A few months ago I was interviewed by the website Mental Floss about working for the National Park Service. The finished article went live a few days ago and I was quoted a few times, including an anecdote about one of the most memorable tours I’ve ever given. You can read it here. Enjoy!
The Junior Ranger Program is one of the most successful education initiatives the National Park Service has ever rolled out. Kids of all ages work on activity books as they go through a particular unit of the Park Service and, upon completion, get a Junior Ranger badge modeled after the badge that we park rangers wear on our uniforms. Almost every unit of the NPS participates in the program by creating their own unique educational activities. Some Junior Rangers may only go to one, two, or five parks during their youth, but others collect literally hundreds of badges. It’s a nice program that provides a chance for kids to learn about national parks, and I work really hard to provide an enjoyable learning experience for Junior Rangers who go on my tours.
One of the Junior Ranger activity books that we offer at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site includes a page where Junior Rangers are required to interview a Park Ranger. One of the interview questions is the following:
Which NPS value is most important to you? Why?
Caring for People
Caring for Places
Caring for Nature
I have thought a lot about this question and what my answer to it would be.
There are now currently 412 units of the National Park Service. Some of those places teach us about nature, wildlife, and the importance of protecting natural resources, while others tell us stories about our history and the importance of understanding the past. Some of the best sites find ways to incorporate lessons about both in their interpretive programming. Each NPS unit has a unique story. Some of those stories–ones the remind us of the wrongs of slavery, Indian removal, Japanese internment during World War II, the horrors and bloodshed of war–expose our country’s shortcomings and faults, forcing us to remember that there is much work to do in striving to create a more equal society that promotes liberty for all. Other stories remind us of the natural beauty of our country and the possibility of a better tomorrow that learns from and avoids the pitfalls of the past.
But while caring for places and nature is definitely important, the most important value to me, by far, is the importance of caring for people. What’s the point of taking care of a historic place or a natural wonder if nobody came to visit that place? How successful would the National Park Service be in executing its mission of preserving and providing access to America’s natural and cultural treasures if caring for people wasn’t the first priority? It is only when we care for people first and foremost–both the people who visit and the employees who dedicate their lives to this work–that we’re in a better position to care for historic places and natural wonders.
I have worked full-time for the National Park Service for two years and throughout my life I’ve visited probably 25 or 30 units of the NPS throughout the country (I’ve got a lot of work to do still). I love visiting every site, whether big or small, historic or scenic. My passion for history and the discovery that I could possibly find work educating people about history outside of a traditional classroom inspired me to give up my efforts to become a high school history teacher and pursue a career with the Park Service. It was an amazing feeling when the Grant site in my native St. Louis offered me a full-time job, and my role as a steward of the NPS and American history is not something I take lightly. That love of history initially drove me to the NPS, but it’s the people I interact with on a daily basis at my job and the people I meet during my own travels that make the NPS special to me. It’s the friendships I’ve made and the thoughtful people I’ve met from all over the country who inspire me to put on the green and gray uniform every working day and strive to do a better job tomorrow. I’ve given tours to TV personalities and NFL football players but also eight graders from Ferguson, senior citizens enjoying a life of retirement, and hard-working everyday people of all ages and backgrounds whose desire to learn from and enjoy NPS sites inspires them as they traverse thousands of miles around the country to find each unique place.
The NPS has its challenges going forward. We need to be a more inclusive place, both in our visitation and in our hiring practices. Not every day on the job is a great one. Working with the public can sometimes be a double-edged sword, like those times when a kids yells and screams during a tour or when I’m told by a visitor that my understanding of history is “completely wrong.” I have hopes for moving up the NPS career ladder, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen right now. Working any job for 40 hours a week is bound to be mentally grinding and monotonous at times. But the people I meet on a daily basis make my job a special one; the visitors who share their stories with me and take my tours; my co-workers who make my work environment a pleasant one and who challenge me to be a better historian and educator; those moments when a visitor smiles and says “I learned something new today.” That’s what the National Park Service is all about.
Here’s to another 100 years of preserving America’s natural and cultural resources.
