Although I wrote this essay about Ulysses S. Grant and public monuments two years ago, I recently received an interesting comment in response to that essay. The comment asked about the usefulness of monuments and statues as tools to promote civil religion and whether I felt they could still serve that purpose. I wanted to share the original comment and my response here.
First, I understand we don’t need statues to document accurate history and that instead monuments are about popular memory. But do you think monuments of heroes meant to inspire veneration as part of America’s civil religion — which helps a diverse society cohere around a shared story — are not necessary or helpful?
Second, as to Grant specifically, do you feel that critics (today, it’s racial justice activists; in the past, it was Lost Causers) are missing a sense of proportion and context? If we weigh:
a) In his personal life, Grant’s benefitted directly from one enslaved person of his own for about a year and indirectly from 30 enslaved held by the Dent family over a couple decades, against
b) In his public life, Grant won the Civil War that permanently ended 250 years of slavery in our part of North America and enabled 4 million people and their descendants to enjoy freedom (imperfect though it be)
Does a fair sense of proportion help us re-orient the discussion towards Grant’s real significance to American and world history?
Here is how I responded:
To your first question, I do admit that I take a skeptical view of the use of statues and monuments within the context of civil religion. My primary concerns are that they promote the worship of false idols and overly simplify the complexities of history. Put differently, I get worried about histories that are flattened in the name of unquestioned patriotism, nationalism, and the glorification of the nation-state. While I think there are many admirable people from the past that we can learn from, I think the language of “heroes” and “veneration” runs the risk of creating division within the diverse groups you speak of. After all, veneration is quite literally the act of honoring a saint. Therefore, within the context of civil religion, if certain individuals or groups do not properly “venerate” historical figures deemed as important to society through monumentation, they are considered unpatriotic, not real Americans, politically radical, etc. etc. So yes, I question the very premise that statues can help diverse societies cohere around a shared understanding of the past.
I am personally interested in Jurgen Habermas’s ideas around “constitutional patriotism,” or the notion that societies work to develop a respect and appreciation for civic ideals central to a republican form of government: freedom, liberty, civil rights, democracy, checks and balances, and the rule of law, etc. rather than the veneration of specific individuals from history. Individuals can help students of history appreciate these civic ideals in action, but I think there are more appropriate methods for achieving these ends, most notably the use of primary sources and facilitated dialogue between historians, educators, and students.
To your second question, I don’t know if I have a great answer to offer. I would begin by saying that it is definitely important for us to study individuals personal lives so that we can see what factors shaped their future actions and beliefs. It is very significant to Ulysses S. Grant’s story to understand the context of his interactions with slavery in the 1850s. At the same time, it is obviously true that those actions alone cannot define Grant’s entire legacy. In fact, those connections to slavery actually help us better appreciate how far he evolved in supporting civil rights as president in the 1870s. All of these factors live together in tension when studying Grant’s life, and professional historians are far from unified in their interpretations of Grant’s “real significance” to history. So it’s no surprise to me that society at large has a very conflicted attitude towards Grant’s significance. As a historian, all I can hope for is that all people make a genuine effort to appreciate context, complexity, and nuance when studying the past.
To briefly expand my original response, I wasn’t really sure how to address the “racial justice activists vs. Lost Causers” dichotomy. For one, there are plenty of Lost Causers still around today – they have not been removed to the dustbin of history and you only need to get onto social media for about five minutes to see Lost Cause-ism in action. One of the challenges in ascribing a motive for tearing down Grant’s statue in San Francisco is that we still don’t know who did it or what the motivation was for doing it. Was it taken down for racial justice? Was it because of Grant’s slaveholding past or his Indian policies or something else entirely? Do all that many people outside of history even know that Grant enslaved a man? I don’t really know. Within the context of the summer of 2020, I think Grant simply became a symbol of governmental power that was targeted because of that symbolism and not necessarily because of his legacy or “real significance” to American history. That no other statues or monuments of Grant have come down since then suggests it really was about the politics of 2020.
A friend shared the following quote from the late author Michael Crichton in his book Prey. It’s been rattling around in my head since I saw it.
“We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as a result of bad thinking by less able minds—and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.”
I have mixed feelings about this sentiment.
Of course, without having read the book I don’t know the context in which Crichton uses the term “we.” Putting that aside, I think the quote speaks to the value of studying history while at the same time going too far in trying to make history a tool to solve future social problems.
On the one hand, Crichton argues that societies fail to acknowledge mistakes from the past, but then follows by saying that each generation does acknowledge past mistakes but is too quick to dismiss those mistakes as “bad thinking by less able minds.” It would be very easy to find examples of both in action. All too often, the way history is taught to young people in a formal education setting is a form of what the late James Loewen described as “chronological ethnocentrism.” Put simply, the past is left in the past. Chronological ethnocentrism “lets [history textbook authors] sequester bad things, from racism and robber barons, in the distant past,” Loewen argues. “Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all ‘know’ everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now.”
Another point not always acknowledged is that it isn’t so much that people from the past were less intelligent than people in the present. It’s that they did not have access to the same tools, technology, and information that people in the present have.
On the other hand, Crichton seems to imply that each generation ends up making “fresh errors” because of historical ignorance, and that by extension a strong sense of historical literacy will help those generations avoid making the same or new mistakes in the future. In other words, it’s a return to the old quote from George Santayana about those being ignorant of the past being doomed to repeat it.
To me, this part of Crichton’s point oversells the value of history.
The reality is that new mistakes will be made regardless of an individual or society’s collective historical knowledge. There will always be new mistakes because unprecedented circumstances, contingencies, and surprises will emerge that history cannot provide an answer for. A specific outcome from a particular historical event does not mean that the same outcome will emerge in a similar future event. To cite but one example, the 1918 influenza pandemic did not prevent another pandemic from emerging a little over 100 years, nor did it provide a solution for reducing sickness and death in this current plague. History alone cannot save us.
Growing up, I got into history for two different reasons. One is that history is simply interesting to me on its own terms. Regardless of what artifacts, documents, or books might have to say about the present, they hold a power in their own right for what they can say about the time period in which they were created. Secondly, I was interested in understanding how present day society arrived at its current social, political, and economic situation. But I don’t know if I ever got into history because I believed it provided a blueprint for the future. I don’t think it can.
There’s a lot of value in studying past case studies to see what worked and what didn’t; to be inspired by good acts while being aware of bad ones; to do our best to avoid the mistakes of the past. But when it comes to predicting the future . . . I’ll leave that to the meteorologists, social scientists, and data analysists.
