John C. Calhoun has become the latest casualty in an ongoing conversation about America’s commemorative landscape and who, exactly, is deserving of continued commemoration and a place of honor within that landscape. After the formation of a committee and much debate (noticeably without the voice of historian David Blight), Yale University has decided to remove Calhoun’s name from a residential college that was established in 1931. Journalist Geraldo Rivera, decrying “political correctness,” announced that he left a position at the university and, unsurprisingly, numerous thinkpieces have emerged making arguments for or against the change. Rivera is free to do what he pleases, although I find this episode a strange cause for which to give up a job. I also respect Yale’s position even though I can see compelling points on both sides of the argument.
One of the more thought-provoking essays I’ve come across since the announcement is Roger Kimball’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Kimball claims that the process by which Yale decided to remove Calhoun’s name was inconsistent and that, just like Rivera’s claim, the change was flawed since a “politically correct circus” of academic groupthink dominated the process. He rightly points out that Yale’s history as an educational institution is loaded with notable alumna and professors with controversial backgrounds, including Elihu Yale himself. In making this argument, however, he downplays Calhoun’s historical legacy and never makes a compelling argument as to why Yale should have kept his name associated with the residential college. Equally important, he doesn’t make an effort to examine Yale’s reasoning for naming the college after Calhoun in the first place.
There are two major problems with Kimball’s thinking, in my view. The first is the way he characterizes Calhoun. Kimball acknowledges that he was a slaveholder and brilliant politician who argued that slavery was a “positive good.” But Calhoun wasn’t just a racist slaveholder; he was a political and intellectual leader of American proslavery thought whose words influenced a generation of proslavery thinkers.
Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who maintained an uneasy relationship with the institution. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and contrary to the laws of human nature. John Calhoun told slaveholders to not feel ashamed any longer; slavery was a law of nature and servitude to white enslavers was the correct station in life for black people. Proslavery religious leaders used Calhoun’s logic to argue that enslavement allowed for African souls to be Christianized. Scientific thinkers like Samuel Cartwright said African Americans were biologically inferior and went so far as to invent a new disease, “Drapetomania,” to explain why slaves tried to run away from their enslavers. Proslavery political leaders in the days of the early republic through the 1820 Missouri Compromise were willing to set aside some new U.S. territories from slavery’s expansion in the interest of sectional harmony and free state/slave state political balance. But those proslavery leaders were replaced by new leaders in the 1840s and 1850s who said that compromise on the slavery question was dishonor and that all new territories should be opened for slavery. John Calhoun, in his racism but also his intellectual brilliance that was in part cultivated by his Yale education, played an integral role in fostering these developments, which in turn led to the eventual breakout of the American Civil War, the deadliest war in this country’s history.
These truths are too much for Kimball, however. He states that “You might, like me, think that Calhoun was wrong about [slavery]. But if you are [Yale President] Peter Salovey, you have to disparage Calhoun as a “white supremacist” whose legacy—“racism and bigotry,” according to a university statement—was fundamentally ‘at odds’ with the noble aspirations of Yale University” . . . “Who among whites at the time was not [a white supremacist]? Take your time.”
Wendel Phillips; the Grimke sisters; the Tappan brothers; Theodore Weld; John Brown; Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Gerrit Smith…
Is Calhoun somehow not a racist or white supremacist? Did he not believe that blacks as a race were inferior and that the white race should be able to control the black race through whatever legal means it saw fit? What does it say about Kimball that he becomes infuriated with the words “white supremacist” to describe Calhoun?
The second problem with Kimball’s argument is his “whatabout-ism” in the essay. What about slave trader Elihu Yale or other slaveholders associated with Yale like Timothy Dwight, Benjamin Silliman, and Jonathan Edwards? Shouldn’t they also have their names removed, he asks? Certainly Yale was a more “objectionable” person than Calhoun, right? This line of thinking is a crucial element of Kimball’s argument because it intends to discredit Yale’s process for removing Calhoun’s name and ultimately paint the university’s administration as playing politics with the issue. This is a fair critique, but only to a point. Isn’t it a bit subjective and unproductive to debate whether Yale or Calhoun was “more objectionable” when both said and did despicable things? Aren’t we deflecting from the real conversation–whether or not John Calhoun as an individual, regardless of anyone else’s legacy, is deserving of a place of honor at Yale–by arguing that other people were bad too and that all white people were racist at the time?