It’s reassuring to know that there are enlightened people like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson who are in positions of power and have the ability to set education policy in this country.
Senator Johnson says that the “tenured professors in the higher education cartel” are working to keep college costs high and not doing enough to embrace digital technology like Blue-Ray discs, the internet, and the world wide web in the classroom – a classroom that he believes should have fewer teachers and replaced with what he calls “destructive technology.”
Johnson: We’ve got the internet – you have so much information available. Why do we have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to the knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system.
WISPOLITICS: But online education is missing some facet of a good –
Johnson: Of course, it’s a combination, but prior to me doing this crazy thing [of being in the Senate] . . . I was really involved on a volunteer basis in an education system in Oshkosh. And one of the things we did in the Catholic school system was we had something called “academic excellence initiative.” How do you teach more, better, easier?
One of the examples I always used – if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.
Where do you even start with this nonsense?
- Digital technology–more specifically education technology–is not a panacea that automatically enhances classroom learning. In 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” That “revolution,” of course, never came about, partly because any sort of technology used in the classroom is merely a tool for achieving the larger goal of learning. Technology is not an end in and of itself, and watching a documentary is no more effective than listening to someone drone on forever in the front of a classroom. It’s how you use those tools that matters, and the best teachers put a range of tools–from pens and pencils to computers and tablets–to work in fostering a positive learning environment.
- Jonathan Rees has blogged for several years about MOOCs and ed tech and has a book coming out on the subject. Mr. Johnson ought to read it.
- Ken Burns is a wonderful filmmaker and producer, but his PBS series is not the definitive word on the history of the American Civil War. It’s been twenty-plus years since the documentary came out. It is dated and has a few questionable interpretations. Again, teaching history or any subject doesn’t mean popping in a movie and having students take notes. Pairing the documentary with other works of scholarship–written and on film–and analyzing how historians have interpreted the war and constructed narratives about the history of the war is a better start. Having students learn from a trained professional how to find, analyze, and interpret primary sources…that’s also a good start. And having a teacher facilitate dialogue through guided questions or some other thoughtful activity after the film holds more potential for learning than watching a video from “a solid lecturer” after watching a fourteen-hour documentary.
- Ron Johnson sounds like he hasn’t stepped foot in a college in forty years. Tenure basically doesn’t exist for most young faculty members anymore. The “higher education cartel,” if any such thing exists, has bought into Senator Johnson’s rhetoric and has actively worked to implement austerity measures while relying more on part-time contingent faculty, especially since the 2008 recession. College doesn’t consist of professors constantly lecturing their students anymore. Higher education is not an Orwellian propaganda machine where students read Das Kapital and dream about Cultural Marxism all day and then party all night. We should be investing more in public education rather than advocating for “destructive technology” or busting up some make-believe “higher education cartel.”
You can’t make up this stuff up.
The famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a fierce critic of the idea of scholarly “objectivity.” As Brandon Byrd points out in an excellent essay for the African American Intellectual History Society, Du Bois’s status at the turn of the twentieth century as a black professor at Atlanta University in the Jim Crow South exposed him to the necessity of fusing “scholarship and struggle . . . social analysis and social transformation” to remake American society upon the ideals of social and political equality and equal protection of the laws. Indeed, Du Bois understood long before most of his academic contemporaries that claims of “objectivity” and being “cool, calm and detached” in one’s work run the risk of merely being a rhetorical claim to unwarranted power and authority and the maintenance of the scholarly status quo.
Byrd’s essay reminded me of another work from the Du Bois canon: a chapter from his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) entitled “The Propaganda of History.” Historians correctly cite Black Reconstruction as a landmark publication in the historiography of Reconstruction scholarship. In a time when the Dunning School of though argued that Reconstruction was a complete failure and that the effort to enfranchise black men and engage in bi-racial governance after the Civil War was a mistake, Du Bois provided comprehensive statistical analysis and primary source evidence to argue that Reconstruction was actually an era of great civil rights achievements and remarkable evolution in both economics and legal practices in the United States.
