The Face of Public History

The group of teachers that I have been working with over the past seven days has experienced the best in Civil War site interpretation from Nashville to Washington, D.C. At the same time, however this trip has reminded me of just how important it is that our public historians reflect the gender and racial profiles of their audiences.

This group of teachers is overwhelmingly white and female. Throughout Tennessee and Virginia our guides were almost all white and male. Let me stress that site interpretation was sophisticated and clearly based on the latest scholarship. Eric Jacobson did a fabulous job of interpreting the Carter family and the battle of Franklin that touched on gender and slavery and NPS Ranger, Christopher Young at Chickamauga, led one of the best battlefield tours that I’ve ever experienced.

By the time we finished a day long tour of the Petersburg Campaign there were some clear rumbling in the air. A few teachers expressed concern that the tours were conducted all by whites. In an attempt to address this we decided to make some last-minute changes. The changes were not meant to satisfy the concerns of a few, but based on the realization that there is value in hearing from a variety of voices. With this in mind I contacted Christy Coleman of The America Civil War Center to see if she might be able to spare a few minutes to talk with our group. She did and on her day off. Christy talked for a good 40 minutes about the challenges related to interpreting the Civil War in Richmond as an African-American woman.

The group also took part in an artillery demonstration at the headquarters for the Richmond National Battlefield, which was conducted by a young woman. A few teachers shared their thoughts about the noticeable change at the end of the day and eve this afternoon following a talk by Hari Jones at the African-American Civil War Museum. For others the change was apparent by the way they engaged the speakers.

It should come as no surprise that we not only identify with the stories told at historic sites, but with the storytellers as well. For some the legitimacy of the stories told depends, in large part, on who is sharing them. There are not only issues of trust involved, but a reassurance that the best interests of the broader community represented in those stories are kept in sharp relief. In short, this trip has been an eye opener.

Tomorrow it’s off to Antietam. This has been an amazing experience, but I am looking forward to my own bed on Wednesday.

13 thoughts on “The Face of Public History

  1. Patrick Young

    My experience of visiting many sites with adult non-white friends is that after a tour by the almost inevitable white guide there is an assumption that no matter how well-meaning the docent, we have gotten the “White Story.” Non-whites are very aware that until fairly recently, white children were taught history that essentially lied about America’s racist past. Even more expansive history offered at historical sites today is often viewed as a sop to non-whites, and my friends tell me that when even this watered down race-aware history is offered, whites begin muttering about political correctness.

    An old Native American friend from the Andes told me that “White people should never tell our story because they try subtly to justify our enslavement and murder, even when they tell our story ‘objectively’. They are brought up to think of their country as good and to see our horrors as shortcomings by otherwise good White ancestors, ways their ancestors fell short of their ideals, when we see them as essential to White American hegemony. When they tell the stories of how their ancestors abused the non-white people, they do it to show how much ‘progress’ the United States has made. They never offer to give us back what they have taken or recognize the advantage they have in contemporary society because of the crimes of their ancestors.”

    I disagree with her to a great extent, but I am also used to a culture in which the lead in telling the stories of non-whites is always taken by those of that community. Whites who are asked to research and tell the story of a group of non-whites are accountable first to that non-white community.

    When friends go to historic sites where obviously racist labor and land tenure patterns existed and the white guide doesn’t mention them or softens the impact, the guide is often described as having a “childish” view of history.

    I have often gone on the “black tour” of sites. At the end, someone inevitably notes that almost no white people are on the tour. On one such tour I was on, someone, impressed by the realism of the presentation, asked the white guide “Do you tell that story to the white people when you take them through here?”

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  2. Dudley Bokoski

    I would assume there was no intent to exclude any particular group from the speaker’s list, and the program itself included a focus on placing appropriate emphasis on a variety of perspectives and for some it wasn’t enough.

    Perhaps you, yourself, should have been replaced on the tour. Not that you didn’t do a good job or make an attempt to be inclusive in the topics covered or sympathetic to various viewpoints. But, following the reasoning of some of your group, the program would have been much more effective had the same information been presented by someone else.

    Which is no small point. The agenda served by this sort of group think has nothing to do with history and everything with using education to advance political agendas. I am sure these teachers congratulated themselves on their enlightened viewpoints on the matter. I am also sure when they return to their classrooms they will always be more in service to their political viewpoints than to history itself.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, but unfortunately I think it served to highlight your own insecurities.

