As a fairly recent MA graduate of a public history program who is in the early stages of a professional career in the history world, I admit that how I think about the evolution and future of the public history field is largely shaped by my own limited experiences as an interpreter and educator on the front lines of history. The questions I face on a daily basis revolve around issues of acquiring historical knowledge within my field of study (19th century U.S. history), communicating that knowledge to many diverse publics, and playing a role in creating visitor experiences that stimulate intellectual curiosity and an appreciation for the National Park Service and the study of history more broadly. I was trained in graduate school for public history employment through a mix of public history and museum studies courses, and I believe that training has served me fairly well so far in my career. But I acknowledge that my training and work experience has not tackled what might be described as the “business side” of public history: financial budgets, staffing, administration, mission statements (which I hate), boards of directors, endowment funds, and much more. I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing because we should be trained as historians first and foremost, but there has been a great deal of recent debate within the field about graduate training for public historians and whether or not more of these business-related concerns should play a larger role within the public history curricula, either through coursework or internships.
Taylor Stoermer of Harvard University is one public historian whose writing I look to for a broader perspective on the state of public history today. His extensive background in public history in both interpretation and administration is noteworthy, and his website The History Doctor is a regular read for me. I now find myself musing quite a bit on his most recent essay on public history training and employment practices.
Stoermer argues that there are too many public history PhDs in the field*, that the training for these graduates is too theory-based and “almost everywhere privileged over practice,” and that, amid a lack of full-time permanent positions for new graduates within the field, public history institutions have and will continue to evolve towards the “gig economy” business model that has been embraced in many corners of the broader business world.
I have thoughts.
Since graduating in 2014 and observing the struggles of many colleagues who can’t find gainful employment in public history, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are simply too many public history programs in existence and, more importantly, too many programs that are not being honest about the realities of the poor job market for public history employment. Does there really need to be more than 100 public history programs throughout the United States and Canada when the few full-time job opportunities in the field are offering only $30,000 a year? As I have previously stated on this website, there needs to be a realization within the academy that public history is not going to fully alleviate the shortage of academic history jobs by providing gainful “alternative” employment in public history for graduate students who can’t find an academic job. Moreover, while I believe that every academic history department should employ at least one scholar with public history experience, we should not expect all history programs to be in a position to train and help students find work in public history. Whether or not students are pursing an MA or a PhD is less of a concern to me as the fact that there are simply not enough jobs to go around for all of us. We are fighting for crumbs.
I have previously outlined my thoughts on theory vs. practice here. I am strong believer in the idea that good practices come about through a thorough understanding of theory. Practice without theory doesn’t exist. Claims of “too much theory” in public history education beg the question of what theories are most integral to good practices.
Stoermer outlines how a “gig economy” would function in the public history world as follows:
With 40 percent of the American workforce set to be freelance within the next four years, public history might already be well ahead of that curve, which poses as much promise as peril. The successful organizations that I’ve seen have already embraced that trend, seeing its potential. The best example is a historical society with a tremendous collection and exceptional vision that employs no full-time curator, historian, or education director. The most important long-term bases are covered (registrar, membership coordinator, etc.), but it otherwise reaches out to experts as needed. Need to catalogue a collection of 19th-century landscapes? Hire a guest curator whose expertise is 19th-century landscapes, rather than forcing a full-time curator, whose background might be in 17th-century stoneware, into a role for which he or she is not prepared. Want to put together living history programs to connect with guests about local events during the American Revolution? Bring in an experienced producer of such programs to establish the interpretative ground rules and set up a usable operations template . . .
The result is a leaner, more flexible, and more accountable budget and, more to the mission-oriented point, fresher and more active programming in which the occasional staff can introduce perspectives gleaned from related experience elsewhere. The core full-time staff provide consistency and vision, while freelance experts inject cost-effective knowledge, skills, and insight. Another exceptionally effective organization follows a similar route, bringing in special program providers as needed, rather than increasing the level of FTEs for positions that might not be sustainable. Again, the proof of such an approach is in the clear health of those institutions.