Black Reconstruction is also a remarkable achievement, however, because it probes the philosophical depths of the historical enterprise itself. Is history a science or art? How do people remember the past over time, and how do those memories shape the way we understand history? Can a nation collectively write its own history in an objective fashion? In the chapter “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois argues that the history of Reconstruction taught in schools throughout the country at that time had been largely incorrect–even based on lies–because its authors were white supremacists who were “objective” in name only and because the United States was “ashamed” of its Civil War history. “The Propaganda of History” is a really remarkable essay for its time and I believe it still resonates today. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy!
“How the facts of American history have in the last half century been falsified because the nation was ashamed. The South was ashamed because it fought to perpetuate human slavery. The North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and established democracy.
What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? . . . [A]n American youth attending college today would learn from current textbooks of history that the Constitution recognized slavery; that the chance of getting rid of slavery by peaceful methods was ruined by the Abolitionists; that after the period of Andrew Jackson, the two sections of the United States “had become fully conscious of their conflicting interests. Two irreconcilable forms of civilization . . . [with] the democratic . . . in the South, a more stationary and aristocratic civilization.” He would read that Harriet Beecher Stowe brought on the Civil War; that the assault on Charles Sumner was due to his “coarse invective” against a South Carolina Senator; and that Negroes were the only people to achieve emancipation with no effort on their part. That Reconstruction was a disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule . . .
In other words, he would in all probability complete his education without any idea of the part which the black race has played in America; of the tremendous moral problem of abolition; of the cause and meaning of the Civil War and the relation which Reconstruction had to democratic government and the labor movement today.
Herein lies more than mere omission and difference of emphasis. The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists. We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans. The editors of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica asked me for an article on the history of the American Negro. From my manuscript they cut out all my references to Reconstruction. I insisted on including the following statement:
White historians have ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption. But the Negro insists that it was Negro loyalty and the Negro vote alone that restored the South to the Union; established the new democracy, both for white and black, and instituted the public schools.
This the editor refused to print, although he said that the article otherwise was “in my judgment, and in the judgment of others in the office, an excellent one, and one with which it seems to me we may all be well satisfied.” I was not satisfied and refused to allow the article to appear.
War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led. And so, first of all, we minimized the slavery controversy which convulsed the nation from the Missouri Compromise down to the Civil War. On top of that, we passed by Reconstruction with a phrase of regret or disgust.
But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth? If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.
If, on the other hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.
It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is “lies agreed upon”; and to point out the danger in such misinformation. It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action. Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?
Here in the United States we have a clear example. It was morally wrong and economically retrogressive to build human slavery in the United States in the eighteenth century. We know that now, perfectly well; and there were many Americans North and South who knew this and said it in the eighteenth century. Today, in the face of new slavery established elsewhere in the world under other names and guises, we ought to emphasize this lesson of the past.
Moreover, it is not well to be reticent in describing that past. Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center. The difference of development, North and South, is explained as a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law.
One reads, for instance, Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved. Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash, as winds and water strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today.
Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of this story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in the fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted or half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific? Or, to come nearer the center and climax of this fascinating history: What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned? Shall we accept the conventional story of the old slave plantation and its owner’s fine, aristocratic life of cultured leisure? Or shall we note slave biographies, like those of Charles Ball, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass; the careful observations of Olmsted and the indictment of Hinton Helper? . . .
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
No one reading the history of the United States during 1850–1860 can have the slightest doubt left in his mind that Negro slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and yet during and since we learn that a great nation murdered thousands and destroyed millions on account of abstract doctrines concerning the nature of the Federal Union. Since the attitude of the nation concerning state rights has been revolutionized by the development of the central government since the war, the whole argument becomes an astonishing reduction ad absurdum, leaving us apparently with no cause for the Civil War except the recent reiteration of statements which make the great public men on one side narrow, hypocritical fanatics and liars, while the leaders on the other side were extraordinary and unexampled for their beauty, unselfishness and fairness . . .
This, then, is the book basis upon which today we judge Reconstruction. In order to paint the South as a martyr to inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in the whole development, we have in fifty years, by libel, innuendo and silence, so completely misstated and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to its work and government that today it is almost unknown. This may be fine romance, but it is not science. It may be inspiring, but it is certainly not the truth. And beyond this it is dangerous. It is not only ideals; it has, more than that, led the world to embrace and worship the color bar as social salvation and it is helping to range mankind in ranks of mutual hatred and contempt, at the summons of a cheap and false myth.”
