When Nostalgia Overwhelms History

Photo Credit: Singapore Management University: https://www.smu.edu.sg/perspectives/2017/09/29/nostalgia-makes-us-more-patient

I am a member of a Facebook group called “St. Louis, Missouri: History, Landmarks and Photos.” As the title suggests, it’s a fun community where people can share pictures, thoughts, and reflections on the city’s history.

Or so I thought.

Someone recently shared a photo of a blackface performance from the 1920s in Webster Groves, a well-to-do area just outside the St. Louis city limits. After all, the photo is historic and it depicts something that is a part of St. Louis history, whether we like it or not. One would think the photo meets the standards of this group. But alas, the commenters had a firestorm. Why is this outrageous photo being shared?! Why do we have be exposed to this painful history? Why do we have to talk about the bad parts of St. Louis history? As one critical commenter later stated, “Sorry, I joined this group for history and vintage photos, architecture and STL neighborhoods – NOT for any ‘enlightened exchange’ [about the political aspects of history.]” The photo was quickly removed by administrators. 

Listen, I get it. We don’t always have to harp on the bad parts of history and for the most part this group is one of the few positives experiences I get from using Facebook these days. But when the controversial aspects of history are removed from the overall story, it is better to simply call the group “St. Louis, Missouri: Landmarks and Photos.” If you enjoy looking at old photos but not studying the people, culture, and context of the time in which the photos were taken, you are engaging in nostalgia, not history.

One might wonder why people interested in a Facebook group such as this one wouldn’t want to learn more about the larger context of the city’s history, but I would contend that many of the blackface photo’s critics were precisely not interested in learning about or having a discussion about history. They are there to practice nostalgia. They are there to talk about their personal childhood experiences and re-live the good old days before the neighborhood went into “decline.” They want to see fancy old homes and neighborhoods but don’t want to discuss the humans who built them or the humans who live in those areas today. To talk about the experiences of, say, an African American who endured the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial discrimination during the “good old days” is nothing but a distraction and an effort to make the past political. Anything outside of mainstream history is a controversy. Please leave out the enlightened exchanges!

(I also note that the some of the same critics who objected to one blackface photo on a social media page because it was “painful” were demanding a few years ago that the St. Louis Confederate Monument remain in Forest Park “because it’s history.”)

This experience reinforced the importance of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 2000 book The Presence of the Past. After surveying 1,500 people the authors concluded that the foundation for historical understanding starts with the personal. As they discuss in the introduction, “people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future.” The challenge for historians, therefore, lies in working with their many publics to demonstrate how fitting personal experiences into a larger context–using an entire body of evidence to make an informed interpretation about the past–is how history is created.

The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has been a double-edged sword for historical understanding. On the one hand, people now have an almost limitless access to information. The contents of the past–letters, diaries, newspaper articles, historical photos–can be found with great abundance in places like the above Facebook group. On the other hand, are we really learning anything new? What do people do with the knowledge they acquire at these places? Do they go to the local library to check out a book about St. Louis history, or does the information contained in a particular post evaporate as soon as the viewer logs off of Facebook? The internet can be a place of knowledge accumulation, but it can also be a place that is quite the opposite. I suppose this is all to say that I hope historians and public historians will someday collaborate to research and publish a new edition of The Presence of the Past for the digital era.

Cheers

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If You Can’t Accurately Interpret Civil War Era Politics, Maybe Leave Them Out of Your Tour

Earlier this week a friend and I undertook a short two-day trip of various Civil War historic sites in Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. We had a great time and saw a lot of neat history, highlighted by a wonderful visit to Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Unfortunately we encountered some bad history along the way as well.

I will not name the site here, but this particular house tour was loaded with all sorts of Lost Cause nonsense.

