Slavery and Public History

“American history cannot be understood without slavery” (Ira Berlin, 2).

In “Coming to terms with Slavery,” Ira Berlin shows how slavery became associated with black or dark skin, and how that dark skin accrued all the negative associations of slavery. From there, justifications were manufactured or found to justify keeping a person as property through racial theories of congenital inferiority ascribed to Africans by elites who had an economic and institutional stake in maintaining a system of human bondage. And as Berlin illustrates, these elites were the ones who created, interpreted and molded a system of government to ensure their privilege and liberty while denying it to others.

Because slavery is an unpleasant story, an accusatory story, a shameful story, it is a difficult historical conversation for both black and white people to have. Most white people refuse to acknowledge the accrued benefits of slavery to the nation’s development. Nor do we wish to see “white privilege” in society, another legacy of slavery that associated color with a dehumanized being, because it is unsettling, an unnerving dissonance inducing state of mind that demands an apology, a plea for forgiveness and atonement. Many Americans want to believe that slavery’s affects ended on a certain date, 1863, or 1964 or 2008 for sure. They believe it is ridiculous, deceptive, even race-hustling and excuse-mongering to insist that slavery casts a shadow over the US today.

Some of us who claim European origins can declaim the injustices, including ones that predate African slavery in the Americas, bitterly attributing the misery of our ancestors to a particular people, or country, that we still hold liable today for that suffering. That “ancient history” is still alive, still influences us, still informs our worldview yet we cannot accept that slavery still has an impact today. We look at our immigrant ancestors, attributing their and subsequent generations success to their (undoubted) hard work without admitting that by not being African they automatically had an advantage over people of color. As David Blight writes in “If You Don’t Tell it Like it Was,” modern nation states have “built or imagined” a past designed to strengthen and promote the nation by emphasizing commonalties through disinheriting inconvenient truths (24-5). He goes on to say that you cannot build a better, more just world, by forgetting the past.

I found it interesting to discover that many African-Americans are more reluctant to talk about slavery than white people. I assumed, as a white person, that it is easier for black people because the wrong was patently done to them. The moral high ground belongs to those who were enslaved and their descendants. Perhaps because slavery is such an intense, emotional, disturbing and painful concept for African-Americans many avoid it. I tried to imagine how I would feel if my grandfather’s grandfather had been owned. Would I be angry at white people or my ancestors or both, feel inferior or maybe superior to others, would I want to disassociate myself from my ancestors embarrassed by their servility, shamed and saddened by their condition? Or would I recognize their tenacious struggle to survive and create vibrant communities where they exercised as much agency as the situation allowed. In all, I found my thoughts complex, conflicted and even incoherent.   I can only imagine that many African-Americans must experience the gamut of emotions and thoughts about slavery.

In “The Last Great Taboo Subject,” John Michael Vlach’s experience with the Library of Congress illustrates the complexity of an exhibit about slavery. Some African-American staff complained that the display seemed to “celebrate” slavery while other’s projected their own disenchantment with their working conditions onto the images of white overseers driving slaves (62). The Library’s decision to cancel the exhibit also attests to the tensions between institutions of state and their problematic relationship to African-Americans. Perhaps the Library’s administration should have informed staff about the exhibit, and its author’s intentions to highlight the resilience of black people in the face of the evils of slavery, so they understood the exhibit’s objectives.

The crack in the Liberty Bell symbolizes the fault line between the American promise and what many people actually encounter. Maybe the crack is eponymous to what you must ingest in order to write “All men are created equal” while concurrently owning people. I learned in high school that Washington freed his slaves after his death. I didn’t hear about his efforts to chase down runaway slaves, which of course as a slave-owner you would do because of their value, it makes sense in a system where people are property. When visiting Washington’s Mount Vernon home I don’t remember hearing much about slavery just as Joanne Melish tells us was the case at My Old Kentucky Home historical site. Guides were told to refer to ‘servants’ and when a courageous guide lobbied to include information on the lives of slaves, his boss told him not to present an entirely negative view, but to say “something ‘positive’ about slavery” (117). For Melish this represents a “containment strategy,” a form of “denial,’ where slavery is ignored and divorced from sites where it was a central factor of history (115).

In “Southern Comfort Levels,” Marie Tyler-McGraw presents the impediments encountered when the history of marginalized groups clashes with the false narrative of the “Mint Julep” historians who rewrote the history of slavery and the Civil War. Likewise, Dwight Pitcaithley talks about the difficulties of interpretation on Civil War battlefields. How do you give slavery its place at these sites when generations of white Southerners, maybe all Americans, have been raised on lies? And why are some so opposed to even listening to a different version of events? Oral historian Anthony Buckley provides this explanation: “to dispel the ‘myths’ of history is to “attack the people who gain comfort and self-worth from these narratives.” As long as the truth about slavery, and its part in making the nation is denied or ignored there will always be generations of Americans who subscribe to the theory that slavery was a peculiar institution of the past, with no effects in the present.