Buildings all over the world are named after historical figures whose names were placed there because powerful cultural elites believed that person represented values that were important to contemporary society and were therefore deserving of honor and recognition. Some of these names will remain in their location forever. Some of these names change over time because new people make history and earn a spot within the commemorative landscape while older names are forgotten. And sometimes those names change because contemporary values–which are always a factor in selecting who gets to be a part of a commemorative landscape–change.
It is more than fair to ask whether or not the process of removing Calhoun’s name was legitimate, but it’s a separate question from whether or not Calhoun deserves his place of honor. If we wish to have a productive conversation about John C. Calhoun’s historical legacy, we must be willing to have an honest look at his life, his deeds, and his time. We must be willing to acknowledge that he was a white supremacist and a controversial figure in his time. And we must consider why Yale leaders felt the need to honor Calhoun with a college in his namesake in 1931 and why it was considered acceptable at that time to do so. From there we can begin to debate Calhoun’s individual legacy without resorting to tired “political correctness” arguments or childishly saying that other people were bad too. If Calhoun deserves a college in his name, make a compelling case to justify it based on his merits as a historical figure.
In April 2009 Congress passed and President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which aimed to promote the “dramatic growth of service and volunteer opportunities that will address key social issues.” A council called “Reimaging Service” was tasked with implementing the legislation’s Call to Service initiative and encouraging more citizens to volunteer for the federal government with tasks related to these “key social issues.” In January 2015 the council issued its final report and disbanded.
Obtaining more info about volunteers for the National Park Service and encouraging more people to volunteer for the agency was one of the goals of Reimaging Service. (Department of the Interior Sally Jewell’s “Play, Learn, Serve, Work” initiative has also worked towards this goal). In June 2014 Reimagining Service issued a report about NPS volunteering that included this opening paragraph:
In an age where resources only seem to dwindle, it is encouraging to see one resource on the rise: volunteers in national parks. The National Park Service (NPS) increases its volunteer numbers and the hours served annually, continuing a positive trend.
It’s been a well-known fact among NPS employees and visitors to the agency’s sites that there has been a remarkable increase in the presence of volunteers at sites throughout the country. A friend and fellow NPS employee who recently went on a trip through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming reported hardly any front-line rangers in uniform greeting visitors or leading interpretive tours. Two years ago I visited three Civil War battlefields in Virginia and saw one ranger in uniform during the entire trip. There are probably many reasons for the increased volunteer presence, including more people who are retired and anxious to help out their local parks. But it also seems that such trends are reflective of government austerity measures that seek to eliminate budgetary costs incurred through paid full-time and seasonal employees.
It’s probably a taboo and controversial question to ask, but are more volunteers in national parks truly a “positive trend” for the future of the agency? Do museums and historic sites more broadly benefit from more volunteer help? Who benefits from an increase in volunteering within public history sites, and who is hurt by the process?
It should go without saying that volunteers are crucial to the operations of countless museums and historic sites, and the volunteers I work with on a daily basis at my place of employment are wonderful people who sacrifice their free-time to help out our modest operation. We should all thank our volunteers. But our thanks should not preclude institutional leaders from considering the extent to which volunteer help can and should be utilized and when a particular job requires the skills of a paid employee. As Elizabeth Merritt of the Alliance of American Museums points out, the fair market value of a museum/public history job is very much in flux and is further complicated by the fact that so many people are willing to do such work for free. Institutions can abuse their ability to rely on volunteer help. An over-reliance on volunteers runs the risk of keeping competent workers out of the field or underemployed, preventing people from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to work in a volunteer capacity from breaking into the field, and devaluing the labor of public historians, particularly front-line employees who specialize in education and interpretation. It is one thing for an institutional leader or supervisory public historian with a stable full-time job to applaud the increase in volunteer labor at public history sites, but one can see how a young graduate student or new professional might see such a development as troubling and disenchanting.
