Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas from a Land of Hope and Sorrow

"Winter holidays in the southern states." 1857 / PD LOC
I was driving home from work a few weeks ago, flipping through the radio stations and I came upon one of those dedicated progressive/modern/pop holiday formats you hear so often this time of year. I tarried, only planning to spend a moment there. It was a cover version of "O Holy Night" performed by Josh Groban. I'm not the biggest fan of Groban, so my hand instinctively went back to the dial when I stopped.

Groban piped the words, "Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease."

My mind raced. Had this song I have heard thousands of times from radios and mall loudspeakers, church organs and choir voices, really been a mystery to me the whole time? Where did that line come from? Did it mean what I thought it meant?

In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, a french wine commissionaire 1, composed a short poem for his town's priest. Adolphe Adams, a world-renowned composer of operas set the poem to music and the "Cantique de Noël" was born. The world around the song was one of tumult and strife. Ideas were changing and shifting. The following year, Karl Marx would publish his Communist Manifesto, a treatise on class struggles between, "freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf," and set the world on an alternate course. Cappeau would eventually become an adherent of France's version of socialism. In that light, the third verse of the poem cum carol is striking:

Le Rédempteur a brisé toute entrave:
La terre est libre, et le ciel est ouvert.
Il voit un frère où n'était qu'un esclave,
L'amour unit ceux qu'enchaînait le fer.
Qui lui dira notre reconnaissance,
C'est pour nous tous qu'il naît, qu'il souffre et meurt

The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies

How much of European socialist thought American Unitarian John Sullivan Dwight was aware is unclear to me at the moment. He was an avid traveler, and more than likely discovered the haunting melody of the "Cantique de Noël" on a trip to Europe. Dwight was a jack-of-all-trades: theologian, social activist, music critic, publisher and composer. His religious sect predisposed him to American liberal ideologies and the Abolition movement in particular, which was gaining increasing momentum through the tumultuous 1850s.

An ad for Dwight's song from The
New York Musical Review and Gazette
Sometime in the mid-1850s 2, Dwight translated Cappeau's lyrics into a version which fit an English scansion for Adams' score. He titled his piece "O Holy Night." By the Christmas of 1859, J.H. Hidley, a sheet music publisher in Albany, NY was advertising the piece for sale under the simple title, "Christmas Song." For 35 cents, the publisher would send the music post paid.

That Christmas of 1859 must have looked bleak. America seemed on the precipice of destruction. Violence and murder had broken out in the streets of a Southern city over the question of slavery. A rising sectional Republican party stood ready to challenge the Democratic establishment. The world was being torn apart and need of redemption.

In Dwight's translation, the song's third verse took on a new meaning. Now not simply a tale of European class strife, the song embodied an American struggle for freedom in the face of systematized tyranny:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise us,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

In an age when the Bible had been leveraged to both justify slavery and damn it, when human nature was argued to be both predisposed to and above enslavement, when the very humanity of another man was called into question, Dwight's admonition that the, "gospel is peace," was pure and biting. To the Unitarian mind, the Bible inherently stood against the enslavement of another race.

Gone now is Cappeau's reference to suffering and death. In the Unitarian mind, Christ was not a divine being but only a sage teacher. Christ the rabbi, not Christ the mystical savior, sat at the heart of Dwight's view of the world. In his version of the song, then, Christ is not redeemer through blood sacrifice. Instead he is the ultimate Abolitionist by example of the words and actions he took while living.

Living within this song which we hear everyday this time of year lives the lifeblood of the Civil War. Through its lyrics, we are transported back in time (consciously or subconsciously) to an era when the question of American liberty stood in the balance. At Christmas, through this song, we are immediately taken to a world on the edge of either destruction or redemption, of cataclysm or salvation.

My favorite version of the song, however, never mentions slaves or chains, never faces the theological crisis of Christ's divinity. It is instrumental.

Listen to the Studio 60 version
of the song by clicking above.
In 2006, on Aaron Sorkin's short-lived series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a makeshift band was featured in the Christmas episode. The nation was still reeling from the pictures which had flashed across our televisions of the suffering and destruction in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I worried, personally, about the future of that place. And more so, I worried about the future of that culture. Jazz lives within that city. Would jazz live beyond the tragedy?

At the close of the episode, a group of musicians from New Orleans play a reverent but deeply New Orleans version of "O Holy Night." Played by black hands, in a style grown out of the spiritual tradition, the piece sings in a way that it never had before to my ear and really hasn't since. The pain and heartache, the hope and joy, the future and the past are wrapped in the sound of those brassy notes. As the last tone fades, you smile. The world will go on.