From a financial perspective, the gig economy makes sense. But in my view, this model will only hurt young public historians trying to break into the field. For one, I take issue with the idea that curator, education director, and historian positions don’t constitute long-term interests for historic sites. A historical site with administrators, registrars, and membership coordinators, but no one that’s a content expert? Is that really the best path forward? I understand the idea of consolidating positions so that someone may jointly be an education director and historian, but fully outsourcing these jobs will lead to young public historians who work from project-to-project barely scraping by without health insurance or benefits. It will lead to more part-time, temporary, and seasonal job openings and fewer full-time permanent openings. It will lead to project-based jobs similar in nature to adjunct teaching with no upward career mobility. It will lead to historical sites relying on college students, internships (many unpaid), and volunteers to cover the bases and cut costs. It will lead to less historically-informed programming at historic sites (who on staff will fact-check the work of the outsourced historical consultant? Who at these sites will be able to explain why their historical site is worth preserving if they don’t actually understand that history?). It will lead to the continued devaluing of our labor. It will reinforce the idea that when public history institutions experience financial difficulties, educational and historically-trained staff should be the first to go.
I would love to be proven wrong. I’m often asked to provide advice to current grad students since I was one of the fortunate ones to find a full-time job right out of school, but I simply don’t know what to say without being a pessimist who must preface my comments by saying that “the job market is really bad right now.” My current job, as is the case for many other jobs in the broader business world today, is as much attributable to luck and who I know as much as any talent I may have for doing public history. So it goes.
*Update: To further clarify my position on public historians pursuing PhDs, I don’t see it as big a problem as Stoermer does. I don’t even think there are too many public history PhDs out there right now. I think it’s great if a public historian chooses to pursue their PhD. Pursuing a PhD and furthering one’s education, regardless of discipline, is a worthwhile endeavor. All I am suggesting in this essay is that there is a supply and demand problem in public history employment, and that there are a lot of graduate students out there–MA and PhD–that are fighting for a very limited number of jobs in this field. We choose to pursue this education and career track at our own peril, and there are reasons for pursing a graduate degree besides getting a job. But I also believe that public history program directors are obligated to do their homework in understanding the field’s employment numbers and being honest with their students about what to expect when they’re ready to join the workforce, whether that be in an academic setting or within the public history world.
The news website Indian Country Today is in the process of analyzing every U.S. President’s “attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.” This series of essays, written by journalist and English professor Alysa Landry, provides readers with thoughtful overviews of the evolution of Indian policy in the United States and offers a light into the thinking of the country as a whole towards its indigenous population. The series as of this blog post has gone up through James Garfield’s short presidency. Needless to say, nobody comes out looking very good, including 18th President Ulysses S. Grant.
I enjoyed reading Landry’s analysis of Grant and other presidents. There are a few minor quibbles to be had with the essay on Grant. It mentions the oft-repeated but never verified claim that Grant left the army in 1854 because of his alleged alcoholism, and a briefly expanded context for explaining the perspectives of those around him would have shown the fierce opposition Grant faced from numerous quarters to his Indian Peace Policy, particularly western settlers and leaders of the U.S. Army (“A good Indian is a dead Indian,” according to General Phil Sheridan; “Treachery is inherent in the Indian character,” according to General William T. Sherman”). While I don’t agree with Jean Edward Smith’s assessment that Grant’s Indian Peace Policy was “remarkably progressive and humanitarian,” (541) it’s also a stretch to conclude that Grant’s policies were intended and destined to perpetuate a “mass genocide” of the Indian population, as Landry seems to suggest.