I do not propose that all volunteer positions at a given historic site or museum should be replaced with full-time employees or that an increase in volunteer help is a wholly terrible development. Volunteers enhance museums and historic sites in countless different ways, and in most circumstances volunteers are the most enthusiastic boosters for supporting public history sites in a local community. But I do think there are potential negative consequences that come with increased reliance on volunteer labor, and the field as a whole needs to be more introspective about the role of volunteering and the establishment of a fair wage for public history work. I am lucky to have a stable full-time job in the public history world doing interpretation and education, but what happens when I leave? Will my spot be filled by a volunteer in the future? I know of too many instances in which that scenario has played out, and I can’t help but be worried about future employment opportunities for the many talented people who are trying to break into the public history field and support themselves with a stable job. Similarly, there are many volunteers who would love to obtain paid employment but find themselves unable to do so.
When at all possible, we need to be paying good work with good pay.
On Monday, October 3 I’ll be giving a short talk to a local senior group about the origins of the National Park Service and the agency’s ongoing efforts to commemorate and celebrate its centennial year. I’ve used this opportunity to take a deeper look into the agency’s history and evolution from exclusively a nature-based agency to one that also incorporates the preservation and interpretation of cultural resources. I’m also exploring the tension between the agency’s twin goals of providing access to visitors by building an infrastructure to provide for visitor comfort and amusement at NPS sites and the agency’s mandate to preserve its resources “unimpaired.” To assist in my stuides I’ve been relying heavily on Richard West Sellars’s Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History and re-reading Denise Meringolo’s Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History for guidance.
These two books compliment each other nicely. Sellars does a nice job of assessing the Park Service’s early history and exploring the ways that various agency leaders have sought to simultaneously preserve and provide access to the country’s natural wonders. But as the title of his books suggests, Sellars completely omits any discussion of the preservation of historic sites throughout the agency’s history, just like when Ken Burns omitted historic sites from his 2009 documentary on the NPS. While I understand the desire to maintain a narrow analytic focus when writing a book, the omission of the history sites is another example creating a false dichotomy between “nature” and “history” sites and playing into a popular perception of the National Park Service as primarily–if not solely–a protector of natural resources. I believe the sort of detailed analysis Sellars gives for the history of nature preservation is still sorely needed for analyzing the agency’s history when it comes to historic preservation.
Meringolo’s book does a nice job of filling some of the gaps left by Sellars with her discussion of the agency’s expansion into historic preservation during the New Deal. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt issued two executive orders after consulting with NPS Director Horace Albright. The first one, Executive Order 6166, assigned the NPS with assuming responsibility for all of the parks and monuments in Washington, D.C. (what is now the National Mall) and overseeing all commemorative activities at those sites. The second one, Executive Order 6228, assigned 57 historic sites previously administered by the War Department and 17 monuments from other agencies to the NPS. Meringolo explores these developments while also analyzing the emergence of the Smithsonian and the role of government in preserving national history.
I always enjoy giving talks and I look forward to seeing how this one goes. If you have book recommendations on the history of the Park Service, let me know in the comments section.
Patriotism–love of country–can be a noble ideal that promotes informed, educated citizenship and respect for its governing institutions and the people who compose its society. But patriotism without criticism is lazy and toothless; a cheap way of demanding conformity to the status quo. Condescendingly demanding that people must either love this country unconditionally or “leave it” is deeply insulting to the many patriotic Americans both yesterday and today who have fought injustices throughout our country’s history and have argued through the language of protest that this country can and should do better. The late author James Baldwin correctly argued that “I love America more than any country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Democracies and Republics thrive on dissent. Fascist and authoritarian governments thrive on the suppression of dissent.
We Americans are a free people whose country was born of protest. The right to protest is a right codified in law and protected by those who put their lives on the line for us in military service for this country (and who, by the way, do not need to be apologized to before engaging in protest). We can debate all day about correct and incorrect protest methods, but peaceful protesters–whatever the cause–have just as much a right to pursue freedom and liberty for themselves as anyone else, even if their actions and messages are distasteful in our eyes. The National Anthem and our ritual of standing up for it should not be empty gestures done just to be polite or to adhere to forced standards of patriotism, but should be practiced by freedom-loving people who stand on their own free will because they believe in its words and the patriotic spirit they invoke.
