I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?
First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.
I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.
The National Council on Public History’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut has concluded. The theme of the conference was “repair work,” and I’ve left the conference with a lot of thoughts about the repair work needed in my own public history work and across the field more broadly. While many of the conversations taking place were continuations of ones that took place at previous conferences, I was pleased with the vast majority of the sessions I attended and thought the conference as a whole was solid. It was up there with NCPH 2016 in Baltimore as one of my favorites. What follows below is an attempt to put my thoughts into a cohesive summary.
“The Sage by the Side”
The concept of facilitated dialogue has become more and more popular among public historians who regularly design public programming at museums and historic sites. For several years already there has been an increasing awareness within the field that a “Sage on the Stage” approach to interpreting history has its shortcomings. Many of us better understand and appreciate the idea that people who visit these sites have their own contributions to make within the process of fostering historical understanding. Programming that does not invite active participation and discussion among all participants runs the risk of coming off as boring, meaningless, and irrelevant. Dialogue serves as a tool to promote historical understanding while also providing space for audiences to participate in meaningful exchanges with each other and with public historians. These exchanges offer the chance for all involved to learn how the past shapes the present and to take action towards improving our world today. The National Park Service has developed its own version of dialogue called “Audience Centered Experiences,” and I’ve been fortunate to have received a number of training workshops on the concept. I have used facilitated dialogue for about four years in a range of educational programming with k-12 students with success.
Having said all of this, I have become concerned about the ways dialogue is sometimes discussed within the field. In NPS trainings I’ve gotten the impression that dialogue is something that an interpreter can jump into relatively quickly; one needs to simply organize a few questions and maybe one or two interactive activities and then the discussion will take place from there. The impression is that effective interpreters should have no problem leading a dialogue; if you have interpretive skills, you can run an effective dialogue. After all, interpreters and public historians should function as a “Guide by the Side” rather than the “Sage on the Stage.” We facilitate, not dictate.
This approach runs the risk of privileging interpretive skills over the skills of a historian. It is concerning to me, for example, that the National Park Service has an interpretation division at each historic site it runs, but that park historians are becoming an extinct job title within the agency. Simply put, I believe an effective dialogue also requires content knowledge and not simply interpretive skills. After all, how does the dialogue move forward if there’s no historical content to give meaning and direction to the process? The “Guide by the Side” perspective gives short shrift to the knowledge and expertise of those who lead facilitated dialogues on historical topics. That’s why I was thrilled when Alice Baldridge of St. Mary’s College (who is actually a scientist) mentioned at the conference that she’s embraced the concept of “Sage by the Side.” This term perfectly encapsulates my current view towards dialogue as a teaching tool. As a facilitator I want to create an inclusive space for others to share their perspectives and to think anew about the world. But as a historian with training in both historical content and methodologies, I want to use my knowledge to inform the conversation in meaningful ways. I also want to use my position to create boundaries that correct misinformation about the past and protect those whose perspectives have historically been marginalized in spaces where public history takes place. Perhaps now more than ever, public historians need to assert their skills as interpreters, researchers, and communicators of historical knowledge. We can do that while also respecting other perspectives. Nevertheless it must be stated in clear terms that facilitated dialogue is not an easy concept and takes years to training and practice to do effectively. Thinking of myself as a “Sage by the Side” speaks to the skills I’ve acquired as both an interpreter and a historian.
Several NCPH sessions I attended focused on issues pertaining to words and language. Numerous archivists talked about the need to improve meta language and tags to make their collections more accessible and inclusive. For example, Anna Harbine of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture highlighted a single image in her collection of a Native woman from the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s. The photographer and the Library of Congress categorized the woman as an “Indian Princess” and her dress as a “costume,” highlighting the perspectives and prejudices of the collections managers at the time. Harbine and others offered an important reminder that a part of making collections accessible online (and making collections more inclusive) involves using language that is respectful of the people whose photos and artifacts make up a given collection.
The point was further reinforced in another panel on historic house tours. Matthew Champagne of North Carolina State University pointed out that many sites with LGBTQ histories often avoid any discussions of sexuality and how it influenced the people who lived in a given house. When the topic is discussed, inclusive and respectful language is important given the fact that people who were LGBTQ have historically been misdiagnosed as mentally unstable and deficient. He also correctly observed that discussions about the home life of historical actors have an inherent political nature to them, and that leaving out relevant conversations about sexuality from historic home tours is a political act. Lacey Wilson of the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters also stressed a point I’ve made on this blog numerous times about the importance of referring to “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” on historic home tours that discuss slavery.