      Reply
  3. KG

    I have a respectful disagreement on this whole (not just as referenced to your tour) gender and color thing. I’m not a historian and I do not have education in the humanities, and very minor teaching experience.

    With regard to your tour (and related subjects) I think that race and gender are being used as a proxy for experiences. So perhaps we are saying here that people who are black will interpret the facts differently from people who are white and the same for gender and this will influence their editorializing of the facts when they teach and it is important to get different viewpoints based on color and gender.

    My approach would be to train the teacher to represent the facts, and if they must interpret, to learn to introspect and interpret facts in different ways i.e. to gain a diverse background through introspection and exposure.

    Perhaps this is too naive, but I really feel that once we start to worry about the color and gender of a person we have lost the battle, even if we think we are trying to even things out.

    Also, it is often too simplistic to think that an individual person’s color/gender is a good proxy for their experiences and outlook and representative of a larger group. As individuals we often have very different personal life paths compared to the ‘average’ for our gender/racial group.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I understand your point, but there is a history of certain stories being ignored and/or distorted. There are issues of trust at work here. We could simply ignore it or do a better job of creating a larger tent. All of this can be done without sacrificing good history.

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    2. Anne Dealy (@AnneDealy)

      That is supposing that there is such a thing as a fact devoid of interpretation. Interpretation includes the process of choosing what facts to consider and which to emphasize and how. We choose to present certain sites, stories, people, etc. as important or worthy of our attention, and the fact is that until fairly recently most of those people and places revolved around the experience of the powerful, i.e., white men. Much of the change in interpretation, even when given by a white guide, has been pushed by those at the margins to have their stories included. It is very easy to leave out the relevant experience of many types of people if you never take their point of view into consideration and it is often impossible to take the point of view of others into consideration if you have no exposure to it and no knowlege that someone else’s experience might differ from your own.

      I have recently been reading a 19th-century history of Western New York settlement for information about the experience of the earliest non-Native peoples in my area. All the accounts are given by the surviving white men who settled the area. Native Americans are mentioned in passing, but you can find nothing of their experience of loss as their ancestral lands were taken from them. Women are named as wives and very little is told of their experience bearing and raising children in this wilderness their husbands brought them to. Did they want to come? We have no idea. There were black people brought to the area as slaves, but they too are barely mentioned and their contribution to the development of communities appears non-existant. The author of this history surely thought he was telling the facts, as he saw them. I see a lot of missing information and facts that he left out because as a 19th-century white man he just did not see them as relevant. This doesn’t mean he couldn’t have told a more balanced story, but he COULD NOT SEE that his story was unbalanced. This can still happen to us today. There are many situations in which I had not considered an issue in history because it did not have relevance to my experience and background. This was not intentional, I missed it because I too was blind to the experiences that I have not shared.

      Reply
      1. Patrick Young

        Great points Anne.

        When I was in school in Buffalo, I roomed with a student from the Seneca reservation. Even though I knew a lot of the history of White/NA relations and was sympathetic to the indigenous peoples, his point of view was so different from what I could get from any non-NA, no matter how well-intentioned, that it was transforming for me.

        I am often in groups which are mono-racial (white/black/brown/Asian) where people will discuss contemporary issues. It is often four completely different discussions. If we can be so blind to each other about today’s world, imagine how blind we are about things that happened in the past, a past that our educational apparatus actively lied to us about for more than a century.

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  4. Christopher Coleman

    I can’t speak for all the sites you visited, nor the attitudes and biases of the group you were with, but I have been to most of the Civil War sites in the Mid-South and so far as I can tell your “male bias” simply doe not exist here. In fact, the overwhelming majority of volunteers are female, as well as at least half the staffs; perhaps with senior curators and directorships might still be affected by a “glass ceiling” but I doubt it and it certainly is not true with regards the overwhelming majority of staff, paid or unpaid. Moreover, in Civil War related sites such as Belle Meade, or the Sam Davis Home, one will hear far more about domestic life, including the slaves than, say, General Harding’s wartime career. The last time I visited Carter House I don’t recall seeing ANY male staff. NPS sites generally are staffed with a more or less gender balance as well as racial balance–I think by law. In regard to alleged gender bias, I think this is a case of people seeing what they want to see.