President Grant sincerely believed that past Indian policy was flawed and that western settlers were at fault for continued violent conflict with the native population. Grant’s appointed Board of Indian Commissioners reported in 1869, for example, that “paradoxical as it may seem, the white man has been the chief obstacle in the way of Indian civilization.” And yet the proposed solutions from the Grant administration to address the problems were inadequate and shrouded in assumptions that many today would acknowledge as flawed and paternalistic. Grant believed that white and Indian cultures were incompatible with each other (“the fact is they do not harmonize well”) and that Indian tribes in the path of western settlement faced extinction if they did not give up their ways, become assimilated into white culture, and be put on a path towards American citizenship. Grant and many Americans at the time believed that U.S. citizenship was the greatest gift one could receive, and that with regards to the Indian tribes it was foolish for them to privilege their current lifestyles when given such a golden opportunity to become a part of American culture and politics.
Grant disregarded the advice of Sheridan and Sherman to exterminate the Indians and believed that establishing reservations and teaching Indian tribes the ways of white civilization (farming and Christianity in particular) would be the only way to preserve their lives in the face of rapid western settlement by white settlers. The reservation system would be a temporary stopgap until the Indians assimilated into American society. These policies were flawed in that the solutions to continued violence between white settlers and Indians were directed towards placating, isolating, and changing the behaviors of the Indians instead of the settlers who encroached upon native lands. Grant and several presidents before and after him claimed they could do little to stop further white settlement in the west, but conversely these same presidents did little to question or overturn past legislation like the 1862 Homestead Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the General Mining Act that encouraged further settlement by offering public land on the cheap for white settlers, land that historically and through treaties such as the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty had been rightfully entitled to Indian tribes before white settlers came. The development of railroads in the west–many through federal aid of some sort–also played a major role in encouraging further western settlement. So for all of the talk about preserving and protecting Native American culture, such intentions would not be privileged over the goals of further western settlement and the creation of new states in a larger political union and empire that encompassed lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.
Over the past two weeks a number of friends, colleagues, and visitors to the park felt compelled to share their perspective on the Confederate iconography discussion with me, pushing me to think about the role of honorific memorials in a slightly different way. Meanwhile a number of relevant news articles have popped up on social media and generated further discussion between myself and others. Rather than trying to combine all my thoughts into a coherent narrative, I offer readers a few bits and pieces of my present thinking on this topic.
1. Public Schools have a right to ban symbols that they and the community find offensive and/or threatening, including the Confederate Battle Flag.
Out in Montana a public high school banned the Confederate Flag after a white 17-year-old student made racist comments against blacks, allegedly threatened to hang and drag the lone black student on the road with his truck, and then showed up to school with a Confederate flag on that truck. The School administration responded in kind with the ban, which has now created a firestorm in the community about whether or not students have “free expression” rights to bring the flag to school. Whether or not the community is as concerned about the racist behaviors of some students on campus is left unsaid.
To be sure, the lone black student in the school, Darius Ivory, says he’s not phased by the waving of the Confederate flag, and that’s understandable. What else is he supposed to say in this situation if, as I suspect, he’s just trying to finish school and anxious to get the limelight off himself? A Confederate apologist who felt compelled to tweet his thoughts at me proclaimed victory in light of Ivory’s response. Hey, the Black kid doesn’t care about waving the Confederate flag, so why should the school care about it?! I think that point is irrelevant, however. It bears reminding that not everyone in a given racial group thinks alike or shares the same political views, nor does one person speak for an entire race. Some people in the black community are going to be more bothered by Confederate symbols than others. Ivory’s particular response to the situation doesn’t mean the racist 17-year-old’s actions in this case were appropriate, free of consequences, or fully divorced from his use of a Confederate symbol to further assert his views.
The question of Confederate symbols in schools goes far beyond the viewpoint of any one individual and depends upon the ways the symbol is being used. The Confederate flag within an educational context is certainly appropriate, but a situation similar to the one in Montana calls for a different response from school administrators. Schools have the right to ban offensive symbols and images on articles of clothing such as pornography and alcoholic beverages. Likewise, they have the right to ban threatening symbols such as the Nazi flag and gang-related colors. I don’t see the banning of Confederate symbols in schools as a “free expression” issue, at least as it relates to how any particular student views the issue. Isn’t this story reflective of the blessing of local control in educational matters – schools and communities working together to educate their children in learning settings that they deem safe and appropriate?