What is the Appropriateness of Living History Programs that Feature Actors Portraying Enslaved People?
One of the most powerful living history programs I have ever participated in is Conner Prairie Interactive History Park’s “Follow the North Star.” Located in Fishers, Indiana, Conner Prairie is a popular award-winning history park with strong leadership and innovative programming. “Follow the North Star” is one of the park’s most popular programs and is probably its most polarizing. Set in 1830s Indiana, visitors who participate in the program are designated as runaway enslaved people from Kentucky seeking help along the Underground Railroad towards eventual freedom in Canada. As a participant I was screamed at and belittled by reenactors portraying racist white Hoosiers, and ultimately I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of the program. “Follow the North Star” was powerful not in the sense that I felt happy or inspired at the end. It was powerful because it was an emotionally draining yet memorable experience that, in my own weird way of wanting to read more about American history when I learn about its most oppressive aspects, pushed me to learn more about the relationship between slavery and race and the depths of white Northern racism in the nineteenth century. In that sense the program was a success for me.
In an essay I wrote about the future of historical reenacting last year I cited “Follow the North Star” as a case study for future living history programs, many of which I currently find boring, uninspiring, and forgettable. In particular I was impressed with the way the program’s organizers undertook comprehensive research prior to going live and how they developed mandatory pre– and post-program activities that allowed people a space to prepare for what they were about to undertake and then mentally decompress afterwords. “Follow the North Star” has won several prestigious awards and was one of the first among several other programs over the past twenty years at public history sites that include actors portraying enslaved people in first- and third-person portrayals. Among other programs during this time, James and Lois Horton’s Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of Public History briefly discusses a 1994 slave auction reenactment at Colonial Williamsburg, renactors like Azie Mira Dungey (most popularly known through her Ask a Slave series) regularly interact with visitors at places like Mount Vernon and Monticello, and another slave auction took place in St. Louis at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s Old Courthouse in 2011 (reactions here and here to that event). I’m sure there are other similar events I’m missing.
“Follow the North Star” and other programs that feature renactors portraying enslaved people are far from perfect, however. The Indianapolis Star recently wrote a largely negative critique of the program, and after reading it a few times I think most of these critiques are fair. Among the problems journalist Olivia Lewis discusses are:
- The idea, as expressed by IUPUI professor Lori Patton Davis, that no reenactment whatsoever can truly convey the horrors and tragedy of slavery.
- That “Follow the North Star” diminishes the violence of slavery, with one student interviewed in the article going so far as to say that it made “a mockery of…the actual severity of things.”
- That the experience of role-playing as an enslaved person is a potentially traumatic experience for participants, particularly young people of color.
- That pre- and post-program activities need to focus on making connections between slavery and race, institutional racism, white supremacy, and racism in American society today, topics that are not always discussed among program leaders, school teachers, and students throughout the process.
I am sensitive to these critiques, particularly the potential for “Follow the North Star” being a traumatic experience for people of color, and I can understand how these sorts of programs could be perceived not merely as offensive but actually hurtful. Point four is difficult to define in precise terms because it’s one thing to make connections between past and present and another thing entirely to turn those connections into concrete actions through policy and/or changed behavior and social practices. I agree that the former is necessary, but there’s lots of room for debate on the appropriate measures for the latter step. I don’t have all the answers for that part of the equation.
But let’s backtrack to point one, the idea that in Dr. Davis’s words, “There were gruesome things that happened to people, black people, and there’s no amount of [historical] re-enactment that can help you understand the tragedy that slavery was.” Is there merit in this point? Should public history sites refrain from historical re-enactments that feature actors portraying enslaved people?
One argument to support this point is the idea that other traumatic events such as Indian removal and the Holocaust are not taught to students through historical reenactment. A lawyer quoted in the Indianapolis Star article takes this position, and my good friend and fellow public historian Nicholas K. Johnson took the same position as well. In a phone conversation with Nick he commented that “[I] find slavery reenactments gross. I feel that they are a step on the road to a Dachau reenactment (slippery slope, I know).” He added that “I find living history hokey and fake a lot of the time.”
