The Tragedy of a Nation “Born Perfect”

An anonymous comment in response to David Blight’s recent Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College.

“In this enduring vision the United States was essentially born perfect and then continued its improvement.” — David Blight

The “tragedy” in US history seems to me to be embedded in its historiography: the repeated description of the immense human sacrifice to remove a deep stain from America’s past. This should have been more “effortless”, right? And on the way, those that had to remove the stain (not all that voluntarily) began to complain and the other side simply denied there ever was one. But in the end those that should have complained never got a voice until recently and only through the foggy interpretations of what slavery meant by focusing mainly on battlefields and where flanks of Union troops met Confederates, nothing of which even sheds a glimpse on the actual society in which slavery existed. Continue reading “The Tragedy of a Nation “Born Perfect””

“Bruce Catton’s Civil War and Ours”

David Blight at Gettysburg CollegeI just finished watching David Blight’s Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College, which took place back in November. His lecture, “Ambivalent about Tragedy:  Bruce Catton’s Civil War and Ours” is well worth watching. His thoughts on historical writing and tragedy are particularly interesting. As usual I could have listened to him for another 75 minutes. Definitely check it out when you have the chance.

Congratulations to fellow Bostonian Nina Silber for being selected to deliver the 2014 address. She is currently researching a book on Civil War memory during the New Deal, which I can’t wait to read.

In Good Company

Blight, Hennessy, LevinI love this photograph, which was taken this past weekend in Gettysburg during our panel discussion on the teaching of Civil War memory in the classroom.  It was a real privilege for me to be seated in between the two historians (David Blight and John Hennessy), who have had the biggest impact on my understanding of historical memory and public history.  Their passion for history is highly infectious.  Both have encouraged me at different times and have helped to open new doors. I am certainly grateful and proud to call both friends. Continue reading “In Good Company”

John Brown and Frederick Douglass Live!

Just returned from a weekend in Lake Placed, New York where I took part in a conference sponsored by a small grassroots organization called John Brown Lives!  The conference brought together historians, teachers, students, and activists working to end modern day slave trafficking.  It was an incredibly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating weekend.  Many of you are no doubt aware that John Brown’s home and his burial site are in Lake Placid hence the name of the organization.

We talked mainly about the history and memory of emancipation from a number of different perspectives.  David Blight talked about emancipation during the centennial and sesquicentennial; Margaret Washington focused on female abolitionists; and Franny Nudleman led a fascinating discussion about how the Emancipation Proclamation is discussed in history textbooks.  I contributed by hosting a public screening of the movie Glory that was attended by roughly 100 people on Friday evening.  We discussed how the movie depicts black soldiers as well as its interpretation of emancipation and the following day I led a discussion about specific scenes in the movie that went into much more detail.

The most interesting talk by far came from Ken Morris, who is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and the co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation.  Ken’s presentation on modern day slave trafficking and his current campaign called “100 Days to Freedom” was incredibly inspiring.  You can learn more about it in this cute video that was produced by his two daughters.   I encourage teachers to get their students involved.  It’s an incredible way to bridge the present and the past in the classroom.

Since many of us stayed at a beautiful private home on the lake the conversations went well into the wee hours of the night.  Needless to say I am very tired, but I return home energized and with the mental juices flowing.  Thanks so much to Martha Swan, who invited me to take part this weekend.