In 1943 a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses students in West Virginia refused to salute the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance and were expelled from school. The case went to the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Chief Justice Robert Jackson stated that:
“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
One of the most urgent questions in recent years for those of us public historians who work at slave plantations has revolved around the proper terminology for referring to the historical victims of black chattel slavery. For years historians–both public and academic–have used the term “slave,” but a vigorous and compelling argument has recently been made to replace “slave” with “enslaved people.” Last year I wrote an essay outlining some of those arguments, and since that time I have come around to believe that “enslaved people” is the better term to use (although I do a bit of interchanging between the terms for clarity and to avoid repetitiveness in my talks). The reasoning is simple. “Slave” runs the risk of portraying these people as property first and foremost, whereas “enslaved people” highlights the human dignity of those who labored under the status of enslavement. Enslaved people were people first and foremost, even if some at the time like Chief Justice Roger Taney considered “slaves” property and not people under the terms of the 5th amendment. While there are concerns about presentism in the word “enslaved people,” I am not as worried as I once was about that particular concern because we use “presentist” terms in other contexts without hesitation. “Negroes” are now referred to as Black or African American, and the “War of the Rebellion” is now commonly referred to as “The Civil War” or, if you are so inclined, “The War of Northern Aggression,” a term invented during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
In the course of actively using the term “enslaved people” more frequently on my tours, I’ve been impressed by the number of visitors who have asked questions about the term and/or praised my use of it. To be sure, the vast majority of visitors either have no opinion one way or the other or choose to keep their thoughts to themselves, but it’s nonetheless remarkable how many conversations have occurred with visitors over the term. Those who’ve engaged me in conversation have often commented on how they appreciated how the term more strongly brought out the humanity of enslaved blacks than did the term “slave,” and one visitor who works in the education field commented that the term represented one small step towards making historic sites more welcoming to people of color. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
I recently experienced my first considerable pushback from a couple taking my tour, however. They were actually very friendly people and we had a good conversation about a range of topics, but it was obvious that the term “enslaved people” had rubbed them the wrong way. “Are you not allowed to use the word ‘slave’ anymore? Is the government making you say that term? ‘Enslaved people’ sounds like a politically correct term to me.” No, I’m not a leftist government agent tasked with engaging in an Orwellian project to push political correctness onto the American people. I just want to use inclusive, respectful language that accounts for the varied experiences of people who lived in the United States during the nineteenth century.
It’s unfortunate that someone could put up such a fuss about the term “enslaved people,” but the use of the term “political correctness” is instructive. One of the most obnoxious traits of contemporary society is to assume the worst intentions in what people say to each other. If everyone around you is perceived to have bad intentions, it’s not a stretch to say they might assume the worst of intentions in you as well. Of course intentions and outcomes are two separate entities, and one person’s positive or at least innocuous intentions can definitely lead to negative consequences. But to constantly assume that a person’s attempt at respectful language is “political correctness” is, in reality, a sign of personal sensitivity, anger, and defensiveness. And the term “political correctness” is typically used in an effort to shut down debate and enforce silence on potentially touchy topics.
Anyway. The effort to more frequently and consciously use the term “enslaved people” on my tours has been largely successful and I hope more interpreters at slave plantations consider using it in the future.
The Junior Ranger Program is one of the most successful education initiatives the National Park Service has ever rolled out. Kids of all ages work on activity books as they go through a particular unit of the Park Service and, upon completion, get a Junior Ranger badge modeled after the badge that we park rangers wear on our uniforms. Almost every unit of the NPS participates in the program by creating their own unique educational activities. Some Junior Rangers may only go to one, two, or five parks during their youth, but others collect literally hundreds of badges. It’s a nice program that provides a chance for kids to learn about national parks, and I work really hard to provide an enjoyable learning experience for Junior Rangers who go on my tours.