In 2019, the American Historical Association published a fascinating study titled “History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey.” Broken up into ten different chapters, this study saw thousands of people respond to a 40-question survey about their relationship to history. Among other things, the study asked respondents to define what history means to them, what their experiences were like in history classes growing up, and what aspects of history they wanted to learn more about. One of the most fascinating chapters of the study asks respondents to explain what mediums they use to better understand history.
The first thought that came to my mind when seeing this chapter was that the internet had to be the number one source for obtaining information about history. Historians and lay audiences often spend a lot of time online, after all, and scholars of all different disciplines have been pre-occupied with promoting media literacy in recent years given the preponderance of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories online.
Much to my surprise, however, only 59 percent of respondents stated that they relied on a “non-Wikipedia” source online to learn about history and only 46 percent relied on Wikipedia as a source. In other words, only about six in ten people use the internet as a source for obtaining information history.
Instead, the survey found that the top three sources relied on by respondents were documentary films/TV series (69%), fictional movies/TV series (66%), and TV News (62% – yikes). As the study itself noted, “the top three choices were all video format . . . of note is that such sources are readily available, usually take minimal effort to engage, and may ask for little imagination on the part of the viewer.” For a variety of reasons, televised historical content does the best at reaching people where they are and meeting them on their own terms. Moreover, these results give the impression that casual viewers are more interested in watching content in a visual format rather than reading that content in a digital or print paper form.
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the implications of this study, but my own TV watching habits led me to an unlikely source of enlightenment: Tony Soprano.
Tony Soprano is a history enthusiast. He cares greatly about his family’s history, his neighborhood’s history, and the history of the United States more broadly. He likes talking about history at the dinner table. He likes to watch old black-and-white movies and History Channel documentaries, particularly about World War II, in his free time. Very perceptively, Tony also distinguishes between history and nostalgia, arguing in one of my favorite lines of the series that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” Tony’s life is full of chaos, but those rare moments at the TV set provide watching the History Channel provide some sense of normalcy.
Importantly, other sources of information about history—the internet, history books (popular history or academic history), lectures, museums, historic sites, or a formal classroom–do not figure into Tony’s life. After all, he’s a busy guy in a face-to-face industry. There’s been a lot of change with the internet between 2007 and 2022, but I suspect that many people, particular baby boomers and older, still don’t spend a great deal of time online.
I think the point of my thoughts here is that while I am someone who prefers to read historical content with an academic flavor, I am constantly reminded that the vast majority of history enthusiasts do not consume history the same way I do. Public history, as I have said time and time again, is about meeting people where they are. In this case of Tony Soprano, that means working to ensure that historical documentaries convey good information to their audiences. After all, some people who watch these documentaries might “graduate” to learning more online, visiting a historic site, or reading a book, but many viewers like Tony Soprano might never go beyond watching that documentary. I totally get it. I love watching National Geographic documentaries about nature, but I don’t have many books about science in my library. My interest in science is to a large extent centered around the television and an occasional science museum visit. It’s not that I don’t care about science so much as that we all have busy lives that require us to choose what we want to be experts in.
Moving forward, I’m going to try and work on taking more time to study history documentaries and to think more critically about their format and content delivery. I found Brooks Simpson’s review of the History Channel’s 2020 documentary, Grant, to be quite enlightening on this front. I also applaud the work of my colleagues in the history department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who have designed an innovative course on documentary filmmaking for public history graduate students that teaches them the basics of historical interpretation, script writing, and video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro. Such a course could be valuable for public historians wanting to pursue their passion for history through film and television.
I have been interested in the concept of colorized historical photos for several years. This interest was initially sparked by artist Marina Amaral’s wonderful colorizations that she frequently shared on Twitter. I found myself drawn to the artistry of her use of colors to breathe a new life into old photos and often found myself pausing on my timeline to admire her work. She eventually published many of her colorizations in a book, The Color of Time, that now sits on my coffee table at home. I have also drawn much inspiration from museum historian Mark Loerher’s wonderful colorizations of St. Louis on his Instagram page, Arch City History. I have dabbled with photography for many years and have been drawn to 19th century history partly because so much of it has been documented through photographs.
A few months ago I decided that I wanted to get in on the fun. I was anxious to blend my passions for history and photography to see what I could produce with a new hobby. I downloaded GIMP, a free open-source photo editing software, and began watching video tutorials on how the use the software. I’ve colorized around 15 photos since December and have also been teaching myself how to restore badly damaged photos. Learning these new skills has been a lot of fun and has helped me get through a very cold winter. I’ve also created my own Instagram page, History Beyond Black and White, to showcase my own colorization projects.
It is safe to say, however, that I have been ambivalent about joining the colorization world partly because the historian in me recognizes several genuine criticisms to be made about their usefulness as historical documents. For one, colorizations are difficult to get right from an aesthetic viewpoint and I have seen many poor examples online, or at least examples that do not line up with my own imagination. One might also think about Ted Turner’s colorizations of classic movies, which are hard to watch and don’t hit the right way emotionally. There is also a risk of overly romanticizing colorized photos–which are ultimately interpretations of historical photos–at the expense of appreciating the artistry and historical value of original black and white photos.
A few historian colleagues have expressed skepticism about colorizations since I’ve started this new hobby. In what follows below I will try to outline my own views as to whether colorized photos can help people better understand the past.
How do you know what colors to use for colorizations? The answer, simply put, is that most of the time I don’t know what colors to use because there’s no documentation to confirm such details. The above colorization of Bob Wilkinson serves as a useful example. The colors of his suit jacket, vest, pocket watch, and skin tone are entirely my interpretation of what I envision Wilkinson’s appearance might have been on the day he had this photograph taken. Someone else could make his vest gold and his suit jacket black. Someone else could go with purple and green. The only thing that can be confirmed factually is the gold casing around the image.
In situations like the above image, it is important to stress that most colorizations are ultimately subjective, interpretive, and a form of art. The above work is not a scientific recreation of Wilkinson’s exact appearance with regards to colors, which is impossible to determine given the lack of documentation. It is merely an attempt to give an impression of what colors may have existed in this very specific moment in time. In this sense I would have a hard time saying that colorizations are a form of history. But I do think colorizations allow for us to think about history in new ways, however you may want to define that term. Perhaps most importantly, colorizations allow people to creatively use their imagination to envision how dynamic the past would have appeared at a given time.
To be sure, there are times when specific colors can be confirmed. For example, a Civil War soldier’s military records would have included a description of height, weight, hair color, and skin color, all of which could allow the artist a more approximate view of how a person would have appeared (although the number of skin tones within the terms “black,” “brown,” “white,” and other racial definers is infinite, making the choice of skin tone perhaps the most difficult part of colorizing historic photos). At other times the artist can rely on diaries, newspaper articles, obituaries, or other primary source documents to help confirm colors.
