– “The clash between memory’s ownership and history’s interpretation” was a recurrent theme. Who “owns” memory, and who has the right to interpret it? What is the “right” version of history, and does that change over time with historical time, distance, and perspective? Throughout the book, the issue arises of elected civic leaders, public institutions, federal/state/city agencies, universities, organizations and individuals all owning their truth and wanting to publicly state it through monuments, histories, exhibits, artifacts, tours, and commemorative events. How do we tell stories with widely divergent social memory? What stories do we tell, and where?

– The word “uncomfortable” appeared in this book almost as much as slavery. One way to move through uncomfortability is dialogue, not repression or avoidance of an issue – and certainly, not running off with an idea(s) created in a vacuum with a small circle of those “who know it best” to avoid dissent. Public historians have such a perfect opportunity to apply dialogue to projects, but as the books recounts, there are many examples of best-laid intent going terribly awry. This made me reflect on several interpretive projects I have been involved in. The best efforts were those that engaged dialogue amongst a wide circle of stakeholders right from the very beginning. That form of open and inclusive communications seemed to be the foundation for addressing difficult issues, and encouraged creativity by gaining multiple perspectives. Many of the book’s authors had first-hand experience as advisors to, assessors of, and employees of the US National Park Service. Oh my, if the NPS would have only applied some of those principles early on to some of the tales in this book…and learned not to work in a bubble where their “train had left the station” (alone).

– We need more of NPS’s Dwight Pitcaithely’s historian’s grounding and people skills, as well as his strong belief that public history is not to “make people feel good,” but rather …”to make people think (p. 86-87, Liberty Bell story). Also Gay Nash’s thoughts about revelation, provocation, demonstration of relationships, and collaboration to produce balanced, educational, and meaningful….(Liberty Bell story, again- Ch 5)

– Of side note: 2015 is the last year of the Civil War sesquicentennial. See the NPS site, and the different participants in sesquicentennial public history. Has the interpretation of the Civil War’s multicultural face made progress? I see on the home page alone lead stories: American Indians, Slave Trade and the US Constitution, “Bleeding Kansas” – free or slave state, and Hispanics in the Civil War. http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/index.htm

– Mia, I thought of your Minidoka work with the late John Hope Franklin’s quote about interpreting “sad places,” and the issues that appear in this book about of redemptive narratives, memorial landscapes, painful sites, “therapeutic history.” JHF: “The places that commemorate sad history are not places i which we wallow, or wallow in remorse, but instead places in which we may be moved to a new resolve, to be better citizens…Explaining history from a variety of angles makes it not only more interesting, but also more true. When it is more true, more people come to feel they have a part in it”(p. 216). Again, inclusion – not exclusion, separatism, allows us to touch the past. By the way, it is too bad Franklin passed away as his contributions would have been amazing for the Smithsonian’s long-awaited (since 2003), but soon-to-be-opened (2016), African American History and Culture Museum.

– Ira Berlin piece (Ch 1): thought-provoking information about slave names and the five generations. The thoughts align so closely with some Basque work I am doing, it was like being hit by a flash of light!…the very thought that names, a core construct of human identity, would be changed, obliterated is so degrading, and speak so directly to issues of control. I had no idea that many blacks were stripped of their surnames, or that they had to clandestinely use their African names amongst only themselves is the antithesis of humanity. I applied this to the Basque globalization and loss of Euskaldunak world-wide, but right in their own country under Franco’s control.

– David Blight’s Chapter 2 contained W.E. B. DuBois’ construct about seeing the past: memory and history (p. 23). I think that’s really helpful to apply to work we do today. It’s interesting to think about owning memory and reconstructing memory base don your personal, and then collective, experiences. love the quote from pg 25; “We’re writing histories of memory.” So true about history’s relationship to collective memory.

– Inadequate education, not only in our schools (Horton claims “This education must not remain on campus” (pg 43)… but in the need for public institutions and historic sites to educate was important. The real-life example of the “Back of the Big House” Library of Congress controversy that John M Vlach wrote about was just unbelievable to me. What lessons learned there! Both that story and the heritage tourism/redevelopment piece made me realize that controversy can most certainly can be heightened by current – not past – affairs. Examples: African American litigation about LOC and the Confederate flag ruling that both prompted huge contemporary conflict. Awareness of issues is a good first step to sensitizing oneself to possible issues that can be averted or dealt with in positive and non-divisive ways.

– The heritage tourism piece by Marie Tyler-McGraw (p. 515) forced me to think a lot about issues on the Basque Block: cultural narratives, commerce and history, the “cinematic,” outdoor spaces, dominant histories, ethnic niches, local relationships and civic support. It also stressed the importance of community planning and collaboration. Like this quote: “Heritage tourism can not be a pilgrimage to an unchanging shrine, and sites are going to be forums, not temples” (p. 167) Change through time is essential in public history; if we embrace change, we will do our jobs well for the public we are charged with serving.

– Lastly, the book hits the reality of Congressional and other elected bodies/individuals holding the power of the public. It is wise never to underestimate this, and to think about early involvement in elected officials who represent the public. It may increase initial controversy or difficult conversations due to differing perspectives, but in the end, it will serve to gain open communication and collaborative projects that embrace community diversity – and collective memory.

Another Attitude Adjustment

To be honest, I approached this book with a big chip of my shoulder.   I figured that the aim of the book was to ensure that every museum exhibit from here on out was served with a generous serving of guilt about transgressions of the past.

Slavery is such an emotional issue, but I never considered that it could be painful for the black community. The story about the “Back of the Big House” exhibit that caused workers of the Library of Congress to feel offense, gave me pause. I never realized that slavery was a topic that many African-Americans would like to skirt just as many from the white community would like to do.

I agree with the statement that there is a perpetuation of superficial knowledge about slavery in our society.  I know that in my History 10A class, which covers from English Settlement to the Constitution, the only mention of slavery is during the ½ day discussion on the Triangular Trade.   There are two problems – a lack of time, a lack of importance placed on the subject with curriculum writers, and lastly, the one mentioned in the book, is my own superficial knowledge. School textbooks are also trite in the mention of slavery – textbook companies go out of their way to avoid controversy.

In the chapter, “If You Don’t Tell It Like it Was, It Can Never Be As It Ought To Be,” a roundtable of historians asked African-American community leaders what message they would like to see in a museum about slavery. The answer was surprising.   Instead of a museum that wanted to punish the present about the past, they felt that museums about slavery should teach truth, but yet, ultimately give visitors a feeling of pride of heritage and a hope for the future.

Even though the book focuses mainly on how to address the topic of slavery in the south, the philosophy of creating museum exhibits that focus on those who have not had their histories told by the general populace in a truthful yet compassionate way can help create a new dialog of understanding between historically conflicting groups.