The examples in the text show that if public historians are honest enough, and in many cases courageous enough, to engage the topic of slavery and discrimination in public spaces, that previously ignored people can find a voice for their story. It also makes the history of such places a more accurate depiction of what occurred and how we got to where we are today.

Letting Go? Part 2

Billy Yalowitz’s “The Black Bottom,” shows how powerful participatory history/art can be in bringing an abused community’s story to light. His project illuminates institutionalized racism and its lingering effects, while also showing how tenaciously that community has labored to stay connected. It is a common refrain from many white Americans that black people need to clean up the crime and dysfunction in their neighborhoods before they can get ahead in society. Yet here we have an example of a supportive community, where neighbors created a positive environment that promoted constructive behaviors, only for it to be destroyed by government connivance with a powerful wealthy interest group, the local university, in a policy of ‘Negro Removal’ (162). To demonstrate this history university students researched and wrote scripts, high school students acted, and former residents of the destroyed neighborhood were an interactive audience. In allowing the former residents ultimate veto power over any scene, Yalowitz demonstrated a commendable sharing of authority. He also raised concerns over appropriation of other’s stories, and who receives credit, fame, publicity and money from the story. Do movies or plays that highlight the plight of marginalized people, make money and generate fame for wealthy white directors/producers/writers with little benefit to those who are portrayed in the work of art? Double whammy! Not only did we profit by directly exploiting you, now we are profiting again by telling the story of your abuse and you get nothing! Was the university’s employment of Yalowitz, and its sanctioning of the project a form of reparations, as some former residents of the Bottom were asking for? Or was it “Reparations Light,” where a past wrong is acknowledged indirectly, a bronze memorial is erected and the institution feels no real financial pain. Along the same lines, the former residents were glad to have their story heard and genuinely appreciated Yalowitz and all the students’ efforts, but maybe this just makes the dominant group feel good that it has addressed an “issue,” it has listened to a recounting of its sins so its conscience is mollified, and it can happily go on its way without meaningful compensation.

I found Melissa Rachleff’s piece on Mining the Museum, in “Peering Behind the Curtain,” shocking! It is a naïve question but I will ask it anyway. How could a museum in a majority African American city, in 1992, have nothing about black people on display? 1882 or 1952 maybe, but 1992? I will say that it was brave of the museum and historical society to allow Fred Wilson, the exhibit’s designer, a freehand in resurrecting artifacts from the basement that attested to the injustices African Americans suffered. The juxtaposition of iron manacles alongside refined repousse silverware jarringly reminds one of the wealth that slave labor endowed on the owner of that human “property.” Wilson’s paucity of explanatory information engenders questions rather than answers. Is the artisan who made that silverware implicated in the crime of slavery for taking money for his work that was made on the backs of unfree people? Or perhaps a freeman made the silverware and a white business made the manacles? Maybe it underlines the hypocritical nature of humans: we can create art at the same time we can create shackles, akin to “all Men are created equal” rhetoric side by side with blatant discrimination. In one display, a picture that depicts African Americans, is titled by its 1797 sketcher as Preparations of the Enjoyment of a Fine Sunday among the Blacks, Norfolk, is retitled by Wilson as Richard, Ned and their Brothers, perhaps to give back the individuality and humanity associated with familiarity that is denied in anonymity.   In terms of participatory activities, this made me wonder if retitling works could be an interactive experience. For example, “Here is a work titled The Signing of the Declaration of Independence. If you were to retitle it what would you call it?” Have page sized stickers and markers available and place the stickers, filled in with a new title, on a board by the work so they could be seen. Visitors could not only retitle a work, but also vote for the best new title, and the wining new title would be displayed the following day while others would be removed. Each day a new winner would be crowned and the week’s winners could be displayed.

When Wilson was interviewed by Paula Marincola and Marjorie Schwartzer, one interviewee stated she went to school in Maryland and was “explicitly” informed that the state “never had slaves” (238). If the Maryland Historical Society had not historically ignored marginalized groups, presenting only a white narrative, perhaps a future teacher would have encountered artifacts that would have countered this falsehood, which was then passed onto another generation. Another good example of why it is important, a historiographical imperative, to question curatorial authority.

