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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Mining the Public?

Mining the Public

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy which essentially is the belief that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge…

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Death at a Memorial: National Memorial Arboretum

About the three weeks ago I returned from my third trip to England and it seems like every time I visit the United Kingdom it changes my views about America. This last trip around central England, the Midlands, led me to the National Memorial Arboretum. The National Memorial Arboretum lies outside of Lichfield and was officially opened in May 2011 as a “living memorial” to all British service men and women, with individual memorials to particular brigades, infantry and the like. The contributions of allies are also honored, for example Jewish and Polish servicemen. Uniquely the memorial also honors victims of infant mortality and children affected by war and conflict in its “Garden of Innocents” (notably Anne Frank is specifically memorialized by a tree that is never allowed to bud, symbolic of Frank’s life).

Upon entering the arboretum, amongst all the individual memorials and gardens, I immediately noticed a large memorial on a man-made hill at the center. This memorial was dedicated to all British service men and women killed in war since 1945. The Armed Forces Memorial seemed to naturally pull all the visitors to it. Admittedly, I cannot say that I have ever been particularly drawn to war memorials but this time was different and that is why I had to share my experience. Typically, the war memorials that I have seen in America portray grief in the sullen face of a bereaved solider or show a heroic captain in his glory. Something always seemed false to me about popular remembrance of past wars.

When I made it to the hill where the Armed Forces Memorial was located there were two major bronze works, created by Ian Rank-Broadley, their were curved walls inscribed with names of the fallen.I was shocked by what I saw. In fact there were a number of things that surprised me about the sculptures. I have heard Europeans say that Americans are a bit prudish and maybe they are right because I almost immediately noticed that the depicted fallen soldiers were nude. In American society nudity typically denotes two things: sexuality or vulnerability. Certainly, there was vulnerability in these memorials unlike the strength one typically sees in soldiers’ memorials. Memorials such as this now remind me of the flexibility of remembrance. I began to realize that I had never seen soldiers depicted in death at a war memorial (I am not claiming that this is the only depiction). It was a curious thing to see death displayed at a memorial; one sculpture depicts mourning family members in various states of despair as well. It was evocative of the very real experience of war which many times involves tragic loss. The memorial also makes a point to include women three times in the sculptures, twice as mourning family members (a wife and a mother) and once as a solider attending a male fallen solider, a move that seemed to me to be a more inclusive representation of women’s roles during conflict.

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Finally I turned my attention to the walls inscribed with veterans’ names. Of course, names on memorial statues or memorial walls is nothing new (my uncle’s name appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and here in Illinois). What was missing was more thought-provoking to me than simply what was there. As visitors look across the engraved names then you realize that there are panels still empty and waiting vacant for more fallen soldiers names, ever increasingly being filled with causalities of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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My visit to the National Memorial Arboretum touched me because it dares to speak on some of the realities of war while still honoring the fallen. As historians, who may be consulted in memorials such as these, what is the balance between honoring the dead and depicting reality (in its multiple forms)? The memorial also led me to think about the sensitive topic of memorials as propaganda, is that ever appropriate and if so, to what degree?

Black History Month: A Failed History Project?

Black History Month will eventually be obsolete. That is what historian Carter G. Woodson hoped in 1926 when he and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History founded the celebration of Negro History Week. Woodson, dedicated to his education, in 1912 earned his doctorate in history from Harvard University and was sorely aware of a void in American history. By 1976, Negro Week became Black History Month and was officially recognized by then President Gerald Ford and the federal government during the nation’s bicentennial. Now it seems that Black History Month is becoming obsolete but not for the reason Woodson had hoped. The month designation is growing unnecessary because of indifference towards the increasingly hollow meaning and benign celebratory nature of the month.

“End Black History Month” yelled filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman, on a crowded urban street in his documentary film More than a Month. People admittedly were confused or upset to see a black man expressing such a sentiment. Tilghman later stated that Black history should not be confined to a month but rather fully incorporated into American history; that is what Woodson had hoped for. Yet, we are not there. It is not uncommon to hear that Americans live in a “post-racial” society or that it is “reverse racism” to celebrate Black History Month. Some white Americans bemoan the month while declaring there should be a White History Month (perhaps they have not analyzed the historical treatment of non-white histories). If some Americans cannot even comprehend the purpose of Black History Month, how can we expect anyone (especially a non-Black “anyone”) to care or feel connected to the month?

