The Complexity of Race

This weekend I head to upstate New York for a conference sponsored by John Brown Lives!  On Friday evening I will host a public screening of the movie Glory at the Palace Theater in Lake Placid for the general public and the following day will do a workshop on the movie for area history teachers.  [There are still slots available if you are in the area and interested.  You do not need to be a teacher to attend.]  I am putting together a little packet for each teacher that includes a selection of Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s letters that will hopefully help them to think beyond the movie.

This little passage to wife Annie caught my eye:

There is a blue-eyed, yellow haired, white-skinned, black preacher out here, who has great influence among the blacks.  He wants to go as chaplain, and I think I shall take him; he looks so much like a white man, that I don’t believe there would be much prejudice against it.  I think I should care very little for public opinion, if it did no harm to the regiment.  It would be out of the question to have any black, field or line, officers at present, because of public sentiment.  It ruined the efficiency of the Louisiana coloured regiments…. [March 17, 1863]

There is quite a bit to unpack in this brief passage.

John Brown Lives!

This event has been a long time in the making and I signed on to take part when I was still living in Virginia.  John Brown Lives! is a small organization led by Martha Swan, which focuses on public and educational outreach around issues related to freedom and oppression in history and in our world today.  Freedom Then, Freedom Now offers a little something for teachers, students, and anyone else who is interested in the history and legacy of emancipation.  The list of speakers and subjects to be discussed looks very interesting and David Blight will deliver the keynote address.  I am going to host a screening of Glory for the community and then work with a group of teachers on how they can use it in the classroom.  It promises to be a fun weekend. Continue reading “John Brown Lives!”

Looking Beyond Glory With Hari Jones

I like the idea behind this short film.  Young African-American woman gets an A on an essay she wrote about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry after having viewed the movie, Glory.  Her adviser suggests that she visit the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. to talk with curator Hari Jones.  The two walk through the exhibit to address some of the inaccuracies in the movie.

So why does this movie, and Hari Jones specifically, feel a need to lash out against Gary Gallagher?  Gallagher offers extensive commentary of the movie’s historical basis in Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.  I suspect that Jones knows this, which makes his comment all the more bizarre.  Jones strikes me as a knowledgeable and passionate historian.  Perhaps this script was written by someone else.  I fear that the result, including the embracing of the self-emancipation thesis without any reference to the Union army and other factors, is as much a distortion as Glory.

The other thing that struck me as awkward was the pointing out that you will not find any quotes from historians on the exhibit panels.  According to Jones, if you weren’t there than your words will not appear.   Fair enough, but it is worth pointing out that their exhibit is built on the backs of decades of careful research on the black experience during the war from professional historians, including Gary Gallagher.

Vandalism at the Shaw Memorial

Like many of you I was saddened and outraged to hear that the Shaw Memorial here in Boston had been vandalized.  The alleged perpetrator is a 38 yr. old black woman from nearby Quincy.  While she admitted to having an interpretive issue with the memorial, following her arraignment yesterday it was learned that she will undergo a psychiatric evaluation.  I decided to write a little something for my column at the Atlantic, which you can now read, but before doing so I posted some questions about the possible racial implications of this act on my personal Facebook page.

Thanks to Brooks Simpson, Harry Smeltzer, James Percoco, Donald Shaffer, and John Rudy for sharing their thoughts.  The thread went on for some time and it gave me quite a bit to think about.  Brooks is right that the thread is a good example of the “usefulness of social media in advancing historical discussion.”

Click here for the rest of my posts at the Atlantic.

Collective Memory 101

Next week I head down to Charleston, South Carolina for the Civil War Trust’s annual teachers institute.  This is my third year working with CWT and it’s always a rewarding experience.  My talk is on the history of Civil War monuments and how they can be integrated into the classroom.  As a preface to my talk I need to introduce the concept of collective memory.  Here are a few points from Michael Kammen’s seminal study, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, that I hope will help to get the ball rolling.

If collective memory (usually a code phrase for what is remembered by the dominant civic culture) and popular memory (usually referring to ordinary folks) are both abstractions that have to be handled with care, what (if anything) can we assert with assurance?

1. That public interest in the past pulses; it comes and goes.
2. That we have highly selective memories of what we have been taught about the past.
3. That the past may be mobilized to serve partisan purposes.
4. That the past is commercialized for the sake of tourism and related enterprises.
5. That invocations of the past (as tradition) may occur as a means of resisting change or of achieving innovations.
6. That history is an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity.
7. That the past and its sustaining evidence may give pleasure for purely aesthetic and non-utilitiarian reasons.
8. And finally, that individuals and small groups who are strongly tradition-oriented commonly seek to stimulate a shared sense of the past within their region.

From Charleston it’s back to Gettysburg for the Richard Bartol, Jr. Educator’s Conference, which is organized by the National Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation.  I get to talk about digital media literacy, but the highlight for me will be my talk on teaching the movie Glory in the Majestic Theatre.  It should be a lot of fun.