A good example is a somewhat famous picture of an unidentified United States Colored Troops soldier who was stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis for part of the Civil War. Enoch Long, an area photographer who took many pictures at Benton Barracks during the war, commissioned the painting of several colorful backdrops that were used to provide an extra visual appeal to his photographs. Thankfully, we have knowledge of the colors contained in the backdrop Long used in the below photo. Combined with my knowledge of Civil War uniforms, I was able to create a colorization that is pretty close to the actual colors that may have been used in the original photograph, I think.
Colorized photos are similar to cover songs. As a musician, I sometimes enjoy hearing cover songs and have played in several cover bands over the years. Some artists attempt to use cover songs to recreate original songs in their exact form, but in reality a wide canvas exists for musicians to create new meanings to original songs through different instrumentation, time signatures, key changes, tones, and dynamics. Sometimes covers can be just as inspiring as originals. John Mayer’s cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” on acoustic guitar is a beautiful remake of a classic that pushes the song into a new dimension not previously considered. More recently, the artist Roosevelt’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” uses synthesizers, electronic beats, and a key change from the original to create a catchy remake of a classic song. I can’t stop listening to it.
Cover songs, remixes, and mash-ups are an artistic form of expression that can be imaginative and inspiring. They can challenge people to think of original songs in new ways. I think the same kind of thinking towards colorized photos is helpful.
Black and white photos have their own inaccuracies. Black and white photos are accurate representations of the past in that they capture a moment in time and depict important qualities that help people understand how things appeared during that moment. These photos can accurately depict shape such as a person’s face, a billboard sign, a farm animal or an automobile. They can capture people, places, and objects in their materiality. The images captured by those cameras reflect the capabilities of the machine technology within the camera at the time the photo was produced. Black and white photographs therefore offer a representation of the past that can be relied upon as being accurate. At the same time, all would acknowledge that these photos are an accurate representation of the past only to a certain extent given the wide range of colors that were not captured by these cameras.
Critics of colorizations are quick to point out the subjective nature of coloring an image with colors that may not have been in the original image, which is a fair point. But it’s worth remembering that the world has never just been black and white. While colorizations are works of art that can rarely be elevated to the level of historical scholarship, colorized photos do hold the potential to convey a more accurate historical reality by depicting the dynamic color palettes of people, places, and objects from the past. They also hold the potential of exposing fine details not normally seen in a black and white photo. In other words, we may consider the idea of a black and white photo and its colorized counterpart as being two different interpretations of a moment in time, acknowledging that both versions have their own unique shortcomings.
Colorized photos can help students better connect with the past. I read an article several years ago–the author escapes me now–who argued that it was important for students to see Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in color. The author warned that the black and white tones of many photos from this time run the risk of acting as a veil. She argued that it was important to stress to students that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is recent history that remains a lived memory for many people still living today. By seeing people from this time in color, it helped humanize their stories and reinforced the idea that these were real people with meaningful experiences worth studying. These arguments were fascinating to me, and it would be an interesting experiment to see how children react to colorized images compared to their black and white counterparts.
It’s not that black and white photos aren’t important. They very much are. But the experience of seeing history in color can be powerful, meaningful, and inspiring. In my short time colorizing historic photos I’ve already seen and interacted with people who were moved by the art I was able to create. That alone inspires me to keep learning new techniques and to hopefully be in a position to help people who’d want to have their own family photos colorized someday. While colorizations are most certainly an art, I do consider them to be a tool I can use as a public historian to help people connect with the past.
For many years, public historians have called for an updated version of David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s 1998 book The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. That book summarized the results of a phone survey of 1,453 Americans from a range of backgrounds who reflected on their relationship with history. Participants in that study were asked how they define history, what value they put on it, and what sources they relied on to generate their understandings of the past.
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) have recently formed a partnership called “Reframing History.” This partnership is working with FrameWorks to conduct research and update our collective understandings of how people define their relationship with history. This work should be applauded. I was excited to read their recently published report, “Making History Work: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement,” when it was published earlier this week. According to the report’s research methods paper, 54 people were interviewed via Zoom and nearly 5,000 people filled out an online survey, tripling the number of respondents who participated in Thelen and Rosenzweig’s 1998 study.
What follows here is a summarization of four recommendations the report makes and some comments I have on these recommendations. Overall I think this report is a useful tool that public history sites should keep on file and discuss among staff that interacts with the public. I certainly look forward to chatting about it with my colleagues. However, I question a number of arguments and assumptions made in the report.
The report argues that history communicators should strive to frame history as an ongoing process of developing critical thinking skills. These skills will help people better participate in contemporary society and promote a better future. The authors suggest that there are popular misconceptions about the purpose of history and the methods historians use to better understand the past. Somewhat controversially (to me, at least), the authors assert that “the reality is that people think of history as a hobby for enthusiasts rather than as something they should be concerned about.”
I disagree strongly with this latter assertion. History is of great interest to many people who are not professionals or don’t consider themselves professionals. The Barnes & Noble history section always gets a lot of traffic, history documentaries get high ratings, and people turn to a wide rage of sources to obtain information about the past. People who consume history often describe themselves as enthusiasts and are certainly concerned about history and the way it is taught. The challenge, to me, is not that people don’t care about history. It’s that new academic historical scholarship is not taken seriously or viewed with suspicion by many of the same enthusiasts who readily consume content on the History Channel or a David McCullough book. Public historians who challenge conventional understandings of the past or attempt to broaden narratives to include new racial, gender, or sexuality perspectives often face potential backlash for their efforts.
Another note with the introduction. One thing that immediately stuck out to me is that this report uses the term “communicators” as opposed to “public historians” or even “history communicators.” I’m sure this term was used in an effort to be inclusive given that not everyone who discusses history with public audiences identifies as a public historian. Fair enough. But as someone who personally identifies as a public historian, I find the term “communicator” awkward. What are we communicating about? We are communicating the stuff of history to public audiences from all different types of backgrounds. Regardless of whether one personally identifies as a historian, that person is a “history communicator” when they work within the realm of public history. Somewhat relatedly, while the list of authors and advisory board members of this report come from impressive backgrounds–including National Park Service sites and history museums–I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these scholars currently communicate with the public on a regular basis about history as a part of their daily work beyond the scope of this report.