  • “The war wasn’t all about slavery. It was about independence.” Why did they want their independence?
  • “Grant owned slaves during the war.” Wrong.
  • “Grant said he’d drop his sword and stop fighting if the war became a fight to end slavery.” Wrong, and obviously that didn’t happen. The guide’s comment was extremely ironic given that there was an exhibit right behind him about Grant’s support for the enlistment of black troops into the U.S. Army.
  • “Lincoln was a racist who didn’t care about slavery.” I agree that he held racial prejudices, but that does not mean he was indifferent about slavery.
  • “The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves.” Wrong.
  • “It’s not a PC thing to say, but there were thousands of blacks who served as soldiers in the Confederacy. Frederick Douglass saw them on the battlefield.” Wrong and wrong.

And on and on and on.

I usually keep quiet on tours, but there were multiple times when I had to push back against the tour guide’s interpretation. I felt bad afterwards for speaking out so much but I had never been on such an inaccurate tour before.

I believe all tours at Civil War historic sites should incorporate some discussion of the political ramifications of why the Civil War was fought. But in that moment I really felt like this house tour would have been better if it just focused on the furniture and fancy guns and left the politics out of it. At least people wouldn’t leave the tour in some sort of fantasy land where the war had nothing to do with slavery and 20,000 African Americans voluntarily fought for the Confederacy and their continued enslavement.

Cheers

More Dishonest “Heritage”: Photoshop Phun Edition

It might help to take a training session on using photoshop before attempting to make lame “heritage” memes. Great work from Andy Hall.

Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

If you follow the debates over the public display of the Confederate Battle Flag online, you’ve likely seen this image (right), purportedly showing a World War II Marine in the Pacific. Why, the argument goes, if the Confederate flag was good enough for the Greatest Generation, are you precious librul snowflakes all up in arms about it?

You can see this image in about a bajillion places. But it turns out that this is (yet another) little bit of dishonesty from the True Southrons™.

As Corey Meyer noted recently on the Facebook machine, the image has been Photoshopped to replace the United States flag with the Confederate one. Here’s the original, via the U.S. Marine Corps Archives on Flickr:

Marine Corps Archives caption:

The Stars and Stripes on Shuri Castle-Marine Lieutenant Colonel R.P. Ross, Jr., of Frederick, Md., plants the American flag on one of the remaining ramparts…

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Anthony Johnson: Not the First Slave Owner

Excellent research from blogging extraordinaire Al Mackey on the fallacious claim that a black man–Anthony Johnson–was the first slaveholder in what would become the United States. I wrote about Johnson in 2014 here: https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/american-history-doesnt-start-at-jamestown/

Student of the American Civil War

I’m sure many of you have seen the phony claim neoconfederates often put forward that a black man, Anthony Johnson, was the first slave owner in Colonial America. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve already dealt with this phony claim here.

In this post I’d like to share some additional information uncovered during my research. Recall Anthony Johnson’s case against John Casor was in 1655. “As early as 1639 we hear of a Negro slave in Pennsylvania. In 1644 Negroes were in demand to work the lowlands of Delaware. … Negro slaves were sold in Maryland in 1642. … There is evidence to show that the status of the Negro was at first very closely affiliated with that of the white servant with whom the colonists were thoroughly familiar and who stood half way between freedom and complete subjugation. It is probable, therefore, that both Indian and…

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Reviewing Hockey Cinema for Sport in American History

Regular readers of Exploring the Past know that I have many writing interests besides the American Civil War and nineteenth century history, and I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to periodically write my thoughts on sports for the fantastic website Sport in American History over the past couple of years. I am grateful for the opportunity to write outside “my lane” on occasion and I think that if the circumstances had been slightly different I might have pursued a career in sports media when I was younger.

For my latest essay on the website I reviewed a new book on hockey cinema and sports films by Iri Cermak, a Media Studies scholar. In the review I go through the typical analysis of various themes that emerge throughout the book’s chapters, but I also offer a fairly critical assessment of what I think is a serious shortcoming when it comes to analyzing the changing racial dynamics of hockey cinema and hockey as a whole in the book. I was pretty pleased with how this review came out; the American Studies department at Notre Dame retweeted the essay onto their account, so I guess someone liked it!

Let me know what you think.

Cheers

What is the Benefit of Having “Historical Perspective” When Analyzing Current Events?

The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.

But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?

I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.

To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.

What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?

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