The Next Interpretive Challenge

This morning I read Jim Loewen’s brief report of his recent visit to Richmond to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.  He was struck by the changes to its public history landscape, both in the form of new monuments and introduction of tours that broaden the historical narrative to include individuals and groups that have for too long been left out.  Who would disagree?  I’ve been making this point for some time now.  In fact, I think it’s such an obvious point that I would suggest that public historians and educators have won the battle to reinterpret the Civil War era in a way that broadens and deepens our understanding along racial and gender lines. Of course, public historians and educators have not won the battle alone; in fact, their role may be secondary compared to the kinds of political shifts that have taken place since the end of the 1960s that have brought a myriad of voices into the public sector that reinforced the need for an interpretive shift.

Yes, there are still plenty of challenges and by no means am I attempting to minimize them.  The biggest challenges remain in k-12 education and the economic disparity between classrooms across the country.  Loewen briefly references John Coski, of the Museum of the Confederacy, who worries about consistency in interpretation at his own institution.  That by no means negates the incredible transformation in interpretation and outreach that the MOC has undertaken in recent years to reach out to a broader demographic.  What is clear is that our major historical institutions as well as professional organizations have embraced a more complex and broader past that can be seen along a wide spectrum of public programs and exhibits.

So, where do we go from here?  According to Loewen, “Ed Ayers, historian and new president of the University of Richmond, spoke on the Civil War, emphasizing emancipation and pointing out that we must make even our newest immigrants think of it as “their” history, leading to rights and conflicts that still affect all of us.”  [Click here for an essay by Ayers which fleshes out some of these ideas.]  There are certainly aspects of our Civil War that have an international flavor, most notably in term of the immigrant connection, but in popular circles we still think of this period in isolation from the rest of the world.  We still tend to think of the end of slavery as well as the development of a strong central government in myopic terms.  Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh has a thoughtful essay in the most recent issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era (September 2011), which critiques the “total war” narrative as a definition of Union policy against the South in a way that situates the war in a broader global and temporal context.  There is a growing scholarship on the subject and I am pleased to see that even teacher workshops are beginning to address the issue.  [I seem to remember that an upcoming Virginia Sesquicentennial Signature Conference will focus on the Civil War in a global context as well.]

Even as my own classroom became more and more diverse I struggled to make the necessary changes that would help to bridge the gap between my American and international students.  In that sense our American history narrative is woefully inadequate.  The standard classroom narrative continues to interpret much of American history outside of a global context until the late nineteenth century.  When the outside world does enter the discussion it is more of a footnote rather than anything that has causal import.  But what is true in the classroom certainly holds for our popular view of the Civil War and I agree with Ayers that this constitutes the next big interpretive push.  Ayers closes his essay with the following:

The great American trial of war, emancipation, and reconstruction mattered to the world. It embodied struggles that would confront people on every continent and it accelerated the emergence of a new global power. The American crisis, it was true, might have altered the course of world history more dramatically, in ways both worse and better, than what actually transpired. The war could have brought forth a powerful and independent Confederacy based on slavery or it could have established with its Reconstruction a new global standard of justice for people who had been enslaved. As it was, the events of the 1860s and 1870s in the United States proved both powerful and contradictory in their meaning for world history.


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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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7 comments… add one
  • London John Sep 29, 2011 @ 11:14

    “but in popular circles we still think of this period in isolation from the rest of the world. ”
    That’s a bit surprising as I think the ACW is widely recognised outside the US as of world-historic importance. When I was in primary school in London, a very long time ago indeed, we were taught to sing “John Brown’s Body” and given a little lesson on what it meant. Personally, I’ve taken it from there. And there can’t be many people in the world who if asked to nominate the most important figure between 1815 and 1914 wouldn’t say Lincoln (apart from those who’d still nominate one or other well-known N0rth London resident, of course).

    • Ray O'Hara Sep 29, 2011 @ 13:34

      I think you are right, Most Americans seem surprised to discover Europeans might know something of American history beyond hollywood depictions of cowboys and Indians.

      A lot of that stems from the fact most non-Americans we meet really have a limited idea of the size of the country. , NYC to LA is over 1000 mile further than it is from Paris to Moscow. and the standard view of the USA to most foreigners is we are NYC, Hollywood and Disney.
      Places like East Keokuk Iowa or Poughkeepsie NY which is where America sees itself are unknown to the outside world.

      When Oklahoma City was bombed they quickly focused on a homegrown plot because the Feds realized no foreigner would ever have the sophistication to hit such a place. the OKC bombing scared people because it was anytown. something that could happen to me. We expect places like NYC and LA to get hit, they are the shiny objects that attracts the eye.