The report argues that lay audiences consider the study of history to be an effort by scholars to find one universal, factual “truth” about the past. This truth, once it has been obtained, is definite and unchanging. Anyone who challenges historical “truth” is therefore criticized as being biased, subject, or a “revisionist.” To remedy this popular perception, the authors argue that history communicators should focus on skills-building rather than finding the “truth.” They should avoid talking about “historical truth” and instead help people formulate a “deeper understanding of our society and how it came to be.” Moreover, history communicators should stress the importance of using a variety of methods to study diverse perspectives and forms of evidence. The authors even go so far as to suggest that rather than saying “by studying history, we make sense of the past by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting [historical] stories,” history communicators should say “by studying history, we build critical thinking skills that apply to all aspects of our lives.”
While it is certainly important to stress the methodological benefits of studying history, the teaching of critical thinking skills should not be prioritized at the expense of answering difficult questions people may have about the accuracy of a given historical event. Rather than avoiding discussions about the meaning of “truth,” I would rather expand the idea of “truth” to suggest that multiple truths can coexist simultaneously. By extension, multiple plausible interpretations of a given event can coexist simultaneously. To this point, I think there is real value in what the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience describes as the “four truths of history.” These truths–forensic truth, personal truth, social truth, and healing truth–do a nice job of highlighting the intersection of memory and history in understanding the past. A person may have a memory about the past that they consider the truth. A society may have an understanding of the past that they consider the truth (as expressed through monuments, memorials, and other public iconography). And yet individuals and societies may hold individual and collective truths that don’t fully align with the historical record, which leads to the creation of myths and misinformation about the past. An important part of public history is helping people navigate the intersection of memory, history, and The Past. Avoiding discussions about the meaning of truth seems counterintuitive for any effort to discuss the meaning of history.
The report argues that people view historians as objective journalists who are asked to simply “report the facts.” With this view of history, the historian-journalist dutifully reports past events exactly as they happened. Eyewitness accounts are prioritized as the final word on what happened in the past; efforts by historians to critically analyze, contextualize, or interpret these eyewitness accounts is seen as a potential road to a biased understanding of the past. “The belief that the past can be easily and straightforwardly documented and reported on is connected to the public’s belief that ‘one truth’ about the past is out there waiting to be found,” according to the authors. The best way to work through these misconceptions is to use the metaphor of detective work to describe the historical process (but not the term “detective,” which the authors believe could lead to negative associations with police). The report argues that the detective metaphor is preferred to the journalism metaphor because it better demonstrates the use of sources and methods to provide new understandings of a past event.
The detective metaphor is not a new innovation. Nikki Madel and Bobbie Malone’s 2008 guidebook for k-12 history teachers effectively used the detective metaphor to help teachers explain the purpose of history to their students. Nevertheless I do think it is a useful metaphor and I have used it myself to explain the purpose of history to audiences (although I admit that I don’t see how the term “detective work” does not convey images of law enforcement while the term “detective” does). But it’s worth asking whether the terms “journalist” and “detective” are as opposite as the authors make them out to be. Doesn’t detective work also rely on eyewitnesses? Don’t journalists try to rely on a wide range of sources when conducting research and not simply eyewitness testimony? At the end of the day, aren’t journalists and detectives trying their best to find “one truth about the past . . . out there waiting to be found?”
A different metaphor mentioned in the methods report would be the advancement of medical knowledge. Simply put, nobody wants to receive medical care today using medical knowledge and tools from 1850 or 1950. That doesn’t mean that medical knowledge from 1850 or 1950 isn’t useful. On the contrary, we could learn a lot about what worked and didn’t work by studying medical history from those periods. But ultimately our understanding of medicine is updated as new insights are made and new technological advancements are made. The medicine metaphor is as useful if not more useful than the detective metaphor.
The report argues that non-historians recognize the importance of learning from past mistakes, oftentimes repeating the overly-simplistic Santayana quote about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it. The authors argue that this knowledge suggests that many people recognize the importance of studying history. However, the authors correctly acknowledge that what it means to reckon with and “move forward” from the past greatly varies from person to person. They suggest that history communicators speak to universal ideals of progress and justice when explaining the significance of history, although they stress that communicators do not need to use these terms explicitly. With this view of history, the authors suggest that history communicators should not simply explain how we’ve gotten to the present, but that an emphasis should be made to highlight how history can create a more just future. The authors argue that framing history as essential to a better world “builds support for dedicating more resources” towards history education in schools, museums, and elsewhere.
In a world where every word is seemingly politicized and even bland terms like “social justice” and “progress” are viewed with scorn in certain quarters, I am skeptical of the pivot towards the future rather than what’s happening here and now. While I certainly believe history can help create a more just future, I am doubtful that such claims will lead to increased resources for history education.
More philosophically, I do not believe history automatically provides a roadmap for a more just world or helps us predict what is going to happen next. Without being overly pessimistic, it seems obvious to me that history proves that the arc of the moral universe does not automatically bend towards justice. I am reminded of what historian Robert Greene III argued on Twitter several years ago. While I don’t have his exact tweets on hand, Greene essentially argued that there will always be new mistakes to be made, unprecedented problems that can’t be solved by studying history, and new challenges that history alone can’t solve. Moreover, those who have a strong knowledge of history (see history and law student Vladimir Putin, for example), are often just as susceptible to making grave, tragic mistakes that negatively harm the world.
Am I opposed to promoting justice and progress? Of course not. But I do feel that the work of public history should be rooted in appreciating the ways history shapes our world today. How we move forward from history and what will happen in the future are questions that cannot be resolved by historians alone.
The report calls for history communicators to use specific, concrete examples to build support for inclusive history. Harkening back to a crucial insight from The Presence of the Past, the authors call for history communicators to emphasize local history when discussing inclusive narratives. This method shows how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) made a difference in local communities and will “help ward off abstract worries about the ‘liberal agenda’ of distant elites being imposed at home.”
I thought this recommendation was the strongest of the report and I don’t have many thoughts to add to it.
Discussion of “Critical Race Theory”
The report argues that:
“The recent backlash against ‘critical race theory’ (that is, teaching about systemic racism in schools and universities) is grounded in the assumption that when it comes to history, what matters and counts is the history of white people.”
This is a shortsighted, overly simplistic explanation of “critical race theory” criticisms that does little to advance the conversation forward.