One of the Junior Ranger activity books that we offer at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site includes a page where Junior Rangers are required to interview a Park Ranger. One of the interview questions is the following:
Which NPS value is most important to you? Why?
Caring for People
Caring for Places
Caring for Nature
I have thought a lot about this question and what my answer to it would be.
There are now currently 412 units of the National Park Service. Some of those places teach us about nature, wildlife, and the importance of protecting natural resources, while others tell us stories about our history and the importance of understanding the past. Some of the best sites find ways to incorporate lessons about both in their interpretive programming. Each NPS unit has a unique story. Some of those stories–ones the remind us of the wrongs of slavery, Indian removal, Japanese internment during World War II, the horrors and bloodshed of war–expose our country’s shortcomings and faults, forcing us to remember that there is much work to do in striving to create a more equal society that promotes liberty for all. Other stories remind us of the natural beauty of our country and the possibility of a better tomorrow that learns from and avoids the pitfalls of the past.
But while caring for places and nature is definitely important, the most important value to me, by far, is the importance of caring for people. What’s the point of taking care of a historic place or a natural wonder if nobody came to visit that place? How successful would the National Park Service be in executing its mission of preserving and providing access to America’s natural and cultural treasures if caring for people wasn’t the first priority? It is only when we care for people first and foremost–both the people who visit and the employees who dedicate their lives to this work–that we’re in a better position to care for historic places and natural wonders.
I have worked full-time for the National Park Service for two years and throughout my life I’ve visited probably 25 or 30 units of the NPS throughout the country (I’ve got a lot of work to do still). I love visiting every site, whether big or small, historic or scenic. My passion for history and the discovery that I could possibly find work educating people about history outside of a traditional classroom inspired me to give up my efforts to become a high school history teacher and pursue a career with the Park Service. It was an amazing feeling when the Grant site in my native St. Louis offered me a full-time job, and my role as a steward of the NPS and American history is not something I take lightly. That love of history initially drove me to the NPS, but it’s the people I interact with on a daily basis at my job and the people I meet during my own travels that make the NPS special to me. It’s the friendships I’ve made and the thoughtful people I’ve met from all over the country who inspire me to put on the green and gray uniform every working day and strive to do a better job tomorrow. I’ve given tours to TV personalities and NFL football players but also eight graders from Ferguson, senior citizens enjoying a life of retirement, and hard-working everyday people of all ages and backgrounds whose desire to learn from and enjoy NPS sites inspires them as they traverse thousands of miles around the country to find each unique place.
The NPS has its challenges going forward. We need to be a more inclusive place, both in our visitation and in our hiring practices. Not every day on the job is a great one. Working with the public can sometimes be a double-edged sword, like those times when a kids yells and screams during a tour or when I’m told by a visitor that my understanding of history is “completely wrong.” I have hopes for moving up the NPS career ladder, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen right now. Working any job for 40 hours a week is bound to be mentally grinding and monotonous at times. But the people I meet on a daily basis make my job a special one; the visitors who share their stories with me and take my tours; my co-workers who make my work environment a pleasant one and who challenge me to be a better historian and educator; those moments when a visitor smiles and says “I learned something new today.” That’s what the National Park Service is all about.
Here’s to another 100 years of preserving America’s natural and cultural resources.
What is the Appropriateness of Living History Programs that Feature Actors Portraying Enslaved People?
One of the most powerful living history programs I have ever participated in is Conner Prairie Interactive History Park’s “Follow the North Star.” Located in Fishers, Indiana, Conner Prairie is a popular award-winning history park with strong leadership and innovative programming. “Follow the North Star” is one of the park’s most popular programs and is probably its most polarizing. Set in 1830s Indiana, visitors who participate in the program are designated as runaway enslaved people from Kentucky seeking help along the Underground Railroad towards eventual freedom in Canada. As a participant I was screamed at and belittled by reenactors portraying racist white Hoosiers, and ultimately I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of the program. “Follow the North Star” was powerful not in the sense that I felt happy or inspired at the end. It was powerful because it was an emotionally draining yet memorable experience that, in my own weird way of wanting to read more about American history when I learn about its most oppressive aspects, pushed me to learn more about the relationship between slavery and race and the depths of white Northern racism in the nineteenth century. In that sense the program was a success for me.
