Multiculturalism Needs to Work: Public Historians of Color

Mining the Public

During my oral exam (the final step in completing my Masters program), my adviser/program director asked me: “Do you think it matters that you’re an African-American public historian?” Before he could barely ask the question I knew where he was going and it had been something in the back of my mind for nearly a year by that time. In an explosion of anticipation, I quickly and loudly said “Yes!” I had a lot to say on the subject. Well that already seems like it was long ago and now I’m officially done with my Masters degree in public history.

Today, public history tends to be sensitive to those it serves and their diversity. Attempts to be inclusive seem to increase every year. During my studies, I learned about indigenous curation which applies the source culture’s reverence and attitude to their objects in museums. In other words: Hidatsa ritual objects…

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3 thoughts on “Multiculturalism Needs to Work: Public Historians of Color

  1. Courtney, I love this article. I think it does send an important subliminal message to visitors when people do not necessarily correspond racially or ethnically to the history they are presenting. I do have one bone to pick: the language “cultures they aren’t part of” suggests a reductive interpretation of culture.

    In my opinion, it does not matter what race or ethnicity you are. If you grew up in America, you have been changed by African cultures, Irish culture, German culture, et cetera. It is a little more complicated than saying someone is a part of a culture because they are a certain race. I would not equate the two. Once again (in my opinion) that is the mistaken assumption behind racism–that the way someone looks signals their culture.

    But I am just being picky. Like you, I would love to see the discipline of history (in all its facets, public and academic) become more multicultural. Thanks for the article!

    1. Courtney M. Baxter

      I can definitely see what you mean because as Americans and as growing citizens of the world, via media and the internet, in particular, we are influenced by so many cultures. I think my statement could have been better said: “communities they aren’t a part of”. I think this more correctly gets to my point. Cultural communities based on race and nationality (admittedly, complex and unstable classifications) is perhaps more correct. The influence of ethnicity or culture doesn’t necessarily make me part of the community. For instance, I like to eat Greek food, watch Bollywood movies, and so on but I don’t assume inclusion in those communities.

      It makes me think of this book I’m reading Some of My Best Friends are Black by Tanner Colby and recent surveys that notes that a rather large percentage of white people have no friends of another race. Add to this how many Americans still live in mostly racially homogenous communities. Can someone who studies Chinese culture be part of the community if they don’t regularly interact with people from that group? I guess the same could be said of someone who isn’t raised with any of the traditions, rituals, and other facets of a particular culture. Yes my comment is still on the reductive side.

      It’s something to think about. Thanks for the comments and for taking me to task.

      1. Yeah. No problem. I understand what you are talking about, especially the “unstable classifications” thing. Congratulations on your oral exam!

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