While I have no doubt that racism does play a role for some CRT critics, I would argue that a great number of them are not opposed to having people of color in the history curriculum. They want discussions of Martin Luther King, Jr., but they want a non-controversial version of MLK who expressed his love for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and not the version of MLK who questioned capitalism, criticized the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, and criticized white moderates for their indifference to racial justice. They want Frederick Douglass as a loyal Republican party member, but not the Douglass who eloquently explained why African Americans did not view the 4th of July as “their” holiday or who believed Abraham Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” They want examples of minority success that reaffirm notions of American exceptionalism. They want stories that highlight the idea of individual success because any examination of systematic, structural racism (such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, the reservation system, or immigration restrictions based on race and ethnicity) is deemed “critical race theory” in the service of socialism, Marxism, or some other boogyman “ism” that is declared to be at war with American values. In other words, critics of so-called “critical race theory” ground their position not in wanting an all-white history, but in the assumption that what matters and counts are positive individual stories that promote patriotism, nationalism, and loyalty to the United States.
The failure to probe the relationship between participants’ views towards history and their views towards the nation is disappointing given the long history of “patriotic education” in the United States. Since the late 19th century, a central aim of history education has focused on promoting love of country and a belief that America was the shining example of democracy for the rest of the world. In this sense history education was seen as a “practical” study that prepared students to be ready to defend the country in times of need. Much of the anxiety surrounding CRT is rooted in the fact that history education in recent years has aimed to highlight stories of struggle, marginalization, and violence that do not automatically conform to the “patriotic education” model. Therefore critics fear that students are being taught to “hate” their country, when in reality the aim of many history teachers (and public historians) has been to demonstrate how concepts such as freedom, liberty, and democracy have been contested throughout U.S. history, and that this work continues today.
(You can read and download an article I wrote about “patriotic education” below).
In conclusion, I think the spirit of reframing history is much needed, and I think this report will be useful for future public historians. But I was surprised by how often I found myself at odds with some of the central conclusions of the report. I hope future studies can be conducted that take a deeper look at how people conceive of history’s purposes within the context of how they view the purpose of patriotism, nationalism, and the nation-state.
Robert E. Lee has had a rough couple years on the commemorative landscape front. His statue in New Orleans was removed in 2017, his statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was removed last year, and his statue in Richmond, Virginia was removed a few days ago. While Lee’s legacy is still celebrated by a large number of Americans, it is clear that his presence within the nation’s public commemoration of the American Civil War through monuments, memorials, and statues is changing. A majority of residents within these local communities have expressed their values through activism and voting and have declared that Lee is no longer worthy of the public commemoration that he has enjoyed for more than 100 years. As our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new evidence comes to life and new interpretations are offered by historians, so too are public icons revised as new understandings of the past emerge.
There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of Lee’s statues on historical and aesthetic grounds and the process by which these three icons were ordered to be removed through government orders. I am not interested in rehashing those debates here, but the above tweet from David Reaboi of the Claremont Institute did raise my eyebrows for what it had to say about who could participate in debates about Confederate iconography. As can be seen, Reaboi is perplexed by people who have taken a strong view of Confederate iconography but whose families have no direct connection to the Civil War since their families immigrated to the United States after the war. Reaboi labels these people (of which I’m assuming he means people opposed to Lee’s statues) as “self-righteous” and the entire idea of their participation in these debates “gross.”
I find these comments to be troubling, possibly nativist, and “gross” for a number of reasons.
On the most basic level, these comments fly in the face of inclusive commentaries about the place of immigrants and their progeny in American society. Lofty rhetoric about the United States as “A Nation of Immigrants” and legal protections in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright and naturalized citizenship aim to abolish legal and cultural hierarchies between native and foreign-born citizens. In other words, once you are a citizen of the United States, it no longer matters whether you are a lifelong citizen or a citizen who became naturalized today. All citizens have the same legal protections to participate freely in American society and a right to help shape the country’s future. That would also mean the right to participate in what history is commemorated in the public square in the future, contrary to what Reaboi states.
One might also point out that a deep ancestral connection to the United States should not be fetishized. After all, there are plenty of native-born Americans with a very poor understanding of U.S. history and many foreign-born people with a strong understanding of U.S. history. It’s worth remembering, of course, that U.S. history plays an important role in the country’s naturalization test, a test that many native-born citizens would struggle with! Moreover, just because a person is descended from Robert E. Lee does not make them an expert on the American Civil War, nor does it give them an elevated voice on what should be done about Lee’s statue today. An understanding of history does not develop from genetics or through osmosis, but by use of historical methods, research, and interpretation. To say one U.S. citizen’s opinion on the Lee statue is more valid than another’s because of their ancestral origins is preposterous. What difference does it make if my ancestors came to the United States in 1826, 1866, or 2016 if I’ve studied the Civil War and have views about its history?
It is also worth mentioning that Reaboi fails to grapple with the idea that people whose descendants were here long before the American Civil War might also have a negative opinion of Confederate iconography. After all, some of the most vocal opponents of Lee’s statues are the descendants of African Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, and others who have a long ancestral history of living in the United States. The notion that the loudest “self-righteous” critics of Lee’s statues have no familial connections to the Civil War is therefore a strawman in no way rooted in the reality of the situation.
All of this is to say that NO, you do not have to have an ancestor who experienced the American Civil War firsthand in order to form an opinion on Robert E. Lee’s statue. In the end, it’s about the quality of the arguments being made and the evidence used to support those arguments. If you have a compelling argument to make, your ancestral background shouldn’t matter. Focus on the game, not the players.
Finally, I should also mention that Reaboi continued his opinions in another tweet by criticizing “our modern desire to see history as a simple morality play between forces of Progress and Evil.” The irony of this view is that public iconography is often guilty of doing this very thing by reducing complex history to a narrative of national progress and unquestioned hero worship through statuary. And since many Civil War monuments and statues were erected in the late 19th century and early 20th century, we can see that the desire to turn history into a simple morality play of progress and evil is not modern at all. These monuments and statues are actually reflective of a longstanding tradition of using history to promote nationalism, patriotism, and a “consensus” view of history. Many critics of public iconography like Robert E. Lee’s statues have grounded their criticisms on the idea that society needs to ask serious questions not just about history, but how and why we honor certain historical figures and events through public icons. Seen in this light, these critics are actually asking society to take history more seriously.
P.S… Just in case anyone is wondering about my own family connections to American history, I do have a Civil War ancestor. My great-great uncle Charles Brady served in the 49th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Union) during the war.
Former First Lady Julia Dent Grant was very forthright about her relationship with slavery in The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant. Having grown up at the 850-acre White Haven plantation in the St. Louis countryside with upwards of thirty enslaved African Americans at one point, Julia was taught from a very young age that slavery was a “positive good” that established a stable, appropriate relationship between Black and White Southerners. Slavery was central to her own privileged upbringing by ensuring that she had no chores to do at home and that time could be spent enjoying the niceties of friends, family, entertainment, and a formal education while the enslaved did the work of making this ideal upbringing possible. Julia Grant sincerely believed that “our people were very happy” with this lifestyle and even went so far as to lament that “the comforts of slavery passed away forever” with the coming of emancipation during the American Civil War (34).
