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.

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