In order to move the field forward, we have to use inclusive language that is respectful of historical actors and people of marginalized groups today.
Repairing Relationships and Trust
Several sessions and the Public Plenary in particular asserted the importance of trust in building relationships between public history sites and partner organizations. The public plenary focused on the establishment of Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford, and what Coltsville might be able to accomplish in providing history education and some sense of hope for a better future among community members in Hartford. In a community plagued by gun violence, poverty, and a lack of opportunity, several Hartford residents in the plenary expressed their wish to see Coltsville become a space for dialogue, education, and safety. I found it interesting to see so much hope placed into Coltsville, which came off to me as a subtle criticism of current historical sites in the city that have not acted as places for dialogue, education, and safety to many community members. Keeping in line with the theme of relationship-building and developing trust, I wonder if NCPH will do anything to follow up with Coltsville and the Hartford community moving forward.
Several attendees I spoke to afterwards complained that the expectations were being set too high for the National Park Service. After all, there are currently only two employees at Coltsville and little funding to go around, making any sort of outreach or educational initiatives very hard to pull off. This critique is fair. Any effective relationship between the NPS and the residents of Hartford should be based on fair expectations about what the NPS can deliver for the community and what the community can do to help the NPS. Empty promises will only lead to a fractured relationship and broken trust that would take a long time to heal. Nevertheless, I appreciated NCPH Executive Director Stephanie Rowe’s tweet reminding us that the plenary was about the wishes, hopes, and dreams of the community and not what public historians want. The point was made when an audience member, citing the Sandy Hook massacre, suggested during the plenary that Coltsville should focus on the actions of white men who committed acts of mass violence using guns rather than violence among African Americans in inner city communities. The Reverend Henry Brown forcefully responded by arguing that this line of thinking implied that the issues of poverty and violence within Hartford’s African American residents were secondary, and that this community could be forgotten within the narrative of gun violence as public historians chose narratives that suited their own interests. Point taken.
On the last day of the conference, I co-facilitated a working group with Allison Horrocks of the National Park Service about Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage in the 21st Century (you can learn more by visiting this website Allison and I built about this topic). I noted during the session that Tilden conceived the field of interpretation in gendered terms. He emphasized the importance of “interpreting the whole man,” celebrated “heroic” male soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, and generally assumed that men were the ones leading educational programming at cultural sites. Today the gender dynamics are completely reversed and women serve as important leaders within our field. The full-time staff at the NCPH central office are women, the majority of conference attendees were women, and most sessions I attended had panels that were majority-women or all women. I applaud these developments.
That NCPH is run by women does not make it immune to issues of sexual harassment and violence, however. On the first night of the conference I witnessed inappropriate sexualized comments from a man that were promptly reported to NCPH. On the last day of the conference a well-known scholar who presented at the conference announced on Twitter that she had left the field after years of sexual harassment from a prominent public historian who had previously won awards and held a place of high prominence within the organization. This abuse was enabled by the inaction of numerous other professionals who were aware of this person’s behaviors but turned a blind eye to them. I believed these complaints immediately when I read about them and so did a court of law, which ruled that a financial settlement was due to the complainant.
This year’s conference featured a session about sexual harassment in public history and a discussion about the Me Too movement. The NCPH Code of Conduct was also recently updated to take a firmer stance against sexual harassment, and the organization sent an email to all members after the conference pledging its willingness to do as much as possible to offer support to victims and prevent these sorts of behaviors from occurring the future. I applaud all of these efforts, but the events of NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that more is needed to be done.
I do not propose to have concrete solutions to these issues. I am more interested in listening, learning, and doing whatever I can to offer support rather than talking. I simply hope that practitioners in the field take proactive steps to police their own behaviors (and those of others) and provide support to victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and predatory behavior. For women in the field who work in a public-facing role, the problem is twofold. Much like other service industries, many public historians must contend with the culture of their workplace and the culture of visitors who come into these sites with their own standards of decency, not all of which are good. Even if a staff is fully trained and prepared to combat sexual harassment among colleagues, a visitor can come in and treat staff terribly and do so without consequences if the rest of the staff doesn’t police the situation. Every day at historic sites around the country there are programs taking place where a single individual is taking a tour with an interpreter who could possibly face harassment and predatory behavior from that visitor. Strategies should be implemented at every cultural site that ensure all staff are placed in safe situations when interacting with members of the public and other colleagues.