StoryCorps may deserve some of the criticism that academic historians level at it—its sentimentality and pathos that sometimes lurches toward bathos—but it does give a voice to ordinary people’s history rather than the traditional elite version of history. Friends who involuntarily grimace at the mention of the word “history,” relate how their Friday mornings are ruined if they miss StoryCorps. I asked the same friends if they thought what they heard on StoryCorps was history. The answer I got was “maybe sometimes,” but “not really, it is more about individual people’s lives.” When I asked why this wasn’t history, why a person’s story wasn’t history, my friends struggled to reply. I believe their inarticulateness on the subject relates to what has been defined as history for generations, and how we have learned what history is. StoryCorps may be imperfect but it is an attempt to listen to ordinary people, and by doing so it validates their stories as part of the country’s history just as elites’ stories have traditionally been.

Again, some academic historians probably shudder at the “power” of the “evocative” over the “merely informative” that Mary Teeling discovers in “Visiting Dennis Severs’ House” (321). She too, as a public historian worries about blurred timeframes and fake pieces, but she feels the overall effect outweighs the drawbacks.  Based on her experience I would agree.  A site like Severs’ House can do more to help us understand the influence of daylight and nighttime on the rhythm of life before electrification, than an academic work might.

The site is supposed to be updated soon, but there is still a lot of interesting information such as; what is expected of the “book” and reader, categories of books (everything from accountants to strippers), how to organize an event and feedback on previous humanlibrary events.













Letting Go?

The Human Library project (27-8), documented by Nina Simon, is intriguing.  Instead of checking out a book you review a list of stereotypes/prejudices and pick out one you hold, or are interested in understanding.  Then you are paired up with a person who represents the stereotype to talk about the stereotype/prejudice.  I wonder if anything like that has ever been organized here on campus?  I wonder how difficult it would be to organize.  Or maybe just a small/trial effort to see how much interest people would have in it.  Hmmmm.

I enjoyed Kathleen McLean’s recounting in “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?” of Oakland teenagers creating an exhibit in a counterpoint to an Orange County Museum of Art’s display.  Some “museum stakeholders” (73) denigrated the Oakland efforts as a ‘community exhibition’ (73) unworthy of serious attention or promotion.   However, as McLean tells us the exhibit was a big hit with visitors and parts of it were copied in a later exhibition.

Without being disrespectful (especially after reading Katrinaj’s sad news) to those who sacrificed, in all forms, I did wonder about the title the “Greatest Generation” for an exhibit.  I assume it was taken from Tom Brokaw’s book that was immensely popular in the late 1990s.  Of course, anyone could make a case for other generations and eras to be the greatest in our history, but it made me think more about the naming process, and how naming is a form of power, and can be a way to include and exclude, and a way to legitimize a cause or position.

Matthew MacArthur informs us of the advantages technology brings through digitizing, making a museum’s entire collection available online and searchable.  For him this helps remove the dictatorial power curators or trustees had in deciding what artifacts would, and would not be seen by the public.  It enables the visitor to choose what is noteworthy and of importance rather than blindly accepting someone else’s choice.  And perhaps one of the biggest benefits of technology is that digitizing facilitates encounters with museums and galleries that we could never visit in person.

If, since the 1960s we, or large sections of the country at least, have struggled to make history a more inclusive land, reflective of all people’s experience it follows that a similar struggle would play out in museums or spaces that display history.  Several of the authors in Letting Go? tout technology as the tool to fix “subaltern” (82) history where the “hegemonic” (61) version of history, expounded as “The One and Only Official and Correct History” is countered by demotic access and action through technology.  Steve Zeitlin believes technology is a “major democratizing force in American culture” (37) presumably bringing people closer together.  So how is it that history has seemingly become more inclusive, as the subject examples in the text show (African American, Chinese, immigrants, ordinary people, teenagers, women) though as always there is a lot of room for improvement, how is it as a country we are still stubbornly divided by color and class?  Isn’t part of the point of history to illuminate a shared past, a common bond and a mutual interest in flourishing together?  Or is that just giving some positivist or teleological character to history, wanting it to be a force of good in a very Enlightenment linear progression.  Maybe our national history and national narrative is not really inclusive.  Despite the efforts illuminated by the authors, perhaps overall we just pay lip service to the ideas of inclusive history, history from the bottom up, but in reality that is just a veneer to appease certain interest groups, or communities, or make us feel better about ourselves, and the version of history that still predominates is white, male, wealthy and Christian, and if you aren’t in those categories to a large degree, your story doesn’t count.  And if your story doesn’t count, you don’t count, so you are further marginalized and pushed away.