2. Some of the most outspoken Confederate apologists and “heritage advocates” are often their own worst enemy when it comes to defending the public displaying of Confederate icons.
Rickey L. Jones, a professor at the University of Louisville who is also black, recently wrote an op-ed calling for the university’s Confederate statue to come down. In response he received hate mail, personal attacks upon him and his family, and racist vitriol that sounds like the words of someone from 1860 and not 2016. Symbols and icons gain much of their meaning through the actions and words of their adherents. If the best argument Confederate apologists can muster in support of keeping up all Confederate iconography consists of personal attacks and blatant racism, they should not be surprised to find themselves and their arguments in retreat, nor should they be surprised when governments remove Confederate iconography from civic spaces and schools ban Confederate symbols from campus grounds.
If we wish to have a civil, honest, and meaningful discussion about the role of Confederate history and the ways we remember and commemorate it today, then we need to move beyond the silly stuff and engage with the history at hand and its significance to today’s society.
3. Calling for a given Confederate symbol to be taken down from a place of honor does NOT reflect a desire to erase or avoid the “warts” of history.
I have been accused several times of being “weak-minded” because there have been situations in which I believed the removal of a Confederate icon was appropriate, such as my long-standing support for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House. This is a ridiculous charge. Most of the advocates for a more critical approach to Civil War history and the way it’s commemorated are looking to have more conversations about the war. In reality it could be said that there are a lot of arguably “weak-minded” people who struggle to acknowledge the role of slavery and the politics of westward expansion in shaping the circumstances of war in 1861 because such acknowledgements threaten preferred narratives of the war as a conflict solely over states’ rights, tariffs, and/or federal tyranny. As Kevin Levin argued months ago, instances like the one in South Carolina are not so much about interpreting history so much as making a political statement that represents “how a community has chosen to remember the past in a certain place in a certain time.” (Or at least a select part of the community). Erecting a commemorative marker is as much an act of politics and selective memory of the past as much as an act of history.
4. The significance of America’s Commemorative Landscape is shaped by what’s missing from it as much as what’s currently there.
The Memphis Massacre of 1866–a tragic and harrowing event that greatly influenced the direction of the U.S. government’s Reconstruction policies after the Civil War–had a grand total of zero commemorative markers, statues, memorials, or monuments prior to the first of this month, when the Memphis NAACP and the National Park Service worked together to finally put up a historically accurate marker commemorating the event. That it took 150 years to publicly commemorate this event is reflective of a collective desire among Memphians and the country more broadly to forget this act of racialized mass violence and downplay the horrors committed upon blacks during the Reconstruction era. Where are the fighters against “erasing history” in this instance, and why did the Tennessee Historical Commission fight this effort to commemorate the Memphis Massacre? In the case of Reconstruction history, why are the Sons of Confederate Veterans opposed to commemorating Reconstruction history through the establishment of a National Park Site dedicated to its history?
5. Counter-Monuments and -Memorials are often inadequate substitutes for countering or overcoming iconography that celebrates and honors racism, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression.
Yale University recently announced that they would continue to name one of their residential colleges after John C. Calhoun, even though a large number of students and faculty have supported a name change for years. School administrators did decide to name another residential college after Anna Pauline Murray, a Black Civil Rights activist and graduate of Yale’s law school. (This move, I might add, was not really any different from the U.S. Treasury’s decision to eventually place Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill but continue to keep Andrew Jackson on the back). But as Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore argues, “It is not a just compromise to split the difference between Calhoun and Murray; there should be no compromise between such stark contrasts in values. The decision to retain the Calhoun name continues the pain inflicted every day on students who live in a dormitory named for a man distinguished by being one of the country’s most egregious racists.” There are times when splitting the difference and saying “both sides have valid arguments” isn’t enough. Again, we are talking about establishing places of honor for these people by naming residential halls after them. Is John Calhoun someone worthy of honor, and does he represent our values today? If the answers are no, then there’s no need for his name to be on a residential hall.
