Thoughts on Readings: Ethical Dilemmas Part I

Similar to Ryan, this week’s readings caused my blood pressure to rise. It also brought up a lot of issues I have been discussing with other graduate students such as can we judge the actions of people in the past? I think people in the past should be held to standards similar to the ones that we use to judge people from the most recent past. I recognize that there is an important difference between understanding motives and judging actions. Motives of people in the past should be looked at objectively and perhaps with empathy…Now with that being said can we all please agree that slavery is bad!? Can we all recognize that slavery is still a very real problem in the world, and even in this country? If people are still celebrating the Confederate cause, how can we say that people who owned slaves were just a product of their distinct time and place? If these racist ideas continue to persist let’s not excuse them in either the past or the present. And why should the Vega article be shocking to any of us any more, when Mississippi just passed the 13th amendment this year! There is no way of knowing every individual reason for people’s participation in the Civil War, but folks should not ignore the prevalent ideology that was the framework of the Civil War, regardless of individual reasons such as “preservation” or circumstance.

Are these racist ideas being perpetuated by educators? Kevin Sieff’s piece was unbelievable. There seems to be a problem not with historians, per se, since the author of Our Virginia is not a historian, but with educators and school boards. Historians are often undervalued and under-appreciated, and there seems to be a misconception that anyone can produce sound historical research. This problem needs to be addressed if we are going to put an end to textbooks that espouse blatantly false historical information. When school boards and parents recognize what encompasses “good history” then fewer people will be compelled to listen to “bad history” (a few will still listen), and bad historians will increasingly become irrelevant.

Are the people discussed in Thompson’s article performing bad history, when they like so many others, are interpreting people in the past in a certain way to further their present cause? Probably, but people all over the political spectrum do the same thing.

The Cebula articles were both sad and humorous. In my experience interpreters are usually nice, retired people who feel they are above any sort of research, and feel overly confident in their knowledge; or they are severely underpaid for the work they are expected to do. Unfortunately, with what was presented in the response letter sent to Cebula, the reason for mis-information or blatantly withholding information seems to have more disturbing motives. The curator of the historic site definitely lets her racist flag fly, at the end of the letter, when she implies that Africans should be blamed for chattel slavery in the United States. Are you f—ing kidding me?! But she doesn’t stop there, um, I am pretty sure Greeks had slaves and oh, how very kind of your guides to leave issues of slavery out of the tour so as not to embarrass the black students. Again, are you f—-ing kidding me!? I think her true feelings are wrapped up rather succinctly in her statement that those black students, who she is so concerned for, “would start hating the messenger.” Trust me lady, black folks already know who is responsible for enslaving their ancestors.

At least this week’s readings ended on a semi-positive note, and an important question. Jeff Robinson asks, “How can historians and publics use the power of the past to catalyze social change?” However, in light of this week’s other articles, maybe we should ask- how can good historians and informed publics use the power of the past to catalyze social change to benefit humanity?

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