In an essay I wrote about the future of historical reenacting last year I cited “Follow the North Star” as a case study for future living history programs, many of which I currently find boring, uninspiring, and forgettable. In particular I was impressed with the way the program’s organizers undertook comprehensive research prior to going live and how they developed mandatory pre– and post-program activities that allowed people a space to prepare for what they were about to undertake and then mentally decompress afterwords. “Follow the North Star” has won several prestigious awards and was one of the first among several other programs over the past twenty years at public history sites that include actors portraying enslaved people in first- and third-person portrayals. Among other programs during this time, James and Lois Horton’s Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of Public History briefly discusses a 1994 slave auction reenactment at Colonial Williamsburg, renactors like Azie Mira Dungey (most popularly known through her Ask a Slave series) regularly interact with visitors at places like Mount Vernon and Monticello, and another slave auction took place in St. Louis at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s Old Courthouse in 2011 (reactions here and here to that event). I’m sure there are other similar events I’m missing.
“Follow the North Star” and other programs that feature renactors portraying enslaved people are far from perfect, however. The Indianapolis Star recently wrote a largely negative critique of the program, and after reading it a few times I think most of these critiques are fair. Among the problems journalist Olivia Lewis discusses are:
- The idea, as expressed by IUPUI professor Lori Patton Davis, that no reenactment whatsoever can truly convey the horrors and tragedy of slavery.
- That “Follow the North Star” diminishes the violence of slavery, with one student interviewed in the article going so far as to say that it made “a mockery of…the actual severity of things.”
- That the experience of role-playing as an enslaved person is a potentially traumatic experience for participants, particularly young people of color.
- That pre- and post-program activities need to focus on making connections between slavery and race, institutional racism, white supremacy, and racism in American society today, topics that are not always discussed among program leaders, school teachers, and students throughout the process.
I am sensitive to these critiques, particularly the potential for “Follow the North Star” being a traumatic experience for people of color, and I can understand how these sorts of programs could be perceived not merely as offensive but actually hurtful. Point four is difficult to define in precise terms because it’s one thing to make connections between past and present and another thing entirely to turn those connections into concrete actions through policy and/or changed behavior and social practices. I agree that the former is necessary, but there’s lots of room for debate on the appropriate measures for the latter step. I don’t have all the answers for that part of the equation.
But let’s backtrack to point one, the idea that in Dr. Davis’s words, “There were gruesome things that happened to people, black people, and there’s no amount of [historical] re-enactment that can help you understand the tragedy that slavery was.” Is there merit in this point? Should public history sites refrain from historical re-enactments that feature actors portraying enslaved people?
One argument to support this point is the idea that other traumatic events such as Indian removal and the Holocaust are not taught to students through historical reenactment. A lawyer quoted in the Indianapolis Star article takes this position, and my good friend and fellow public historian Nicholas K. Johnson took the same position as well. In a phone conversation with Nick he commented that “[I] find slavery reenactments gross. I feel that they are a step on the road to a Dachau reenactment (slippery slope, I know).” He added that “I find living history hokey and fake a lot of the time.”
But what about the good work of slave reenactors and dramatic performers like the aforementioned Azie Mira Dungey and Michael Twitty, whose living history performances focus on the experiences and foodways of enslaved people? Do public history sites that interpret slavery lose a bit of their educational appeal by eschewing living history performances that feature actors portraying enslaved people?
I think one of the big distinctions here is that “Follow the North Star” attempts to recreate something that really can’t be recreated, and in the process runs the risk of hurting people emotionally. And the process of historical role-playing as an enslaved person is at the very least extremely jarring and at its worst completely hurtful and traumatic. A dramatic performance by someone portraying an enslaved person doesn’t necessarily attempt to do the same thing or force participants to role play as slaves. A dramatic performance, however, isn’t without its own pitfalls and requires the performer to undertake extensive research to ensure that they know what they’re talking about and that they discuss slavery in accurate and respectful terms.