6. Do we place too much educational value on historical monuments, memorials, statues, and other icons that attempt to tell the story of America’s past?
I think it’s a question worth exploring farther. Historical icons are one tool for exploring and interpreting the past, but iconography often simplifies, distorts, and erases complex histories. If a person only learned their history through historical iconography, what would they tell the rest of us about their understanding of American history?
I put my sports cap back on this week and had a book review/essay posted on Sport in American History about Krister Swanson’s fine book Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). The book analyzes Major League Baseball’s shifting labor politics and the power dynamic between team owners and professional athletes over a roughly 100 year period from the Gilded Age to the 1981 Players’ Strike. Sports and labor historians will get a lot out of this book. Please give the review a read and let me know what you think. I make no apologies for being an unabashed Cardinals fan. 😉
“Make America Great Again,” “A Future to Believe In,” and Competing Philosophies of American History
The current U.S. election has been a consistent stream of embarrassing statements, extremist rhetoric, radical political stances, glaring hypocrisies, and nonstop media coverage that in many cases comes off as an uncritical infomercial for Hilary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominees of the Democrat and Republican Parties. I rarely discuss contemporary politics on this website and I don’t want to wade too deeply into those depths with this post.
One theme from this election that interests me, however, is the degree to which political change from the status quo is necessary to ensure future prosperity for the United States. Bernie Sanders and Trump maintain two remarkably contrasting political platforms, but they’re also the two loudest advocates for a political revolution that completely dismantles the vaguely-defined Washington “establishment” and puts a totally new order of governance into place. Meanwhile other candidates like Clinton and the now-departed John Kasich often speak in more moderate terms about incremental change, compromise, and the toning down of heated rhetoric.
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has clearly resonated with a good number of Americans who, for various reasons, feel like they are falling behind economically while also watching their moral values and ways of life being destroyed in a twenty-first century culture war. The slogan offers itself as a great title for a manifesto in support of a conservative revolution. But what, exactly, does it mean when we call for America to become great again? Are we not great now? What greatness are we trying to recover? Who are we trying to take the country back from? When in American history was this country ever truly great for all? What does “Make America Great Again” say about how we view the whole of U.S. history?
In his 2015 publication Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, historian Andrew M. Schocket argues that the memory of the American Revolution and the development of U.S. history holds inherent “political and cultural implications” for how we view the world today. In sum, how we view the origins of the country’s founding can say a lot about how we view the role of politics and government in our lives today. Schocket distinguishes between those who view the American Revolution from an “essentialist” viewpoint and those who view it from an “organicist” viewpoint.
The essentialists argue that American history has only one discernible meaning that offers us clear lessons for navigating the contemporary world, and that any other interpretation or act of “historical revisionism” that diverts from the clear, God-ordained version of American history is flawed. This version of history emphasizes the importance of “private property, capitalism, traditional gender roles, and Protestant Christianity,” according to Schocket, and it views the U.S. Constitution as a perfect or near-perfect document that promotes freedom and liberty for all. The essentialists also assume that our contemporary U.S. government has strayed from its glorious founding ideals, and that the great future struggle of American society lies in restoring our political life to one that sits in harmony with the constitutional order that existed during the nation’s founding and early formation, which is the greatest, most free era in our history. The essentialist vision is all about making American great again.
The “organicist,” version of American history differs from the essentialist one in several ways. The organicists argue that there is no single, fully accurate version of American history that can be learned without interpreting the facts of the past. They believe that there are many ways to interpret this history and that appreciating the various interpretations people form about the past allows for a more holistic and accurate understanding of American history. For example, Schocket explains that “you might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they wanted to keep their slaves, and I might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they resented British governance, and we could both have a legitimate claim to be debated.” The organicists also refrain from glorifying the American Revolution and the nation’s early years too much, instead stressing the contrast between the ideals of the founders and the sometimes destructive policies they implemented in practice. The great future struggle of American society for the organicists isn’t so much about returning the country’s government to a state of perfect alignment with its glorious past (which in their minds is a contested belief subject to debate) as much as it’s about improving upon that past by achieving the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality through good governmental practices in the present. The organicist vision is perhaps best articulated through Sanders’ campaign slogan, “A Future to Believe In.” (It bears repeating, however, that the Sanders campaign platform of a “political revolution” to accomplish these ideals is contested, and I doubt all organicist-minded thinkers would agree with the necessity of such a revolution).