Our field is not perfect, and NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that we must do more than simply repair the narratives and content of our programming. We must continually strive to repair ourselves, our practices, and the workplace culture within our field.
Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.
Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.
Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.
Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.
It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:
Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?
Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.
The Missouri Humanities Council publishes a magazine twice a year that is full of insights into the work of various humanities organizations in the state. Each issue also features a number of articles on Missouri history. For the Fall/Winter 2018 issue, Executive Director Steve Belko wrote an article entitled “Reflections on the Humanities: Letter from the Executive Director” (56-60) that focused mostly on the life and actions of reformer Henry Schoolcraft during Missouri’s early years of statehood in the 1820s. At the end of the article, however, Belko states the following:
In the end, Schoolcraft’s scheme was for naught, as the Missouri Question permanently ended the emancipation movement [in Missouri], and massive bloodshed would ultimately settle the question of slavery. Ironic, it is not, that massive bloodshed ultimately resolved the Indian Question as well. And we can, arguably, attribute the resolution of both questions to a single individual–Ulysses S. Grant–as general and president. Hence, the bicentennial of our statehood and of the start of Schoolcraft’s professional career, in Missouri, coincides with the start of the sesquicentennial of the Grant administration, which, as a sequel to civil war, oversaw the destruction of the freemen’s civil rights and the culture of the American Indian. Still, neither tragic event–civil war nor Indian war–ever resolved the issue of race.
Those comments got my attention, to say the least. Letters to the editor were encouraged, so I decided to write a response a few weeks ago. Here is what I stated:
“Dear Dr. Belko,
My name is Nick Sacco. I read your recent essay with the Missouri Humanities Council about Henry Schoolcraft with much interest. While I enjoyed the essay as a whole, I was taken aback by some of your comments about Ulysses S. Grant in the concluding paragraph of the essay. If my reading of your arguments is correct, you state that:
1. “Massive bloodshed” resolved both the question of slavery and the “Indian Question.”
2. The resolution of both of these questions can be attributed to the actions of Ulysses S. Grant both as Union General (slavery) and as president (Indians).
3. Grant’s presidency oversaw the destruction of both black civil rights and Indian culture, the primary responsibility of which falls solely on Grant’s lap.
While I certainly agree with number one in regards to slavery, I take exception to your rather simplistic interpretation of Grant’s role in arguments two and three. As a basic matter of historical interpretation, it is a reach to attribute major world-changing events to the actions of a single individual. For example, contemporary historians have rightly shied away from previous interpretations of Abraham Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator” given the numerous other forces–the Union Army that Grant was a part of who conquered new territories and established contraband camps as the war became one to end slavery, enslaved blacks who resisted enslavement and took actions to aid the Union war effort, antislavery politicians and reformers, and even Jefferson Davis and the Confederates in overplaying their hand by attempting to secede–that also played a role in ending slavery. Grant evolved in his attitudes towards slavery during the Civil War and did in fact come to embrace emancipation and black enlistment in the U.S. military. But it is a stretch to attribute the end of slavery to Grant.
Likewise, it is not fair to attribute the resolution of the “Indian Question” to Grant. In fact it would be fair to argue that the “Indian Question” has never been resolved given the continued rates of poverty and suicide among American Indians, particularly ones living in reservations, that remain some of the highest in the country today (a somewhat similar argument could be made about African Americans in contemporary society). Here again, a multitude of forces contributed to ongoing conflicts with the various Indian nations during Grant’s presidency that cannot be whittled down to the actions of one person.
Your third argument is also questionable. Grant is not the primary person responsible for the destruction of the freepeople’s civil rights during Reconstruction. Grant supported the various Reconstruction Amendments and repeatedly called upon the white south to live in harmony with the freedpeople. He called for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, helped establish the Department of Justice to fight the Ku Klux Klan, and consistently decried violence at the polls and terroristic massacres of the freedpeople throughout the south. The Grant administration, if anything, was criticized by both Democrats and conservative Republicans for going TOO far in prosecuting the KKK, which in turn led Grant to back away from military intervention in most cases after 1872, although his rhetoric criticizing racial violence continued. Once again, a combination of other forces–growing northern apathy to Reconstruction, an anti-Grant Liberal Republican political movement that called for an end to military intervention in the south during the 1872 election, continued resistance from the white south via violence and fraud at the polls, an economic depression in 1873, anti-Reconstruction Democratic victories in the 1874 midterm elections, Supreme Court decisions like United States v. Cruikshank that hobbled federal enforcement efforts–all coalesced to push Reconstruction towards its end. It is also noteworthy that when Grant’s name was thrown around for a possible third term in 1880, the most vocal supporters of that effort were black politicians–including those who were members of the “Immortal 306” who stood by Grant at the 1880 Republican National convention–who believed Grant was the best candidate to reestablish federal efforts at protecting black civil rights. Why would they support someone who they believed had destroyed their civil rights?