I’m very much thinking out loud with this post and don’t propose to offer answers to these questions or speak for anyone else besides myself. But I think these sorts of conversations are vitally important to have because the way public historians and public history sites talk about, interpret, and portray slavery matters a great deal.
What do you think?
One of the reasons I enjoy blogging is that it gives me a chance to hash out thoughts, ideas, and theories that may not be fully developed in my mind. Blogging for me is as much about asking questions about how and why we study history as it is writing essays that aim to inform readers on a given historical topic that I’ve studied. Indeed, asking questions about the fundamental theories the underlie the act of historical thinking and the intellectual contours of the profession is a necessary challenge all historians must address. In doing so, we better position ourselves to sharpen our methodological tools while simultaneously improving upon the ways we explain the importance of studying history to the rest of society. Doing a better job of answering the question “why study history?” has been a central challenge of my career as a public historian so far, and I’ve thankfully learned a lot not just by reading books but also blogging out my ideas and receiving constructive feedback from thoughtful readers.
With my last post I delved into the importance of having “historical perspective” when analyzing current events. Does it help to have historical perspective? If the answer is yes, then how so? My thoughts were shaky and I had no conclusive answers. Thankfully a number of commenters stepped in and offered some brilliant thoughts.
From Christopher Graham of the American Civil War Museum:
I think the comparisons of better/worse are not the right way to frame the questions and leads us to dumb debates over better/worse and that’s not very good history.
What historical perspective should be teaching us–aside from the overwhelming complexity that defies a better/worse narrative–is how this process of historical change works. We should be asking–where is the intentionality that represents tradition and systems, and where does contingency and the unexpected that shape sensibilities and events intersect with it? How does that inevitably make things different–not necessarily better or worse, just different. And how do we identify those historical processes at work in current events? The answer reveals that we should be looking widely for motivations for change, should be ready to accept the unexpected, and that it is a dynamic process.
And from Andrew McGregor of Purdue University:
I think a lot of folks who talk about historical perspective, talk in terms of compare and contrast, which, to me, isn’t really what history and historical perspective is about. I think one of the problems that your are wrestling with here is that questions like “how did we get here?” (which are an important question to ask!) are inherently teleological. Similarly comparing and contrasting almost always involved some sort of value judgment (progress or declension). Neither approach is very emotive or humanistic (to deBoer’s point), which forces us to rethink how we understand and tell the history of “victims” (for lack of a better word). I think historical perspective works best, when we are use it to understand and get inside of moments, ideas and arguments, cultures, to better understand the lineage of people’s experiences, creating what might be termed a historical empathy built through examples and understandings of the past. This is much more easily done we analyzing how and why people make certain arguments about the Confederate flag or the R*dskins mascot, but when talking about structures and processes (like criminal justice and policing) we sometimes lose that humanness in how we tell, explain, or understand history. I’ll stop rambling there, but I think my overall point here is that we need to be conscientious of keeping a humanistic historical perspective instead of falling into lazy patterns of analysis that are often flawed.
Both of these comments redirected my thinking on historical perspective towards a new direction. It’s perfectly natural for us to compare and contrast the conditions of contemporary society with those of past societies – it’s all we can really do since we can’t predict what the future will bring. But in focusing my thoughts on comparing past and present through a better-or-worse dichotomy, I failed to grasp all the different and dynamic ways historical thinking challenges us to assess the present beyond a simple progress/declension narrative. Historical thinking includes all that Christopher and Andrew mention in their comments; finding the intersection of intentionality and contingency, analyzing change over time, and exploring ideas, cultures, and experiences in a way that goes beyond making subjective judgements as to whether things are better or worse today.
It’s a profound analytical failure to scold people for not having “historical perspective.” We don’t live in history. We live in our lives.
— HR-Compliant Freddie (@freddiedeboer) July 8, 2016
The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.
But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?
I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.
To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.
What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?