  • Ray O'Hara Sep 28, 2011 @ 18:46

    On facebook there is a ACW page run by a Mike Noirot which is a good page.
    But it has been infected by several SCV types{Mike the page administrator is NOT SCV} who refuse to accept the reality of the modern SCV.
    They push all the common SCV myths gathered from the likes of the Kennedy twins and Thomas DiLorenzo. Lincoln a tyrant who acted unconstitutionally, Lincoln started the war, war wasn’t about slavery and of course there were Blacks serving as soldiers in the CSA Army.
    Secession was legal because the people voted to secede and that nothing was done to stop secession for four months so of course that also made it legal.
    One poster’s main gripe is the US Govt won’t provide him with markers to place on CSA veteran’s graves.

    The real problem is if you challenge them they just block you and keep spouting the same tired discredited points. When asked for sources they cite authoritative sources like notes written in their family bible or a family history written by a family member.

    When you give them cites they wave them away and refer to their sources previously cited which are of course unavailable for anybody to see but rest assured they say it proves everything they claim.

    Casual observers finding the page can be fooled because after one is blocked the blocker can then post unchallenged as not only can’t you reply you can’t even see the conversation to be able to help some casual observer from falling for their myths.

  • Dudley Bokoski Sep 28, 2011 @ 14:20

    The battle is not just to reinterpret the war, but to fight for history to have a place at the table. Our political leaders seem not to have the ability to hold more than one thought at a time, and the key narrative of the last twenty years (almost to the exclusion of all else) has been that students have to spend the bulk of their time on math and science or else how will they all get jobs designing software for the solar powered hovercraft which surely are coming any minute now? History? How is history going to prepare students to design giant wind turbines?

    The sad part is without history students have no sense of context and won’t make good choices in the future. Worse still they could grow up to be politicians, junk bond salesmen, solar company executives, or common criminals (at the risk of being redundant).

    That said, if the time given to study history continues to shrink at the same time educators expand the narrative of the war to include more on race, gender, and ethnicity there is a danger students could come away from studying the war and know Frederick Douglas but not U. S. Grant, Harriet Beecher Stowe and nothing of Antietam or Gettysburg.

    The Civil War, to be studied adequately, has to include race, gender, technology, battles, leaders, foreign involvement, the history of slavery, industry, and at least some rudimentary discussion of geography. That takes time and it makes me wonder, given how little of it is available to the study of history, how the narrative of the Civil War is being edited to fit the time available.

    I don’t envy educators the task of figuring out how to make the narrative inclusive without missing the traditional people and events part of the story. It is a daunting task.

  • Lisa Sep 27, 2011 @ 15:47

    This is something I’ve thought quite a bit about. Having never been to Richmond it’s really hard for me to wrap my mind around it. I was actually scheduled to go the AASLH and then funding got cut and I hate it had to miss it. Would’ve loved to sit down to a conversation with Loewen and probably several others who were there.

    Anyway, you wrote, “I think it’s such an obvious point that I would suggest that public historians and educators have won the battle to reinterpret the Civil War era in a way that broadens and deepens our understanding along racial and gender lines.”

    I’ve noticed this too via the things you’ve posted and other things I’ve seen online. I have been particularly impressed with the group “The Future of Richmond’s Past.” That said, I’m not so optimistic about other places and I do not think the battle is won anywhere else in the South. Richmond seems to be the only place this has happened. I can’t imagine a group like “The Future of Richmond’s Past” in Mississippi or other southern states. While I do think public historians have made great strides in winning the battle, I still think we have a long way to go, except in Richmond of course.

    Now, this could just be my view on things and not reality, I don’t know. Sometimes I do feel like I’m surrounded by Lost Cause rhetoric and I do pick up on it more than most other people around me, so maybe it is just me, I don’t know. I’m wondering if others see it the same way or if it is just me.

    So, my question is, what makes Richmond (and Virginia in general) different from other places in the South, how did it happen there, and how can this work in other places?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2011 @ 16:09

      First, thanks for the comment. That wasn’t one of the more coherent posts that I’ve written of late.

      I think you’ve asked a great question, Lisa. Keep in mind that both the Richmond and Petersburg city councils included a strong black voice by the early 1980s. It’s also safe to say that the demographic shift has influenced state politics in recent years. That said, I think we can find progress even in some of the Deep South states. Think about the sesquicentennial events in South Carolina earlier this year. Yes, the media paid quite a bit of attention to the secession ball, but there were a number of educational events sponsored by various commissions as well as the National Park Service.

    • Lyle Smith Sep 27, 2011 @ 19:29


      You’re talking about the South like it’s on some other continent or something. Richmond and Virginia are not sui generis. What goes on in Richmond and Virginia goes on everywhere else in the South. It was the University of Mississippi press that published Loewen’s and Sebesta’s “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader” after all.

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