3 Takeaways from “Interpreting Slavery: Building a Theoretical Foundation”

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.

Cheers

Should U.S. Grant Be Removed from the $50 Bill?

U.S. Grant 50 bill

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.

Cheers

The Pruitt Igoe Myth

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.

Cheers

Historians and Cultural Criticism of Popular Media

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.

Cheers

A Quick Word on the “Sadness” of Appomattox

Appomattox Tweet ULSG

The Appomattox surrender of April 9, 1865 marks the symbolic end of the Civil War and the beginning of a new future for the United States. The generous terms laid out by General Grant and the calls by General Lee to all Confederates to peacefully accept those terms created the foundation for a political reunion between sections (although not necessarily sectional reconciliation) that would be mostly bloodless and free of future warfare and guerrilla attacks. As Mark Snell argued in a blog post that has since been deleted, Appomattox saw the end of the killing and chaos of war. We might add that it also spared the lives of countless younger Americans who would have put their lives in danger had the war continued for months, years, or decades. Appomattox created a path towards the emancipation of four million enslaved people, the establishment of birthright American citizenship no longer determined by skin color, condition of servitude, or the whims of the Supreme Court, and the expansion of voting rights to all male citizens regardless of color (and later all women). It also paved the way for a new conception of freedom that ensures that all people will be protected equally under the law regardless of their background, even though this county has often and continues to fail at meeting that ideal.

The American Civil War was a sad four-year event in our nation’s history that saw the deaths of roughly 750,000 soldiers on both sides. Lives and property were destroyed, fortunes were ruined, and ways of life were drastically altered. But it’s worth asking how this war came about in the first place and why a country dedicated to the principles of republicanism and popular government came to engage in war with itself. The answer can be explained in large part through the lens of slavery and freedom in prewar America, and how the former gave meaning to the latter in the formation of this country. From Jedidiah Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy:

Why did American slaveholders call so loudly for freedom? . . . The slaveholders’ special passion for freedom was not despite owning their slaves but exactly because they were masters in a slave society. Slavery gave shape and power to the American idea of freedom. Wherever slavery was widespread, [Edmund] Burke insisted, “those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of rank and privilege.” For the freemen of a slaveholding country, freedom was the root of identity and dignity. Freedom gave men’s lives value in their own eyes and honor in others’ . . . Slavery made masters uniquely sensitive to any invasion of their independence (9).

Slavery’s opponents understood this tension and came around to believe the institution was antithetical to American values and a threat to everyone’s freedoms. When the Republican party formed in the 1850s with the explicit goal of taking steps to limit slavery’s growth westward, war became inevitable. The tragedy of slavery–the “freedom” to buy, sell, and own black people as chattel property–died a severe death at Appomattox that was later cemented by a constitutional amendment in December 1865. That anyone could lament that day as a “sad” one speaks to how many Americans still choose to romanticize the Civil War as a noble experiment in Confederate Nationhood or a Brother’s War where “both sides fought for what they believed in” while the legacy of slavery is casually ignored, deflected, and dismissed as a factor in shaping the conditions for war in the 1860s. I want nothing to do with a nostalgic view of the Civil War that portrays the Appomattox Surrender as the saddest day of the war and/or Southern history more generally. In reality, it was one of its greatest days.

Cheers

A Response to James C. Cobb’s Article on Renaming College Campus Buildings

Forrest Hall

I made a personal vow to myself at the beginning of this year to scale back the amount of blog posts I wrote about the ongoing Confederate iconography discussion now taking place throughout the United States. While I find the discussion fascinating in some regards, it has also been frustrating to see it turned into a series of fearmongering, reactionary claims about the “destruction of history” that could come along with the removal of any particular icon. Alex Beam’s screed in the Boston Globe in which he felt compelled to compare the takedown of Confederate icons to ISIS-led destruction of historical artifacts in the Middle East is a particularly harrowing example of this fearmongering in action. But last month’s NCPH roundtable on Confederate monuments and an ongoing controversy at Middle Tennessee State University about an ROTC hall named after Nathan Bedford Forrest have me fired up again, and I’m ready to jump back into the fray for a least a little while longer.