As I previously wrote several years ago, the evidence suggests that Julia Grant never legally owned any enslaved African Americans. She was, however, informally “gifted” four enslaved people from her father, Frederick F. Dent, that served at her pleasure. In fact, Dan, Eliza, Julia, and John actually served Ulysses and Julia Grant and their entire family while they lived at White Haven from 1854 to 1859 and during their brief stay in downtown St. Louis from 1859 to early 1860. According to Julia, when the Grants decided to move to Galena, Illinois, “we rented our pretty little home [in St. Louis] and hired out our four servants to persons whom we knew and who promised to be kind to them” (82). An additional letter from Ulysses S. Grant on May 10, 1861 confirms that when Dan, Eliza, Julia, and John were hired out, the income generated from the arrangement went to Frederick F. Dent, not Julia, pointing to him as the legal owner of these people.
For the purposes of this post I’m interested in exploring how the enslaved woman Julia, sometimes referred to as “Jule,” achieved her freedom. In November 1861, Julia Grant came back to St. Louis from Galena, Illinois, to visit her father at White Haven. While there, Julia somehow regained possession of Jule and took her away from White Haven. “When I visited the General during the war, I nearly always had Julia with me as nurse,” Julia Grant recalled (83). Remarkably, Julia maintained possession of Jule for a little over two years until January 1864, one year after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
During this time, Julia Grant discovered that her eldest son, Frederick D. Grant, was deathly ill back in St. Louis. Anxious to get back to him, Julia prepared her things and took Jule with her to St. Louis, until this moment happened during the trip:
“At Louisville [Kentucky], my nurse (a girl raised at my home) left me, as I suppose she feared losing her freedom if she returned to Missouri. I regretted this as she was a favorite of mine.”
The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, p. 126
The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Missouri, so at first glance it does not make much sense why Jule would be concerned about losing her freedom if she didn’t have it in the first place. A closer look, however, indicates that Julia Grant and Jule were at General Grant’s headquarters at Holly Springs, Mississippi, on January 1, 1863. Technically speaking, the Emancipation Proclamation would have made Jule a free woman since she was in Confederate territory at that time. Therefore, when Julia Grant made plans to return to a state where slavery still existed in 1864, Jule decided to flee when the opportunity arose.
This story raises some interesting questions about the meaning of “freedom.” Even if Jule was legally freed through the Emancipation Proclamation, did she truly acquire any new rights that day? Did she now possess a right to leave Julia Grant’s “employ” at will? Did she begin to earn wages for her labors, or did she continue to toil in much the same way as she always had in slavery? If Jule was now free, was she truly free so long as she remained alongside Julia Grant?
The wording of Julia’s recollections suggests that Jule considered herself a free person in January 1864 and that returning to Missouri threatened her freedom. Conversely, the passage also suggests that Julia Grant still viewed Jule as “hers.” The sight of an African American woman raised at White Haven leaving her was a moment of profound sadness for Julia Grant, something that remained on her mind more than thirty years later. In any case, the question of whether Jule was freed in 1863 or 1864 should not distract us from the fact that ultimately she took matters into her own hands and seized freedom on her own terms by leaving Julia Grant in 1864.
When the horrible pandemic of 2020 required me to telework from home for three months and halted some of my favorite hobbies outside the home, there was a part of me that wanted to renew my presence on this blog. Why not take some of my newfound free time to write more essays about my historical interests? Instead, I didn’t write a single post between February and September. Equally important, I can’t help but notice that since maybe 2017 or 2018 there has been a significant decline in blogging by historians more broadly. Al Mackey’s still chugging away at Student of the Civil War and Pat Young’s doing his thing at The Reconstruction Era Blog, but many other noteworthy names have moved on. What gives?
With regards to the pandemic, one could argue that we are all burnt out by Zoom meetings, emails, and the constant isolation of working from home, therefore the idea of spending a few more hours each day writing on a blog is unappealing. And yet, plenty of historians (myself included) spent plenty of unnecessary time on Twitter talking and tweeting about history during this time.
I would suggest that the rise of the Twitter thread is one reason that blogging has changed. For those not on Twitter, a thread enables users to connect a series of tweets together to form a more coherent stream of thoughts. Some have taken to calling this medium “microblogging” since each tweet is, at most, 280 characters long. To cite but one example, Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse has gained international fame for his threads on 20th century history, particularly the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these threads were started by Kruse’s attempts to debunk bad history being peddled by known psuedo-historian Dinesh D’Souza and others like him on Twitter. There has been vigorous debate about the effectiveness of these threads and the usefulness of debating people who are not invested in having a fair discussion about history. I personally don’t care to see a bunch of people wasting too much time on a single tweet or getting into condescending arguments (“Historian here…”) with pundits, celebrities, and politicians. Nevertheless I do think Twitter threads, when done well, can be really informative. And there’s something to be said about engaging in debates about history not because D’Souza will change his mind, but that other open-minded people might be exposed to your arguments and be compelled to learn more about a given subject.
Other factors play into the decline of blogging. Podcasts have become a popular medium for historians, although they can be much more time consuming than a blog. Conversely, writing tweets is easier than blogging and allows for short thoughts to be quickly thrown into the social media mix. Additionally, Twitter’s algorithm now privileges popular tweets and threads more broadly rather than a chronological timeline, meaning that someone could log in eight hours after a thread was written and still see it on their personal timeline. Meanwhile, at the academic level, blogging has been largely dismissed as an effective tool of scholarship and is viewed by many historians not on social media as pointless. Perhaps the best example of this line of thinking is Princeton historian Allen Guelzo’s remark that blogging is a “pernicious waste of scholarly time” (I guess he has not talked with Kevin Kruse about social media at a department meeting yet). It appears that any sort of blogging done by emerging scholars does not figure into their employment prospects, nor does it figure into a tenure application. Why waste your time on something that doesn’t advance your career?
In sum, a multitude of factors have made history blogging less appealing, including changes to Twitter’s platform, the appeal of writing twitter threads that could gain a wide audience (and more attention for the historian), the rise of podcasts, scholarly dismissals of blogging, and a crippling pandemic that has changed our lives. Speaking personally, I am at a different chapter in my life compared to when I was a graduate student who was single and living, eating, and breathing history 24/7 with little time for much else. Furthermore, @theglamacademic also makes a good point in suggesting that “the continuous disruption caused by new social media tools is also something to note,” by which she means that social media communities have always been in flux, whether the platform is AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace, WordPress, or TikTok.