Black History Month is perceived as a month about African Americans and for African Americans which is where it went all wrong. The month’s purpose was to provide an inclusive American history that recognized the struggles and triumphs of African Americans in a historically factual way. Undoubtedly, one of the goals was also to boost racial self-esteem for a group of Americans who had been told their whole lives that they ‘had no history’.

These days Black History Month largely revolves around the celebration of exceptional African Americans. This week a statue was unveiled in the Capitol of Rosa Parks and indeed she should be celebrated but there are more issues at hand. The majority of Americans could tell you what Rosa Parks did and probably why but anything past that has lost historical context. How institutional was segregation and why did it exist? How long did Jim Crow last? Wait, what is “Jim Crow” anyway? Those questions are not being openly discussed in the American public. The month has become congratulatory to the point that the essence of it is devoid of historical and sociological analysis.

The McDonald’s commercials saluting the Black community, specials on BET, and the sporadic vignettes on Black history greats in high school hallways are not cutting it. Black History Month cannot afford to focus only on its Dynamic Duo: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks (with the optional third member of Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman). Our wider mainstream society should not be so afraid of the more controversial, aggressive, intellectual, or otherwise unique African American figures such as Nat Turner, Josephine Baker, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, or Angela Davis, for example. Americans should also discuss those non-Black Americans who helped or challenged African Americans of the past. We cannot and should not take the complexity or unpleasantness out of historical figures. Harriet Tubman, for example, is known for helping other slaves escape slavery and many times she motivated followers with threats of violence; Tubman was no daisy. We as Americans should be asking insightful and helpful questions on a private and public level, locally and nationally about Black history and indeed about all racial/ethnic history.

Admittedly, the federal government has put forth honorable effort to discuss the issues of Black history and the newest development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a significant example. Those steps are important but we need more. Black History Month is about all Americans because the history connected to that group has touched other racial or ethnic groups in America. I would venture to say that Black History Month is almost as much about White Americans as it is about African Americans because so much of it is about race relations between the two. Black history is also important in understanding women’s history and civil rights movements in LGBTQ and other communities. Black history is not about “them”, it is about us. Do not let twenty-eight days be a barrier to discovering the richness, complexity, and contemporary relevancy of Black history (also known as American history).

Vengeance and History in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also ajdilorenzo’s post on the film.

 

Who would guess that in the past year two of the most talked about movies would be on the topic of American slavery? If you have not noticed yet Lincoln and Django Unchained deal with the history of slavery very differently. Some Americans, interestingly a select few African Americans, have decried the film as irreverent in its revisionism of slavery or paradoxically for its use of the “n-word”. I suggest that the film memorably revises the remembrance of slavery and, in particular, plays to the emotions of modern descendants of enslaved people.

American slavery remains as a stain on our history, one of its greatest philosophical hypocrisies. Slavery for many contemporary Americans is widely considered immoral and shameful yet socially irrelevant in our daily lives today. On the other hand, bring up slavery with an African American and you may get reaction ranging from ambivalence to anger to, more insidiously, shame. What Quentin Tarantino really does with his film is counteract the shame or guilt that occurs when someone asks: ‘why didn’t they fight?’ or ‘why didn’t we fight back?’ when referring to slaves. In fact, Tarantino includes that theme in his dialogue. The character Django is not the slave who is simply worked, branded, sold, and tortured (even though all of those things happen to him); he is the symbol of retribution and the Black hero who independently delivers his bloody judgment on the institution of slavery. Django is the answer to the question, at least in fantasy.

Continue reading “Vengeance and History in Django Unchained”

Lincoln Review: Courtney M. Baxter

In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Memory and Reimagining in Lincoln

As I walked into the movie theater to see Steven Spielberg’s newest movie Lincoln, I was struck by the audience in the packed theater. An audience of silver-haired White people filled nearly every seat. It came as a shock to me considering my location in a Chicagoland suburb where the residents are mostly Black and Latino Americans.  Eventually, along with my family and me, a few Black people trickled in (also of an older crowd).  It was a stark sight to see and I considered the topic of Lincoln and the memory of the man. Who was Abraham Lincoln to this audience?  I cannot presume to fully know.

Continue reading “Lincoln Review: Courtney M. Baxter”