The root of these “destruction of history” claims lie partly in what I consider a basic misunderstanding of the reasons why honorific monuments, statues, memorials, and other icons are erected in the first place. Historical icons are established to designate a place of honor for people, causes, events, and ideas that political and cultural elites consider worthy of recognition by the rest of society. For some people, however, they are viewed only as artifacts that tell a pure, objective story about the facts of history and nothing else. In this line of thinking public iconography is devoid of politics, interpretation, and myths, so therefore any effort to remove an icon that is now seen by many people as offensive and historically inaccurate is a threat to our nation’s history and ultimately a flawed effort that will do nothing to change the politics of the present. The idea that a monument to the Confederacy erected in 1914 might be more reflective of the politics of 1914 and the ways rich elites understood their history at that time rather than the history that actually occurred in 1864 is often unappreciated in this discussion. Historians have sometimes missed these points as well. The latest example comes to us in Time from James C. Cobb, a retired history professor from the University of Georgia.

I find Dr. Cobb’s essay very odd. His overall argument is that “slavery was far more integral to America’s development as a nation than we have chosen thus far to acknowledge,” but because slavery’s influence colors the legacies of so many historical figures and institutions that we choose to venerate today, any effort to rename a building or remove an icon related to slavery and slaveholding is futile and a path towards the eventual destruction of All Historical Things That Make Us Feel Bad. Removing a few names doesn’t give society “a definitive resolution of so intricate and complex a historical dilemma,” so why bother?

This is akin to arguing that it’s futile for me to clean my room because its dirtiness is simply too overwhelming for me to deal with in an effective manner.

Cobb assumes that people advocating for removing the names of figures like Forrest, John Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis at college campuses are doing so because they don’t want to talk about slavery and in fact want to “cleanse American culture of ties to slavery.” On the contrary, the arguments in favor of renaming these halls are rooted in a belief that the legacy of slavery and its connections to the present aren’t talked about enough in college classrooms and society as a whole, and that a more critical approach to understanding U.S. slavery that removes its most vocal advocates from their places of honor is necessary for a better historical understanding of slavery that doesn’t casually gloss over past and present inequities, be they social, economic, or political. It’s not apparent to me that removing Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name from MTSU is going to end all classroom discussions of his legacy as a slaveholder, Confederate General, and founder a member of the Ku Klux Klan*, but I do see how removing his name would demonstrate MTSU’s willingness to acknowledge its history of supporting racial segregation in public education (Forrest Hall was named in 1954 for those ends) and advance its commitment to fostering a campus culture that’s more welcoming to people of all colors and backgrounds today.

Cobb also makes a mistake in my opinion by lumping George Washington into this discussion. As I have previously argued here, the discussion about Confederate iconography is also about the merits of honoring the cause of disunion. Washington was a slaveholder but also an ardent Union-loving nationalist who was obviously long dead by the time of the Civil War, so lumping him with people like Robert E. Lee indicates to me that Cobb thinks these campus renaming discussions solely revolve around questions of slaveholding and slavery and not also patriotism, federalism vs. nationalism, unionism, and disunionism.

Finally, Cobb’s rundown of Northern support for slavery in the years before the Civil War does little to advance the discussion besides essentially arguing that “Northerners were bad people too.” It is well known, of course, that the economic engines of cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston used slave-produced goods in the South as fuel for their factories, commerce, and trade. New York City during the Civil War Era in both politics and finance was run by conservative Democrats who understood and profited from the economic benefits of slavery, and who were alarmed by the rise of the Republican party and its opposition to the future westward expansion of slavery. But Cobb seems to ignore the fact that the North was not a monolithic political entity and that a range of views towards slavery existed in that region. Many white Northerners by the time of the Civil War felt that slave labor was inferior and less productive than free labor and that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of republicanism and popular government. This is not to suggest that white Northerners were advocates for racial equality and black rights – the vast majority were not. But it suggests that Cobb’s interpretation of Northern perspectives towards slavery is inadequate and not truly representative of the full spectrum of political beliefs leading up to the Civil War, and therefore not very convincing for his larger argument about Confederate icons.

It bears repeating once again that the best approach going forward for addressing these Confederate iconography discussions is to look at each case individually on its own merits. A one-size-fits-all approach such as the one pushed by Cobb (and currently being written into law in some states) lacks the necessary historical context for understanding individual cases and runs the risk of paralyzing any future efforts to rename campus halls or remove offensive icons and simply bad history from our commemorative landscape.

Cheers

*Addendum: It’s been brought to my attention several times that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, although he was an active member of the group during its early years after the Civil War. I did some fact-checking to verify the claim and it looks like I screwed up in saying he was the founder of the organization. I regret the mistake on my part and have amended this essay to correct it. The factual error, however, does not change the arguments I make in this essay one bit.