I suspect that most Americans fall somewhere in between the essentialist-organicist spectrum. I don’t believe the constitution or American history as a whole can be understood through one uniform narrative devoid of interpretation, and my training as a historian stresses the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and interpreting history through both primary and secondary sources. I also tend to agree with Ulysses S. Grant when he wrote (more or less) that it’s impossible for a contemporary society to solely live by the rules set by people hundreds of years ago. In these regards I find myself aligned more with the organicist interpretation. I can embrace some essentialist philosophies, such as the belief that the nation’s constitution and republican form of government have promoted freedom and liberty for many Americans, but I would argue that the challenge of enhancing everyone’s freedoms is a never-ending project that requires constant debate and discussion about the best path forward. There will never be a point when we wave a “Mission Accomplished” banner once we’ve successfully implemented a perfect form of Republican governance throughout the United States. Moreover, asking an essentialist-type question like “What would Jefferson do?” is not very useful. Instead, we should follow the lead of historian David Sehat and ask, “What is the common good today?”
The National Park Service recently announced that it would be publishing an official handbook on the history of the Reconstruction era to be sold at Civil War and nineteenth century historic site gift shops within the agency. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book that I just finished reading, and yesterday I sat in on a one-hour webinar the agency hosted about the book and the NPS’s ongoing theme study to help designate a historic site dedicated to Reconstruction. No such sites currently exist within the agency.
I applaud all of these developments. It has been far past time for the Park Service to take Reconstruction history more seriously, and there are a number of crucial events that would make for an appropriate historic site worth preserving and interpreting. The recently-commemorated Memphis Massacre of 1866, for example, would be one such event worth commemorating in some way with an NPS site. Historians Gregory Downs and Kate Masur are in charge of the NPS Reconstruction Theme Study, and I have all the confidence in the world of their ability to lay out a blueprint for future NPS efforts. (I’d also add that there are plenty of Civil War-related sites that could be doing more right now to interpret Reconstruction in their educational programming, and this is something the entire agency should also be working on).
During the webinar, however, there was one element of the theme study that I found mildly concerning. For the time being the search for a potential site and the broader interpretive focus of the NPS’s educational programming on Reconstruction will be centered geographically on the former Confederate states and Washington, D.C. On the one hand I can understand this focus. The question of how to forge a political reunion between the former Confederate states and the rest of the country was paramount to establishing a stronger, consolidated United States in the future, and historians have traditionally emphasized the ways the South acted and was acted upon through the politics of the era. The political changes that occurred during Reconstruction include the establishment of three new Constitutional amendments, the expansion of federal power through government agencies like the Freedman’s Bureau and the Department of Justice (which was formed in response to growing Ku Klux Klan violence throughout the South), the expansion and protection of newly established civil rights for African Americans, and the process of transitioning white former Confederate soldiers and supporters into law-abiding U.S. citizens. To expand the NPS’s interpretive focus beyond the former Confederate states is probably too much at this point, and I understand that.