To be sure, I take a much more negative view of Grant’s Indian Peace Policy. While Grant acknowledged that the Indian nations of the west had historically been “put upon” (Grant’s words) by whites, his policy essentially called for the nations to be imprisoned in reservations, stripped of tribal sovereignty, and forced to assimilate into white Anglo-Saxon Christian society or else. The Peace Policy was, in my view, a form of cultural genocide. But again, putting the sole responsibility of destroying American Indian culture squarely on Grant’s shoulders is not only unfair but also diminishes both past and future conflicts over the role of Indians in American society. The various nations who continued to survive long after Grant left the White House were undoubtedly devastated by other federal actions such as when the Dawes Act of 1887 was passed and episodes like the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 continued to occur. I might also add that not all Indian nations held the same view about Grant’s Indian policies. For example, the Choctaw Nation actually took the step of giving Grant a peace medal and thanking him for his efforts at peace when he left office. Some nations embraced assimilation while others–particularly the Sioux–resisted Grant’s efforts. Grant also relied on Seneca Indian Ely Parker to serve as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the beginning of his presidency and considered Parker a trusted confidant when it came to Indian policy. These details do not diminish or excuse the real hardships the various nations faced during Grant’s presidency or the fact that many historians look upon this aspect of his presidency in a negative light, but it does complicate the narrative by demonstrating that the Indian nations were not of one mind about Grant’s policies.
In both cases, claiming that Grant alone destroyed black civil rights and American Indian culture and that these questions were “resolved” diminishes the efforts of blacks and Indians who continued to resist their oppression and fight for their civil rights after 1877 by subtly erasing them from the narrative. It also leaves out the actions of future presidential administrations who had to deal with these same unresolved questions throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20 century.
I am not sure what resources you used in drawing your conclusions about Grant, but Charles Calhoun’s recent book on Grant’s presidency is the most comprehensive study of its kind and a necessary corrective to the common perception that Grant’s presidency was a complete and utter failure, particularly when it came to black civil rights.”
Every year the American Historical Association hosts its conference right at the beginning of January. It’s always hosted in a major city and is always very expensive to attend. The conference is huge and I have no doubts about the positive benefits of attending, particularly the networking opportunities it provides. The organization definitely caters to historians working in an academic setting, however, and the combination of high expenses and my job outside the academy has prevented me from attending their annual meeting.
There’s a longstanding tradition in academic history of interviewing potential candidates for professorships during the AHA meeting. What more or less happens is that history PhDs who are on the verge of finishing their degree begin looking for job opportunities in the academy and are instructed to attend the AHA to do face-to-face interviews with history departments. Sometimes the interviews take place in what’s called the “cattle call,” which I assume is a large room with tables set up throughout where prospective candidates can meet their interviewers, but sometimes they take place in areas such as hotel rooms, which seems like a recipe for discomfort at the least and sexual/mental abuse of the prospective candidate at the worst. The prospective candidates have no guarantees that they’ll leave the conference with a job offer. Many end up leaving empty-handed and thousands of dollars poorer than they were before the conference.
When I was in grad school a few years ago I was appointed by the history department to be the student representative on a search committee tasked with hiring a tenure-track professor of digital humanities and history. We did the right thing from the very beginning. One or two professors asked about meeting the top candidates at the next AHA meeting, but the rest of the committee quickly shot down that idea. We began by sorting through roughly 50 applications and picking our top six candidates. From there we decided that it would be best to interview those six candidates individually through a Skype call so that these candidates would not have to travel to AHA to do what we could do in thirty minutes with a video conference call. When we whittled the list down to two candidates, the university paid for those finalists to travel on separate days to campus for a tour and a face-to-face interview with the search committee. From there the rest was, as they say, history.
The option we went with was arguably better for the department and for those who applied for this opening. Video conferencing enabled the search committee to stay on campus and conduct their interviews in a timely fashion. For prospective candidates, their time and money was saved. For the two finalists, their travel expenses were covered by the university, who should have covered them anyway because the institution was in need of a highly talented historian to join the department in the first place.