But what about the good work of slave reenactors and dramatic performers like the aforementioned Azie Mira Dungey and Michael Twitty, whose living history performances focus on the experiences and foodways of enslaved people? Do public history sites that interpret slavery lose a bit of their educational appeal by eschewing living history performances that feature actors portraying enslaved people?
I think one of the big distinctions here is that “Follow the North Star” attempts to recreate something that really can’t be recreated, and in the process runs the risk of hurting people emotionally. And the process of historical role-playing as an enslaved person is at the very least extremely jarring and at its worst completely hurtful and traumatic. A dramatic performance by someone portraying an enslaved person doesn’t necessarily attempt to do the same thing or force participants to role play as slaves. A dramatic performance, however, isn’t without its own pitfalls and requires the performer to undertake extensive research to ensure that they know what they’re talking about and that they discuss slavery in accurate and respectful terms.
I’m very much thinking out loud with this post and don’t propose to offer answers to these questions or speak for anyone else besides myself. But I think these sorts of conversations are vitally important to have because the way public historians and public history sites talk about, interpret, and portray slavery matters a great deal.
What do you think?
Bill O’Reilly is at it again. Whatever merits the Fox News pundit may have as a commentator on current events, his endeavors in historical scholarship are less than stellar. I admit to not being a regular reader of his “Killing” series, but his book Killing Lincoln–which I have read–was a mistake-ridden flop that offered nothing new to the historiography of Lincoln studies. Historians roundly criticized the book and Ford’s Theater–the very place where Lincoln was assassinated–refuses to carry it in their gift shop. O’Reilly’s influential platform on a popular news station gives him an enormous presence to influence hearts and minds across the United States, however, and so all historians must take his historical claims seriously. Whether or not his claims are accurate or inaccurate is less significant than the fact that his “history” books sell well and his identification as a historian resonates with his television followers. I interned with the National Park Service at the U.S. Grant National Historic Site (where I now work full-time) around the time Killing Lincoln was released, and I must have had at least two dozen visitors to the park over three months who told me they came because they had read that book. Never once did someone say they were visiting because they read a reputable history of the Lincoln assassination by universally respected scholars such as James Swanson, Edward Steers, and Michael Kauffman.
And so it was with great disappointment when O’Reilly, citing his identification as a historian, felt compelled to respond to First Lady Michelle Obama’s acknowledgement of the White House’s construction by enslaved black Americans by stating that those enslaved people were actually well fed and adequately taken care of. O’Reilly’s comments continue a long history of Americans, particularly white Americans, addressing the history of U.S. slavery with qualifications, equivocations, and explanations that downplay the overarching influence of slavery in the building of this nation’s economic, social, and political foundations. “Slavery was bad, but…” “Slavery existed, but…”
In my years as a public historian on the front lines of historical interpretation–which include interpreting U.S. slavery–I have heard visitors claim that slavery was a benevolent influence on black Americans since it Christianized them and took them away from the savageries of Africa. I have heard visitors respond to my talks by saying that “black people owned slaves too” and that tens of thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy (“they don’t talk about that in the history books!”). They have told me that black slavery existed primarily “to address a labor shortage” and not because of race or racism. They have told me that these enslaved people, once they gained their freedom after the Civil War, largely chose to stay at their old master’s plantation because of their gratitude to the kindness and generosity of their former enslavers, and not because they lacked the economic resources or the freedom to obtain jobs, money, education, and land elsewhere. They have referred to the enslaved people as “the dependents,” a particularly ironic identifier given that “the dependents” were actually the white enslavers who relied on enslaved labor for their material success and high quality of life. They have told me that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War. They have gone on TripAdvisor and called my tours “politically correct” because we as an institution have made the interpretation of slavery a central goal of our educational mission. O’Reilly’s comments about slavery at the White House, therefore, were not new to me because they fit into this unfortunate tradition of literally whitewashing slavery from the story of the United States. I get these viewpoints expressed to me by ordinary white Americans too often.