I still believe in blogging, however.
The most important argument I can make is that a blog is an easily accessible record of YOU. While a Twitter thread may be more accessible within a moment of hot discussion or controversy, it becomes very, very difficult to find that thread on Twitter long after the discussion has ended. Moreover, many people who are enthusiastic about history are not on Twitter, which can do much to limit exposure to your content. With blogging, the use of tags, metadata, algorithms, and search engines makes your content more accessible in the long term in a way that can’t be achieved by using Twitter. Nobody has to log in to view your content on a blog. Finally, I would argue that in comparison to tweets, blogs allow for more extended thoughts to be expressed in a more nuanced manner (although this argument is somewhat ironic since much academic resistance to blogging originally argued that blogs were too short and cut out important context that could be included in a 30-page journal article).
I came of age as a blogger, writer, and historian in the early 2010s, when we were living in what could be described as a “golden age” of blogging by historians. Those blogs were really crucial in helping me learn more about public history, 19th century U.S. history, and current debates about both fields taking place among sharp minds. At one point I was writing upwards of 15 to 20 posts on a month on this very website. I don’t know if (I) or (we) will ever get back to that point ever again, but I still love blogging about history and will continue to write in this space when time permits.
This is not the history of St. Louis that your parents learned about!
That was the first thought that ran through my head as I began reading Walter Johnson’s new book, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (2020). Whereas James Neal Primm’s history of St. Louis (1981) often celebrated the city’s capitalist growth, industrial might, and institutional popularity (the St. Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and the Gateway Arch, for example), Johnson’s transparently Marxist interpretation asks readers to pull back the fancy curtains to take a more critical look at the growth of the Gateway to the West. Readers are challenged with considering larger questions about the relationship between capital and labor, the use of racist legislation to not just segregate but literally remove Black and Brown people from the city, and to consider whether or not capitalism can ensure a more just future in the United States.
Johnson contends that the history of St. Louis has meaning and relevance to all Americans. From the city’s 1764 founding to the Ferguson unrest of more recent days, St. Louis has served as a flashpoint of the nation’s most pressing political debates throughout U.S. history. As Johnson puts it, “St. Louis has been the crucible of American history . . . much of American history has unfolded from the junction of empire and anti-Blackness . . . [it] rose as the morning star of US imperialism. It was from St. Louis, itself a city built on stolen land, that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed on the journey to survey the commercial potential of the vast Louisiana Purchase Territory, the homeland of dozens of nations that had not been party to the bargain” (5).
Spanning outward from Lewis and Clark, Johnson shows how numerous treaties ceding millions of acres–often signed by the leaders of various Indian nations under threats of violence from the U.S. military–were signed in St. Louis. He highlights how Jefferson Barracks was not just the country’s largest military post in the 1840s but the vanguard of westward military strength. The violence of slavery is highlighted as an important part of the St. Louis economy’s growth before the Civil War. Meanwhile, a growing antislavery sentiment in the city during the 1850s led by Frank Blair and Benjamin Gratz Brown called for the state’s enslaved population to not only be emancipated, but to then be colonized to another country so that white laborers could settle in new western territories without having to compete with enslaved labor. In this sense, St. Louis’s political leadership before the Civil War was not divided over slavery because of its morality or the way the institution harmed enslaved African Americans, but because this political leadership was divided as to whether or not slavery helped advance the interests of White laborers.
Johnson’s treatment continues into the Civil War, Reconstruction, and early 20th century. Of particular interest in this section is the General Strike of 1877, a nationwide strike that had much of its roots in the grievances of the laboring class in St. Louis. Johnson contends that the significance of the Reconstruction era cannot be based only on the story of expanding civil and political rights for African American men, but on the ways labor fought for better working conditions, fair pay, and limited work hours. Whereas the pre-Civil War Republican party argued that the interests of capital and labor were in harmony, Johnson argues that industrialization during the last half of the nineteenth century exposed how the two interests were in conflict with each other. The brutal crushing of the 1877 General Strike was, in Johnson’s terms, a “counterrevolution of property” against labor’s resistance to the forces of industrial capitalism. Johnson attempts to prove the point further by using future chapters to highlight the exploitive nature of the 1904 World’s Fair and the 1917 East St. Louis riots, which were really a racial massacre against the city’s Black laborers.
While I am not a scholar of twentieth century U.S. history and even less of an expert on today’s politics, I found Johnson’s treatment of St. Louis during this time to be enlightening. In sum, St. Louis is the 6th most segregated city in the United States today because of deliberate policy decisions. St. Louis in the 20th century is marked by numerous efforts to remove and relocate Black St. Louisians in the interest of removing blighted housing areas and promoting urban renewal. Johnson gives special attention to the story of Mill Creek Valley, a Black neighborhood of nearly 20,000 residents that began to be demolished on orders of the city’s white leadership in 1959 to promote urban renewal. Civil Rights leader Ivory Perry described the demolition of Mill Creek and subsequent forced removal of its Black residents as “Black removal by White approval.”
Elsewhere, Johnson discusses the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, the destruction of the city’s downtown core to make way for the construction of the Gateway Arch, attempts to enforce racial zoning codes (U.S. v. Black Jack, Missouri, 1974), efforts to keep a Black doctor from settling in Creve Coeur by turning the property he wanted to purchase into a public park, the destruction of Meachum Park, a Black neighborhood in Kirkwood, the construction of four interstate highways through downtown St. Louis (the only city in the U.S. to have four separate interstate highways connected to it) to facilitate suburban growth out after World War II, and the use of Tax-Increment Financing to promote business growth at the expense of necessary tax revenue. As an example of the latter, Johnson points out that Michael Brown’s Normandy School District, struggling and unaccredited, is located next to Emerson Electric, an immensely wealthy company with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits.
There are numerous mistakes and omissions throughout the narrative, and I did not always agree with Johnson’s conclusions. On the more minor side of things, Johnson misdates the Emancipation Proclamation to March 1863, mistakenly names Confederate General Daniel Frost as “David” Frost, describes Ulysses S. Grant as “an indifferent farmer” while living in St. Louis (not sure what that is supposed to mean), and incorrectly states that the 1820 Missouri Compromise extended the 36-30 line dividing slavery to the Pacific Ocean. This was an impossibility given that the line only applied to lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and that what is today the Western United States was still owned by Spain at this time.