I suppose this long-standing tradition of forcing people to go to AHA for a job interview continues in part out of habit and in part because it gets people to AHA, which helps justify the expense of putting together this annual conference. To be sure, some prospective candidates are perfectly willing to attend AHA and have the means to do so, and it could very well be most convenient for both parties to hold their interview at AHA under some circumstances. But history departments looking to hire should not force prospective candidates to attend AHA for their interview, nor should they defray the costs of conducting a job search to those looking for jobs, particularly when they are recent PhD grads in a poor position to take on those costs. This practice should be discouraged by both AHA and history departments around the United States. Some of us in public history were very vocal last year about the continued posting of unpaid internships and job postings without salary information on public history jobs pages. Through those efforts we were able to get several organizations to discontinue the former and strongly discourage the latter. The time has now come to push for an end to mandatory AHA job interviews someday.
To these antiquated history departments I welcome them to join the rest of the working world who use modern technology to conduct interviews and hire qualified candidates for jobs. Welcome to the 21st Century!
I am a member of a Facebook group called “St. Louis, Missouri: History, Landmarks and Photos.” As the title suggests, it’s a fun community where people can share pictures, thoughts, and reflections on the city’s history.
Or so I thought.
Someone recently shared a photo of a blackface performance from the 1920s in Webster Groves, a well-to-do area just outside the St. Louis city limits. After all, the photo is historic and it depicts something that is a part of St. Louis history, whether we like it or not. One would think the photo meets the standards of this group. But alas, the commenters had a firestorm. Why is this outrageous photo being shared?! Why do we have be exposed to this painful history? Why do we have to talk about the bad parts of St. Louis history? As one critical commenter later stated, “Sorry, I joined this group for history and vintage photos, architecture and STL neighborhoods – NOT for any ‘enlightened exchange’ [about the political aspects of history.]” The photo was quickly removed by administrators.
Listen, I get it. We don’t always have to harp on the bad parts of history and for the most part this group is one of the few positives experiences I get from using Facebook these days. But when the controversial aspects of history are removed from the overall story, it is better to simply call the group “St. Louis, Missouri: Landmarks and Photos.” If you enjoy looking at old photos but not studying the people, culture, and context of the time in which the photos were taken, you are engaging in nostalgia, not history.
One might wonder why people interested in a Facebook group such as this one wouldn’t want to learn more about the larger context of the city’s history, but I would contend that many of the blackface photo’s critics were precisely not interested in learning about or having a discussion about history. They are there to practice nostalgia. They are there to talk about their personal childhood experiences and re-live the good old days before the neighborhood went into “decline.” They want to see fancy old homes and neighborhoods but don’t want to discuss the humans who built them or the humans who live in those areas today. To talk about the experiences of, say, an African American who endured the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial discrimination during the “good old days” is nothing but a distraction and an effort to make the past political. Anything outside of mainstream history is a controversy. Please leave out the enlightened exchanges!
(I also note that the some of the same critics who objected to one blackface photo on a social media page because it was “painful” were demanding a few years ago that the St. Louis Confederate Monument remain in Forest Park “because it’s history.”)
This experience reinforced the importance of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 2000 book The Presence of the Past. After surveying 1,500 people the authors concluded that the foundation for historical understanding starts with the personal. As they discuss in the introduction, “people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future.” The challenge for historians, therefore, lies in working with their many publics to demonstrate how fitting personal experiences into a larger context–using an entire body of evidence to make an informed interpretation about the past–is how history is created.
The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has been a double-edged sword for historical understanding. On the one hand, people now have an almost limitless access to information. The contents of the past–letters, diaries, newspaper articles, historical photos–can be found with great abundance in places like the above Facebook group. On the other hand, are we really learning anything new? What do people do with the knowledge they acquire at these places? Do they go to the local library to check out a book about St. Louis history, or does the information contained in a particular post evaporate as soon as the viewer logs off of Facebook? The internet can be a place of knowledge accumulation, but it can also be a place that is quite the opposite. I suppose this is all to say that I hope historians and public historians will someday collaborate to research and publish a new edition of The Presence of thePast for the digital era.
Over the past year I’ve been trying my best to dig into the historical record and learn something new about William Jones, the man enslaved by Ulysses S. Grant for a period of time right before the Civil War. I recently shared those findings in my latest post for the The Journal of the Civil War Era’s “Muster” blog. You can read it here.