Many historians have responded to O’Reilly’s comments with thoughtful essays refuting his perspective and asking what, exactly, he wanted to point out by stating them in the first place. Of these essays the biggest takeaway in my opinion has been the distinction between understanding the material conditions of slavery and the legal framework of U.S. slavery. This distinction, most forcefully argued by Rebecca Onion and Caleb McDaniel, shows that the day-to-day slave experience took many forms–from enslaved people who were “treated well” to those who were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused–but that legally all enslaved people were bound to the same rules and regulations of chattel slavery. This is not to suggest that the abuse any particular enslaved person endured or the personal gains an enslaved person made (such as Elizabeth Keckley earning wages and obtaining enough money to purchase her freedom and eventually become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker) should be disregarded, but that the bigger picture of the legal boundaries is necessary to understanding the crushing oppression of U.S. slavery. Whether or not the enslaved people who built the White House were well cared for must be fit within a legal context. That legal context includes the fact that U.S. chattel slavery was determined on the basis of race, that it was hereditary, that it was perpetual for the duration of one’s lifetime, that enslaved people always faced the fear of them or their loved ones being sold away, and that enslaved people lacked the most basic of individual freedoms, ownership of themselves. This is the context that is missing not just from O’Reilly’s comments, but many comments that I hear from Americans on a frequent basis. Part of my role as a public historian includes doing my part to provide a better understanding of this context for the people I interact with on a daily basis.
Here’s a list of articles by historians responding to O’Reilly:
- Rebecca Onion, “What Bill O’Reilly Doesnt Understand About Slavery”
- Caleb McDaniel’s Tweet Essay
- Kevin Levin, “Bill O’Reilly’s Benevolent Slaveowners”
- Glenn David Brasher, “Just Another Response to Bill O’Reilly’s Slave Comment”
- Peter Holley, “The Ugly Truth About the White House and its History of Slavery”
- David A. Graham,” How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly’s Wrong About Slavery”
- Ed Ayers’s comments in Time Magazine
I will update this list if I find more articles on the topic.
The African American Intellectual History Society has a thought-provoking piece from sociologist Jennifer Patrice Sims on imaginary and implied whiteness in literature, theater, and film that is worth a read by Civil War historians. I’ll explain.
Sims points out numerous instances in recent memory when black actors were cast for presumably white roles in films like Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter, and how a good number of whites reacted with “incredulity” at these casting decisions. She argues that such reactions occur because book readers and performing arts viewers often assume that the characters in the performance will be white. Whiteness is the default setting. Writers must use explicit language to express to readers that the character is a racial minority, something that does not need to be done for a white character.
It strikes me that I often see a somewhat similar pattern of thinking when studying the Civil War and Southern identity during the nineteenth century. Part of the problem is that many history textbooks and public history sites talk about the Civil War as a fight between Northerners and Southerners instead of a fight between the United States and the Confederacy. The terms are not synonymous. White Southerners in every state except South Carolina formed regiments in the U.S. military during the Civil War, nearly two-hundred thousand blacks–many of whom were born in the South–served in United States Colored Troops regiments, and states generally accepted to be at least partly “Southern” in nature, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, stayed in the Union during the war. The other equally important factor is that blacks born in the South are sometimes not considered “Southern.” As historian Kevin Gannon points out, decades of historical scholarship on the Civil War era has defaulted to whiteness when explaining political and social thought in the South:
Black southerners were not in the front ranks of Manifest Destiny’s advocates, nor did they turn to a states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution in the wake of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. And I would bet that most black southerners saw Lincoln’s election as something other than [a] “catastrophe[.]” Yet, when historians-and by extension, much of the general public-discuss the sectional divide as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, they overwhelmingly deploy the identifier “southern” in the “we-really-mean-white-people-but-you-already-know-that” sense of the term . . . “Southerners rejected the aims of the abolitionist movement, since they threatened the basic principles that defined their society.” Well, again, this is true for many white southerners; for black southerners, not so much.