More serious are omissions of key moments in St. Louis history that could have further enhanced the narrative. For example, for all the early discussion of Indian removal that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there is no discussion of the Treaty of Fort Clark (1808), which formally ceded St. Louis and most of present-day Missouri from the Little and Great Osage nations, or the Treaty of St. Louis (1824), which saw the Sac and Fox tribes cede northeastern Missouri and other lands to the U.S. government. Moving to Reconstruction, the focus on the 1877 General Strike leads to the omitting of noteworthy Black St. Louisians such as James Milton Turner, Moses Dickson, and Charleston Tandy from the narrative. Whereas Black civil rights leaders in St. Louis during the 20th century are named and discussed in-depth, the same treatment is not given for exploring Black life immediately after the Civil War. Another noteworthy omission is the Populist Party convention that was held in St. Louis in 1892. Through this convention we can see the intersection of labor advocacy with settler colonialism and the abandonment of Black rights by a major political party. I would also add that with the exception of German immigrants, there is scant attention paid to other immigrant groups who came to St. Louis. How did these groups interact with the racial politics of St. Louis? If St. Louis is truly the “Broken Heart of America,” then why have so many other people from the world over considered this broken heart the answer to their own broken dreams?
Finally, a note on agency. Agency is, broadly defined, the ability of an individual or group to shape a course of events. Johnson is famously skeptical of the concept as it relates to slavery. In a 2003 essay he argued that historians excessively rely on agency arguments to demonstrate the “humanity” of the enslaved. Johnson responded that all people, whether enslaved or enslavers, demonstrate humanity by their mere existence. Fighting in favor of slavery was as much a part of “humanity” as fighting against slavery. More to the point, he questioned how slavery could have existed as a powerful force in American life for so long if the enslaved were able to truly demonstrate agency on a mass scale. By overplaying the role of agency in resistance to slavery, Johnson argued that historians ran the risk of “practicing therapy rather than politics[.] We are using our work to make ourselves feel better and more righteous rather than to make the world better or more righteous.”
These are fair points and historians must keep them in mind when trying to place the experiences of Black and Brown people within the context of 18th and 19th United States history. But I do think there is a danger, particularly with regards to students learning about U.S. history, with focusing on the nature of white supremacy without accounting for the ways enslaved people and people forcibly removed from their homelands resisted this world order, both in large and small ways. This tension explains my frustration with the lack of attention paid to Black resistance to white supremacy during the Reconstruction era in The Broken Heart of America. If students read about the overwhelming reach of white supremacy and conclude that “it’s been like this for 200 years, I won’t be able to do anything about it today,” I fear that the force of history could act as a barrier to meaningful reform rather than an inspiration to make the world anew in the future.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Broken Heart of America. While disagreements about the Marxist interpretation of history will emerge from readers of this book, Johnson convincingly shows that capitalism, as it has been practiced in St. Louis, has a less than spectacular history of promoting justice for all. A system built to promote white prosperity and racial supremacy through slavery and Indian removal continues to have ramifications for policy today. How to promote a just and fair society in the United States will always be a point fierce debate, but one thing is true: readers will never look at St. Louis the same way again after reading The Broken Heart of America.
I have been a fan of Chef Gordon Ramsay for a long time, but at the start of this pandemic my wife and I decided to start watching every episode of the American version of “Kitchen Nightmares,” the popular show in which Ramsay takes a week to help a struggling restaurant on the brink of collapse. (The British version is better, but I’ve already seen all of those episodes!). In watching around 60 or 70 of these episodes over the past few months I’ve noticed certain explanations–excuses, perhaps–used by the owners of these failing restaurants that often make me think of the way we talk about struggling public history sites.
A consistent theme of Kitchen Nightmares is that many of the featured restaurants have been left in a time machine. A menu that hasn’t been updated in 30 years. Decor that is smelly and out of date. Disgusting walk-in refrigerators. Frozen food that’s lazily thrown in the microwave (sometimes defensively claimed to be FREEZER-FRESH FOOD). An ownership team that doesn’t communicate with staff, has lowered its standards of excellence, and is quick to cast blame on others. Oftentimes, when Chef Ramsay asks these confused owners why they think their restaurants are struggling, they argue that their food is a 10 out of 10 and that “this town doesn’t appreciate good food.” The old ways of doing things have been working just fine and we don’t want to alienate our loyal customers, they say.
Does any of this rhetoric sound familiar to those of us working in public history? Interpretive programs with content that is out of date and has nothing new to offer visitors. A historic house tour that is really just a glorified furniture tour and does little to tell visitors why history is important and gives no room for visitors to share their own perspectives during the experience. Museum exhibits that feature the same artifacts that were there twenty years ago. A hesitance to revise educational programming at the risk of alienating “loyal” visitors. An ownership team that does not communicate well and is unresponsive to staff needs. A Board of Directors that is out of touch with the struggles of frontline staff and does not respect the ideals of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. A culture that is anxious to point fingers and cast blame on others rather than taking an honest view inwards. “Young people just don’t respect history! They have to be on a phone all the time.” It’s not us, it’s them!
The term “revisionist” is sometimes used by critics of new approaches towards studying history. These are the people I envision as the disgruntled restaurant owners in Kitchen Nightmares who want everything to be the way it was in 1980. Medical scientists are rarely accused of being revisionists for trying to develop new medicines and cures for deadly diseases, but for a multitude of reasons there is a preference in some quarters for history to be told the same way it was thirty or fifty years ago. In reality, revisionism is fundamental to historical practice. Historians make new primary sources discoveries, revisit old interpretations, and constantly think anew about the many meanings the past may offer for today’s society. The same line of thinking should be embraced in public history as well.
Bruce Catton’s version of Civil War history from the 1950s and 1960s was readable, intriguing, and very popular. His writings influenced a generation of historians to study the American Civil War, and they influenced the way history was interpreted at Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg and Vicksburg for a very long time. I enjoy Catton as much as anyone. But those writings were a product of an earlier time and are now themselves a part of history. And those writings have their own shortcomings. Catton rarely, if ever, discussed the political issues of surrounding the conflict and most certainly avoided discussing slavery except as an issue on the periphery. His analysis of military strategy and tactics has been questioned by subsequent historians. Catton was a lovely author, but his interpretations need revision. Trying to write or interpret history at a public history site the way it was in 1965 is not going to work moving forward.
So . . . the big, broad lesson from Kitchen Nightmares is for public historians to stay up with the latest scholarship, regularly communicate with fellow staff members and colleagues in the field, and to never get too rooted in tradition or the idea that “this is the way we do things around here.” A very crappy 2020 should be the catalyst for change, not the excuse for doing more of the same. Otherwise you could very well find yourself in your own public history nightmare.