On the other hand, any holistic understanding of Reconstruction requires historians and the NPS to view the era as one of remarkable political, cultural, and economic transformation for the entire country, not just the South. The question of black voting rights was hotly contested and frequently rejected in statewide referendums throughout the North before the passage of the 15th amendment. Western settlement increased dramatically after the Civil War thanks the expansion of the country’s railroad infrastructure and the passage of the Homestead Act, which offered settlers publicly-held Western lands on the cheap. This westward expansion, however, directly led to some of the most violent clashes in American history between the U.S. Army and Indian Tribes all the way from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean as settlers encroached upon lands once thought to be protected for the Tribes through treaty agreements. The restructuring of citizenship and voting rights in the North and the push to impose a Northern “free labor” political vision for the West represent two additional goals of Reconstruction that furthered the effort to establish a stronger political Union within the entire country. We might also look to border Union states like Missouri and Kentucky–where the federal government’s Reconstruction policies did not apply but where some of the most vehement complaints against policy initiatives and government overreach emerged–as places where a stronger historical analysis of the period are sorely needed. Reconstruction history is not just about the South.
Again, I understand the approach of the NPS theme study and the organizers’ caution to make the study too geographically broad. I do hope, however, that future academic and public historians will use the 150th anniversary of the Reconstruction Era and beyond to expand our historical inquiries to include events that occurred in the North, West, and Midwest. Let’s get to work!
Last week a number of coworkers and I participated in a webinar hosted by the American Association for State and Local History on interpreting slavery at historic homes, plantations, and battlefields. After the webinar concluded AASLH asked me about writing an essay for them about the experience, and they generously edited and published the essay a few days ago. Please give it a read here and be sure to let me know what you think about it.
As you’ve probably heard by now, the U.S. Treasury has announced that it will begin putting Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill while relegating Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill (which I find odd for multiple reasons). As soon as the news came out a friend on Facebook announced that he was ready to see none other than Ulysses S. Grant up for removal from the $50 bill, citing his allegedly weak Presidency and his ownership of a slave, William Jones, for a period of time in the 1850s. Although Grant has been on the $50 Federal Reserve note since they were first printed in 1914, calls to remove Grant have occurred in the past. In both 2005 and 2010 a minority of Republican legislators called for Ronald Reagan to be placed on the $50, but both proposals died fairly early in the legislative process.
So I ask you, dear readers: Is it time for Grant to go? You tell me.
The other night I had a chance to watch the above documentary, The Pruitt Igoe Myth, about a failed public housing complex in St. Louis. Pruitt Igoe was billed in the 1950s as an example of smart urban planning and a model for future cities dealing with housing crises. The complex quickly ran into a myriad of funding and maintenance issues, however, and the complex became so dangerous that St. Louis police officers sometimes refused to go into the area. Pruitt Igoe was torn down in 1972, and the area where the complex was located is littered with dilapidated trees and brush today.
The “myth” that the movie describes is the idea that Pruitt Igoe failed mostly because of the poor black residents who lived there. Instead, the movie argues that other factors such as structural racism, government subsidization of outlying suburbs (aka White Flight) in St. Louis county that drove away crucial tax revenues for the city, and political ineptitude within the St. Louis Housing Authority all contributed to an idealistic initiative that was arguably too expensive to financially sustain long-term. As one interviewee says in the film, “you can’t build yourself out of poverty.”
Even though I’ve been a St. Louis resident for most of my life, I learned a lot of new things about the city’s history from this film. There’s a nice mix of oral histories from former residents of the complex and historical analyses from urban historians. If you’re into St. Louis or urban history and have 90 minutes to spare, give it a watch.
I believe that cultural and political critiques don’t need to offer workable solutions in order to be valid. The act of criticizing is valuable in and of itself. I remember one time, for example, when a National Park Service official visited my place of employment and argued that “if you come to me with problems without offering solutions, you’re just whining and complaining.” I thought at the time and still believe today that that line of thinking is absolute crap. A problem doesn’t go away because there are no foreseeable solutions. Sometimes problems require teamwork, dialogue, and extended time for workable solutions to be implemented. Demanding that the critic bear the responsibility of solving the problem at hand is, in reality, a subtle defense of the status quo.
I mention this belief because we historians are a criticizing people. We interrogate the meaning of anything and everything, and we formulate interpretations of past and present events in ways that can elicit heated debate between members of the profession and between historians and their many publics.