Indeed, words matter a great deal. Explaining how “Southerners” react to events necessitates further word qualifications such as “black,” “white,” “upper-region,” “Appalachian,” etc., since an entire region of people could never completely agree on a uniform mode of social and political thought.
Confederate veteran and Southern-born George W. Cable offered his own intriguing theory in an 1886 Memorial Day speech in Massachusetts for explaining the relationship between whiteness, Southern identity, and who gets to call themselves a Southerner. He suggested that “Southerner” referred less to the geographical location where one was born and instead reflected a particular way of thinking about the world:
You hear the phrase “true Southerner,” “true South.” . . . where a man or woman is born is no matter. A colored man is never esteemed a Southerner. And there are hundreds of men now in the South of any one of whom you may hear it said at any time, “Why, he is Northern born, but he is a good Southerner.” It is a matter of belief in a social order . . . the white [Southerner] for an arbitrary supremacy, confessedly inconsistent with American liberty, but in his sincere conviction essential to social order and his self-preservation . . . It believes that the preservation of society requires the domination of a fixed privileged class over a lower; that the white constitute this privileged class, and that the blacks do, and must, and shall comprise the lower.
I think there are many other ways–and many of them more positive than Cable’s assessment–to identify oneself as “Southern,” but he offers us some interesting food for thought with this speech.
When I look at the Reconstruction Era–particularly the period from 1865 to 1870–I see a time of deep reflection about how and why the U.S. Constitution needed to be significantly changed in the wake of the Civil War. As historian David Blight argues, the Reconstruction Era was a “twelve-year referendum on the meaning of the Civil War,” a time in which remarkable changes in basic ideas of citizenship, political equality, freedom, and the very definition of what it means to successfully achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness transformed the United States. I also subscribe to Blight’s thesis that the Constitution before the Civil War was America’s “Old Testament” and that the Constitution since the war is our “New Testament.” Indeed, we today don’t live under the Constitution as it was written before the war, with legal protections for slavery, no clear definition of U.S. citizenship, and voting rights determined by the states largely on the basis of class, property, and skin color (and, of course, gender).
The 14th amendment (1868) is particularly noteworthy for its sweeping changes to America’s legal boundaries. The amendment defines citizenship as a birthright or through a naturalization process, puts a check of the power of states to deny the right of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and demands that all citizens be given the equal protection of the laws (no more laws like Missouri’s 1847 law banning blacks from learning how to read or write, whether they were free or enslaved). It also broadens the power of Congress by giving them the power to pass legislation to enforce this amendment. The equal protection clause continues to be a point of contention in legal practice, with the Library of Congress stating that the 14th amendment “is cited in more litigation than any other amendment,” from legislation regulating religious practices in schools to gay marriage and much else. Regardless, the 14th amendment more explicitly and specifically explains that achieving political equality among U.S. citizens is a goal of the federal government.
Without diving too much into contemporary politics, I sometimes wonder if the ideals of political equality stated in the 14th amendment are either taken for granted or openly scorned by some Americans today. For example, former Presidential candidate Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 platforms were based partly on the idea of abolishing the 14th amendment, and columnist George Will, citing an inaccurate law review article, argued in 2010 that birthright citizenship can and should be abolished from the constitution. And what about all of the recent flighty rhetoric about “getting back to our constitutional roots,” “Make America Great Again,” or the popular impulse (at least on social media) to proclaim oneself a “constitutionalist?” Is this rhetoric calling for a return of American governance and liberty based on the pre-Civil War, “Old Testament” constitution? I would venture to guess that the answer differs based on who you’re talking to. But I can’t help but question what, exactly, this rhetoric purports to reclaim from American history. What are we trying to get back to?