    As for racial representation, that is a more complex issue. Socio-economic issues I suspect are more at fault here than the implied racial bias you report. Re-enactment is an expensive hobby (one which I certainly can’t afford) and also requires sufficient leisure time to indulge; something which, unfortunately, far too many African Americans still cannot afford to indulge. That being said, I know that during the rededication of Fort Negley a few years back, they did have some Black re-enactors present for the celebration.

    As for public awareness of slavery and African American involvement in the war, I cannot imagine discussing the Civil War without the issue of slavery and emancipation being involved in some way. What is being taught in the classroom, I have no knowledge of and cannot speak to that issue; but if children go through twelve years of education without knowing something about it and how the war and its aftermath still affects our racial attitudes, I would say they got a very poor education in American history, which to judge by the rampant ignorance current in both Congress and the Supreme Court regarding voting rights, may very well be the case..

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  5. Eric A. Jacobson

    Kevin, Thanks for the compliment about the Carter House tour. Hopefully y’all enjoyed Rebecca at Carnton.

    I’m looking into how I can be less white, and when I figure that out I’ll let you know. :) But seriously, it is an issue we have discussed internally here in Franklin many times. I find it sad that so few blacks have so little interest in interpretation of the war (providing said interp or listening to it). To be perfectly honest I see more Indians (yes from India) at this Civil War site than I do any other non-white group. But beyond sad (almost appalling) is how few blacks care about being involved even when repeated entreaties are made. I have tried again and again to engage folks on the issue of slavery, the war, USCTs, Reconstruction, MLK, Civil Rights, black spiritual music, etc. I had a presentation recently at Carnton where the subject was the post-war and early 20th century story of the black community in Williamson County. The speaker was someone who has spent much of his entire as a teacher and has worked for decades in the black community. We had a packed house for his talk – over 100 white people, young and old. Not a single black person showed up. Very sad.

    That all being said, on more than one occasion I have heard some older black folks here in Middle Tennessee tell me what the problem is as they see it… that is, most black folks aren’t as offended by white folks talking about black history as they are by some white folks thinking they know best how black history should be told and by whom.

    In closing, good history doesn’t necessarily equate to the person telling the story having the same skin color or ethnic background or sex of the subject.

    Maybe I’ve missed the thrust of post, but wanted to share my thoughts.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Eric,

      I definitely don’t want to exaggerate the concerns expressed by this group. Overall, your tour and all the others have been a huge hit. At the same time we can’t ignore the conditions that over time have shaped how Americans remember and consume the past at historic sites.

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  6. edabney

    This is a legitimate concern of mine being a black person involved with public history including living history of the experiences of black persons largely in the mid-nineteenth century.

    I think part of what we have to do in our sites is really do more documentary research. We have to not go on what we have “heard” or have done but really get to those documents, photos, objects and find a way to interpret them in a way that is inclusive of different people. One of the things I do on my tours (on the battlefield and at the plantation site turned Union supply based turned back to plantation) is read directly from these sources. Some sources I have members of my audience read aloud to the group (voluntary effort).

    As Anne Dealy notes these are conscious decisions to get across the experiences of soldiers and civilians; but, in many ways this helps to get folks to see the historic site hasn’t made up anything. I also think that they are for a moment connected to these people across 100+ years of time as THEY read what was written.

    I’m personally still getting too many stories from friends of mine of historic sites stuck in moonlight and magnolia at plantation sites or overt anti-North/pro-South opinions at Civil War battlefields AND plantation sites.

    Finally, not to tout my own blog on Kevin’s but I recently touched upon some challenges for blacks in coming to Civil War history. See here: http://interpretivechallenges.wordpress.com/2013/08/10/cw150blacks/

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  7. Eric A. Jacobson

    “I’m personally still getting too many stories from friends of mine of historic sites stuck in moonlight and magnolia at plantation sites or overt anti-North/pro-South opinions at Civil War battlefields AND plantation sites.”

    Amen to that. I could not agree more. Some of things I hear about people like Forrest and Sherman and the dismissiveness of too many visitors about slavery are clear signs that much work remains to be done.

    Reply

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