Some of the most interesting and passionate conversations within the historical community occur when new films, performing arts pieces, and historical literature about the past are released and gain widespread popularity beyond the boundaries of the profession. Whenever something like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is released to critical acclaim, historians are always quick to throw their voices into the discussion and wag their fingers about historical inaccuracies and potential problems with the interpretive thrust of these cultural artifacts. Oftentimes they present thoughtful critiques that refrain from offering workable solutions that would enhance the historical accuracy of a given production, and that’s okay! But I must admit that I sometimes wonder what good these sorts of critiques really do for anyone besides making the reviewer look like a grumpy curmudgeon. Don’t historians realize that mediums like film, theater, and children’s books are not the same as academic scholarship and therefore require a different form of communicating the stuff of history to audiences? What would these historians do if they were tasked with writing a film, play or piece of literature? How would they interpret something like the American Civil War in ninety minutes as opposed to four-hundred pages?
The latest examples of historians-as-cultural-critics are taking place around Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton and Ramin Ganeshram’s children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington.
Hamilton focuses on the life of Alexander Hamilton and the politics of early American history. The show has consistently sold out on Broadway and is slated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars as it prepares to tour theaters across the country. In recent months, however, historians have been pushing back against some of the musical’s themes and interpretations. I see Lyra D. Monteiro’s review in The Public Historian as a catalyst in pushing these critiques towards a larger discussion with Hamilton’s viewing audience. In the musical Manuel employs people of color to depict the founding fathers, partly as a way of showing how contemporary Americans of all backgrounds have the power to take ownership of American history. Monteiro, however, rightly points out that no actual people of color from the time period are depicted in the musical, and that while Hamilton is billed as “the history of Americans then, interpreted by Americans today,” such a distinction is actually hurtful in that it suggests no people of color were around during the Revolutionary Era. She also takes issue with the themes of individualism and the glorification of the American Dream that are prevalent in the musical. Meanwhile, William Hogeland and David Waldstreicher take issue with Hamilton’s portrayal as a leading progressive thinker, Jason Allen calls the musical “a color-blind Stockholm Syndrome,” Nancy Isenburg argues that Hamilton’s arch-nemisis Aaron Burr was actually not that bad a guy, and the front page of the New York Times on April 11th includes an extended discussion with other historians who have weighed in on the musical’s accuracy.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington was pulled from the shelves in January by its publisher, Scholastic, after intense criticism about the ways it allegedly depicted slavery in a benign fashion. Ganeshram discussed the banning of her book in the Huffington Post, arguing that she wrote the book under the “reasonable assumption that understanding the overarching horror and criminality of slavery was a given — and that parents and educators would share that context in a way that was most appropriate for their young listener,” but the essay has not brought her book back to the shelves at this point. One of the most vocal critics of the book was living history interpreter Michael Twitty, who, writing in The Guardian, argued that “our society has poorly dealt with slavery in relation to our children,” and that A Birthday Cake for George Washington represents a larger truth about America’s inability to deal with its history of slavery. But curiously, Twitty acknowledges that while he knows Ganeshram personally, he has never talked with her about the book, nor has he even read the book itself. And while Twitty is certainly right to point out that we need to do a better job of discussing slavery, especially with young children, his failure to further explain how he proposes to solve this problem leaves readers wondering how future authors can improve upon the messages conveyed in A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Perhaps we really don’t have a solid blueprint for discussing slavery with children, which in turn opens the door for historians to start discussing solutions for writing better historical stories about slavery rather than constantly critiquing each children’s book that comes out about the topic.
Again, I think it’s important that historians contribute their voices to larger conversations about the ways history is depicted in popular media, film, and literature, but I also wonder if and how we can add legitimacy to our viewpoints by going beyond the “historians say ______ is inaccurate” model. Historical interpretations in an artistic, entertainment-based medium are not going to meet the exacting standards of someone used to having books published by an academic press or someone working in a professional public history setting for a living. Historians should acknowledge that and act accordingly when critiquing popular media.