Addendum: To be sure, the 14th amendment has its shortcomings and has sometimes been defined by the Supreme Court in a very narrow fashion. In Civil Rights Cases (1883) seven of the eight justices argued that the 14th amendment only applied to state actions and not the actions of individuals and private groups. In other words, it prevented racial discrimination by the state, but not racial discrimination by private individuals, business owners, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Additionally, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which argued that racial segregation in public facilities was legal, was justified on the basis of the 14th amendment, claiming that such segregation was legal provided that the facilities were “equal.” Moreover, the amendment did not ensure voting rights to blacks because there were fears among the Republican Party that Northern whites would reject the amendment (numerous Northern states had already rejected state referendums on the question after the Civil War), and it did not provide citizenship to Native American Indians throughout the country. It was also the first time the word “male” was inserted into the Constitution, much to the anger of Suffragists who promoted women’s rights and suffrage qualifications. Check out the National Constitution Center’s resources on the 14th amendment to learn more.
One of the reasons I enjoy blogging is that it gives me a chance to hash out thoughts, ideas, and theories that may not be fully developed in my mind. Blogging for me is as much about asking questions about how and why we study history as it is writing essays that aim to inform readers on a given historical topic that I’ve studied. Indeed, asking questions about the fundamental theories the underlie the act of historical thinking and the intellectual contours of the profession is a necessary challenge all historians must address. In doing so, we better position ourselves to sharpen our methodological tools while simultaneously improving upon the ways we explain the importance of studying history to the rest of society. Doing a better job of answering the question “why study history?” has been a central challenge of my career as a public historian so far, and I’ve thankfully learned a lot not just by reading books but also blogging out my ideas and receiving constructive feedback from thoughtful readers.
With my last post I delved into the importance of having “historical perspective” when analyzing current events. Does it help to have historical perspective? If the answer is yes, then how so? My thoughts were shaky and I had no conclusive answers. Thankfully a number of commenters stepped in and offered some brilliant thoughts.
From Christopher Graham of the American Civil War Museum:
I think the comparisons of better/worse are not the right way to frame the questions and leads us to dumb debates over better/worse and that’s not very good history.
What historical perspective should be teaching us–aside from the overwhelming complexity that defies a better/worse narrative–is how this process of historical change works. We should be asking–where is the intentionality that represents tradition and systems, and where does contingency and the unexpected that shape sensibilities and events intersect with it? How does that inevitably make things different–not necessarily better or worse, just different. And how do we identify those historical processes at work in current events? The answer reveals that we should be looking widely for motivations for change, should be ready to accept the unexpected, and that it is a dynamic process.
And from Andrew McGregor of Purdue University:
I think a lot of folks who talk about historical perspective, talk in terms of compare and contrast, which, to me, isn’t really what history and historical perspective is about. I think one of the problems that your are wrestling with here is that questions like “how did we get here?” (which are an important question to ask!) are inherently teleological. Similarly comparing and contrasting almost always involved some sort of value judgment (progress or declension). Neither approach is very emotive or humanistic (to deBoer’s point), which forces us to rethink how we understand and tell the history of “victims” (for lack of a better word). I think historical perspective works best, when we are use it to understand and get inside of moments, ideas and arguments, cultures, to better understand the lineage of people’s experiences, creating what might be termed a historical empathy built through examples and understandings of the past. This is much more easily done we analyzing how and why people make certain arguments about the Confederate flag or the R*dskins mascot, but when talking about structures and processes (like criminal justice and policing) we sometimes lose that humanness in how we tell, explain, or understand history. I’ll stop rambling there, but I think my overall point here is that we need to be conscientious of keeping a humanistic historical perspective instead of falling into lazy patterns of analysis that are often flawed.
Both of these comments redirected my thinking on historical perspective towards a new direction. It’s perfectly natural for us to compare and contrast the conditions of contemporary society with those of past societies – it’s all we can really do since we can’t predict what the future will bring. But in focusing my thoughts on comparing past and present through a better-or-worse dichotomy, I failed to grasp all the different and dynamic ways historical thinking challenges us to assess the present beyond a simple progress/declension narrative. Historical thinking includes all that Christopher and Andrew mention in their comments; finding the intersection of intentionality and contingency, analyzing change over time, and exploring ideas, cultures, and experiences in a way that goes beyond making subjective judgements as to whether things are better or worse today.
It’s a profound analytical failure to scold people for not having “historical perspective.” We don’t live in history. We live in our lives.
— HR-Compliant Freddie (@freddiedeboer) July 8, 2016
The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.
But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?
I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.
To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.
What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?