Many of us who study history do so in part because we are curious to see how our current society came to be. When discussing anything like education, economic, or foreign policy, it helps to see how policies, theories, laws, and ideas have evolved over time. There is a seductive quality to historical thinking. Sometimes, for better or worse, it leads us to believe that studying the past can offer us stability, order, and a better understanding to the world. We should be cautious, however, about drawing hard and fast conclusions about what the past can really teach us about the present or what it can do in terms of mapping out a foundation for future policy. Likewise, we should be very cautions about drawing comparisons between historical events and contemporary politics. I’ve been seeing a lot of these types of articles lately. But of all the reasons one may be inclined to oppose Donald Trump’s presidential bid, I don’t think Zachary Taylor’s rise to the Whig party’s Presidential nomination in 1848 as an “outsider” candidate and the subsequent fall of the Whig party in the 1850s is one that would prevent many people from voting for Trump, even if there are some similarities between the 1848 and 2016 elections. (It also bears pointing out that Ulysses S. Grant was very much a political “outsider” when he accepted the Republican party’s nomination in 1868, and the party turned out to be just fine with him at the helm. So it seems like there is no accepted wisdom when it comes to choosing outsider candidates based on historical precedent).
Ultimately I think there is a very fine line between studying history for the sake of understanding changes over time and how things came to be, and studying history as a means of forming future policy. I often get lost in the gray area of the intersection of history and politics when thinking about the importance of historical thinking as a way of making sense of the world. I do think there are some connections to be made between past and present. Here in the United States I don’t believe it’s a mere coincidence that the states where the harshest anti-LGBTQ legislation has been passed are also the states that most ardently supported Jim Crow laws and resisted the Civil Rights Movement in the recent past. And yet at the same time I understand that the people of the past were not like us. There’s nothing suggesting that today’s society will act a certain way because of what happened in the past. I don’t believe that history repeats itself. But how we understand the past is contested in part because we disagree about the historical connections and comparisons that make sense for explaining the world today. As a society debates its history and competing interpretations vie for the most compelling understanding of the past based on available evidence, politics fills the void left by an uncertain, incomplete, and inchoate understanding of the role of history in shaping present circumstances.
Are there any “lessons of history” to be gleaned from studying the past? There are a few that come to mind for me.
One “lesson” is that humans are complex figures and nothing is predictable. Historical precedents often give us imperfect answers for solving contemporary problems. At the same time, while I value the contributions of social scientists in politics and economics, I tend to look upon their predictive models with great skepticism because they value generalizations that dismiss statistical outliers over complex interpretations that take a more holistic view of societal thinking, which is what historians try to do most of the time. That does not mean social science has nothing to contribute, but only that there will be incorrect predictions at times and human behaviors that go beyond numbers and trends. Nate Silver screws up sometimes.
The other lesson is that “progress” is a double-edged sword that always comes with a trade-off. The invention of standardized time in the 19th century provided order to an industrializing world and ensured more efficiency and larger production capabilities in a capitalist economy, but it also made people slaves to the clock and killed many workers who yielded under this unforgiving economic structure. The development of the world wide web, the internet, and smartphone technology quite literally gives us the world at our fingertips, allowing us the chance to access tens of thousands of books, articles, and bits of information that people in the past would have never had access to. And yet at the same time we have become addicted to our phones. The internet is full of misinformation that spreads like a wildfire through social media and poorly-written memes. Whether or not we are truly smarter than those who lived before this technology is very much an open question. And, as Evgeny Morozov has so convincingly demonstrated, the internet doesn’t make us freer and in fact can be used to prop up authoritarian governments. I subscribe to the Walter Benjamin theory of progress and his conception of history as a storm that we crash into while we have our backs to the future.
In the end I like what historian Ian Beacock has to say about history and contemporary politics. To wit:
Do we need to banish history from our public life? Of course not. But we ought to think more carefully about how we put it to use. Appeals to the past are most valuable, and do most to strengthen our democratic culture, when they help us see more potential futures: by showing events to be contingent and complex, turning us away from simplistic models and easy answers, and reminding us of the terrific, terrifying creativity that drives human behavior. In practice, that means we should spend less time trying to find the perfect single equivalence between Trump and politicians past and more time reflecting on broader patterns. More than particular historical analogies, we need historical thinking.