Black History Month

Most of you know that February is Black History Month.  My school is organizing a couple of activities to acknowlege the event.  We’ve set up a book discussion group that includes both teachers and students as well as a few outside speakers who will talk with small groups of students about various topics.  In addition, students and teachers have been asked to share their thoughts about issues that connect with black history during our school meetings.  I’ve been asked to get things started by sharing a few thoughts about the idea of Black History Month.  Feel free to comment.

I was asked to say a few words about Black History Month which will be observed through the month of February.  The setting aside of a month in recognition of the contributions of black Americans started in 1926  as "Negro History Week" under the direction of Dr. Carter G. Woodson.  I have to admit to feeling just a little bit uncomfortable talking about black history.  As a historian I like to think of myself as someone interested in American history and more specifically the stories that reflect what all of us value about the history of this country.  We admire the people in our past who overcome great obstacles or defy the odds and those that stand firm for the values of freedom and equality.  The images that stand out in my own mind include black men fighting with George Washington’s army during the Revolution, the charge of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner during the Civil War, the dignity of Frederick Douglass, the words of W.E.B. Dubois, the strength of King in a jail cell in Birmingham writing a justification for his civil disobedience on scraps of paper, and the courage of students your own age sitting defiantly at lunch counters across the South.  I find solace and hope in these and other images not because they are black, but because they reflect what makes this country what it is. 

At the same time I am all too aware that our historical memory is always selective and who determines that selection often depends on who controls the means through which our collective stories are shared.  When Negro History Week started little was known about the contributions of black Americans in large part because few people studied the subject, but more importantly because images of black Americans fighting in the American Revolution, Civil War, and even World War I did not fit into the history of a country that had decided by the 1920′s to legally segregate schools, buses, railroads, movie theaters and other public places along racial lines.  As a historian and as a citizen I consider myself lucky that I live at a time where I can read about those contributions as part of our American story.  Perhaps, as some have argued, a month set aside for black history is unnecessary.  I think the question is worth debating.  In the end, however, the recognition of Black History Month serves to remind us of our collective past and in turn hopefully strengthens our collective will as a nation to continue to push towards greater inclusiveness and equality for all.

Understanding Dimitri’s Civil War Sales Reports: Help!

I finally got around to reading Dimitri’s recent post on 2006 Civil War sales; unfortunately, I have to say that I don’t understand a word of it.  Most of the links are of absolutely useless to understanding specific claims.  I failed miserably in trying to navigate the Ingram site which is where Dimitri seems to have found the relevant slaes figures  What exactly does it mean to say that “the sales debut of ‘new thinking’ titles is soft”?  What books fall into this category?  Do they straddle popular as opposed to academic publishing houses?  According to Dimitri, “New Lincoln books were a washout,” including D. K. Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals which sold “especially poorly.”  I am willing to admit to not understanding the publishing world, but if I remember correctly this book was on the NYT’s bestseller list for weeks.  Is that fact not based somehow on sales?  We also learn that the “springtime” of Grant books has passed and that it will be a long time before we see another study from a major publishing house.  I am sure Dimitri was pleased to learn that McPherson’s Battle Cry “continues steady state with altogether insignificant sales variation year on year.”  He goes on to speculate that sales of the book can be explained in large part by their use in college courses.  William C. Davis and Gary Gallagher should be happy to learn that their recent releases are “suffering normal sales decay rates on modest debuts across a wide number of titles.”  Savas Beatie, on the other hand, is doing just fine.

My biggest problem is that Dimitri’s “observations” seem to be based on some fact of the matter as to what counts as normal or positive sales figures.  Perhaps there is some kind of standard, but none is provided in this post.  Exactly what are these conclusions regarding specific titles and authors being compared with?  How exactly are sales measured and how does this translate into an analysis of “success”?I don’t know how to even begin to make sense of any of this.

Finally, isn’t it interesting that Dimitri’s “observations” fall into line with his sometimes irrational disdain for the authors mentioned.  Coincidence?

Moving The Museum of the Confederacy: Follow Up

A couple of readers have shared their thoughts on recent reports that officials at the MOC are considering a move to Lexington.  It’s impossible to infer anything from the comments of a few people, but I assume that there is a sizable population out there that would like to see the museum move out of Richmond.  Let me say that I agree with those people who argue that the city of Lexington would make an ideal home for the museum as it would enjoy easy access off of Rt. 81 and would compliment the other attractions in the area.  That is not the issue for me.

I believe that museums are not simply repositories of the past but serve the interests of the communities in which they are located.  Their overall responsibility is to preserve the past in a way that allows local communities and visitors to better understand the causal relationship between the present and the past.  In short, museums serve to provide a context in which those interested can better understand the way in which current debates often connect with issues or problems long gone.    There is no better example of this than the Civil War.  We are still dealing with its aftermath and unresolved problems on so many different levels and given its current expansion Richmond is an ideal place to come to terms with the history of the South and the changes that it has gone through over the past few decades.  Those changes have raised issues that link to its Civil War past including the display of the Confederate flag and the numerous challenges to the make-up of its public spaces.

