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.