The MOC has a vital role to play in providing the space to discuss these and other issues in a meaningful way.  It can do this by sharing a sophisticated history of the South and the Confederacy in a place that has been and will continue to be engaged in an emotional debate over the memory of the war and the tough issues of race.  And as I pointed out the other day the fact that the museum does not pander to a narrow Lost Cause interpretation is absolutely essential to bringing interested parties together.  In my review of the new Civil War museum at Tredegar I mentioned how impressed I was with the structure of the exhibit, including the final section which explored the various legacies of the war.  It’s as wonderful space in which I can easily imagine being used in a number of ways to educate the local community.  The MOC needs that kind of space.

Everyone is aware of the declining number of visitors to the museum in recent years, but few people have commented on the number of African-American visitors.  I don’t have any numbers available, but I would guess (and I suspect that this is true for most Civil War sites) that few black Americans visit in large part because they don’t identify with the issues.  How is it that an event that not only ended slavery, but also involved the recruitment of roughly 200,000 black Americans into the Union army does not figure into the collective memory of this nation’s African-American population?  Well, those of you who read this blog know the answer to that question.  Moving the museum to Lexington will make it more difficult to address the tough questions of the Civil War.  It will also place the museum in a location that caters more to those who are tied to heroic images of Lee and Jackson and other Lost Cause themes.

Museums help those in local communities and beyond make sense of time and space.  One of the comments to the last post mentioned that “Richmond has grown, by leaps and bounds, into a very ugly and inaccessible city.”  We can debate the specifics of this reader’s assessment, but I continue to believe that the MOC can help us to better understand this change in all of its forms.

I Am Being Honored

Today I learned that I am going to be honored by the Gettysburg Foundation.  As you can imagine this comes as a great surprise, especially given my stance on the recent debate between the preservationists and the casino.  I guess the board was willing to look beyond this.  The news  arrived through the mail.  The envelope reads as follows: "You have been nominated to be honored at the opening of the world-class Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum.  Please reply YES or NO in the next 7 days."  I’ve been the recipient of a few honors and awards for my scholarship, but his really takes the cake.  I still need to make a difficult decision involving how much money I will send the Gettysburg Foundation to verify my nomination.  I can send $32 and receive a reproduction of the Gettysburg Address or $63 and receive a DVD of the movie Gettysburg along with the framed reproduction of the Address.  I can also decline the offer by checking the box which states: "NO, I reject this nomination and don’t wish to help pass patriotic values to the next generation."  How could anyone nominated for such an important occasion even think about accepting this honor?

The verification of my nomination will include having my name "added and preserved for all time on the GETTYSBURG FOUNDING MEMBERS HONOR ROLL, displayed at the new Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center." 

They didn’t mention this in my letter, but I assume that I am going to have to prepare a few short appropriate remarks for the ceremony. 

Museum of the Confederacy Considers Move To Lexington: Are You Kidding Me?

I find it almost impossible to believe that officials at Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy are considering a move to Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley.  Most of you are no doubt familiar with the MOC’s financial problems and the drop in the number of visitors owing to the expansion of the VCU Hospital.  Apart from considerations of moving the museum across town and maintaining the present location of the White House of the Confederacy this is the first I’ve heard about moving shop across state. 

Now before I offend the good citizens of Lexington let me say that I think their city is a wonderful place to visit and their Civil War history is clearly a rich one.  That said, I don’t see any future for the MOC in Lexington – might as well place the museum on Mars.  Yes, Lee and Jackson are both buried there, but barring the possibility of the two being resurrected to greet the supposed throngs of visitors I don’t see how their burial locations along with the history of the two schools can lay claim to being a sufficient reason for a move.  Do museum officials really believe that a move to the Shenandoah Valley is somehow going to attract larger numbers of visitors.  I just don’t see it.  In the end, you can’t ignore the simple fact that Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and the museum itself has a deep connection with the city.  The city is ringed with battlefield parks and is within close driving distance to Petersburg, Fredericksburg, and points east in the tidewater area.

The museum clearly needs to find a new location in Richmond because as I see it its purpose is most clearly defined in the city.  The MOC’s biggest problem is its image and it starts with the name itself.  My guess is that the city’s failure to fund the museum sufficiently has everything to do with this image and the larger cultural debates surrounding the Confederacy.  The tragedy of it all is that this museum does not pander to a narrow Lost Cause view of the war.  They have some very talented people working there who have put together excellent exhibits that touch on a wide range of issues including women’s roles and race.  While I suggested at one point that the museum should consider a name change,  I am convinced that the larger problems would persist regardless.  Perhaps the museum needs to demonstrate its worth more clearly to city officials and other interested parties in the form of outreach to schools etc.   The museum could be a wonderful venue where understanding of the Confederacy and the South is explored in ways that could prove helpful for an expanding and diverse city.  In short I don’t see this museum as a place where we get to engage in an overly simplistic form of heritage celebration; it is a place to visit where one can learn and be challenged.