Made wholly possible because of the song itself and the Abolition movement it embodies, there is deep meaning within those notes. They make us hope. They help us see a world beyond suffering and oppression. They let us live.

Merry Christmas from the 1850s.

A time of peace. A time of war.
A time of sorrow. A time of hope.

Because, after all, what time isn't all of those things.


^1 - A wine commissionaire worked for a wine producer, undercutting prices on grapes and pitting vineyard versus vineyard in bitter rivalries for the lowest bids.

^2 - Often this date is listed as 1855, and Dwight's own Journal of Music is listed as the place of publication. Searching each issue for 1854, 1855 and 1866 yields no results for any combination of the lyrics to the song. More than likely he published the song in another publication.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Experience + Interaction

Or, my final thoughts on the Illumination...

What do our historic sites and museums offer to visitors? More importantly, what should we strive to offer? Right now, I think many of our historic sites offer two different things: a variety of experiences and access to a wealth of information. Sites like Antietam offer a number of different experiences – from taking a tour over the battleground where so many fought and died, to driving through the battlefield at night seeing thousands of luminaries, each one representing a life. Our historic sites also offer access to knowledge and information – many times through those experiences they offer. Continuing to use Antietam as our guide, this access to information includes things such as a talk with a park ranger who has studied the battle for many years, to a movie that explains the battle complete with maps and reenactments in the park theater.

In our increasing technological age, the old gatekeepers of knowledge are dying fast. Archives are making their holdings accessible online and anyone can search Google or Wikipedia to find a wealth of information about any historical topic. Historic sites and parks are no longer the “go to resource” when trying to find information about that historical place, and I think that’s generally a good thing. But it means that parks can no longer see themselves as the only places to access that information about history. We have to see ourselves as places where you can experience history.

Experiences such as the Antietam Illumination are a start. Depending on the person, each experience will affect them in a different way. For some, the experience of the illumination is enough. Just being there where your ancestor fought, just walking into slave quarters where people lived, or just seeing all the shoes that were left behind by those killed during the holocaust is enough. That experience alone triggers a reaction. It might trigger a sense of meaning. It might trigger a feeling that this place is important, and needs to be preserved. It just makes sense to some people. They get it through experience alone.

What can it all mean? / courtesy of GWNPpublicaffairs

Just as many visitors, though, don’t. The experience isn't enough for them. It is sterile and lacks meaning. It might be because the experience is new and they don’t have anything to fall back on or relate to. It may be because they had no ancestor who fought in the Civil War, or they can’t relate any type of meaning to what their eyes show them, or they may just feel confused and don’t know what to think. They need experience + interaction. One such experience that isn’t just enough for me is the Antietam Illumination. For that experience to mean something, I need to interact with that experience, to think it through, and mull over it. I need to openly talk about it with others. I need to relate what I’m seeing to myself and I need a little help. Does that make the experience worthless? Certainly not. But in order to reach as many as possible, in order to reach people like myself in this case, sites have to offer both experience and interaction together.

This interaction between visitors and their experience already takes place in several different ways. Whether it be attaching makeshift art to a monument’s fence or just talking out loud on a blog about an event you’ve recently experienced (see here and here) both of these are examples of that interaction. They are conversations between the past and the present built upon experiences. The goal now, though, is figuring out how we can foster that experience and interaction for all when they visit our historic sites.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saturday Extra: Guerilla Civic Engagement on the Landscape

WTVR-TV in Richmond has all the details
and more photos
of the "vandalism"
Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin brought the community's attention to some installations placed on the fences surrounding a few of the statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. The signs are a redress of sorts to the Confederate narrative told through granite, marble and bronze on the massive monuments. They highlight black citizens of Virginia who challenged the racist establishment of the state throughout its history.

Levin characterizes the signs as "vandalism," while the local CBS affiliate WTVR calls the signs, "street art." So which are they?

The incident reminded me of a clear-cut instance of vandalism which happened back in April on the same street in the same city. On the night of April 6th, someone spray-painted "NO HERO" across the bases of both the Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis monuments. This was a destructive act at its core, attempting to permanently change the landscape.

rvanews had excellent coverage of the
in April.
But this type of vandalism is weird and different than a simple tag in an alley behind a 7-11. There was true, deep meaning behind both the act in April and the most recent one. The spray painting in April was not a tag or a gang sign. It was simple black block letters, with two words. Those words spoke to the monument. The vandal was having a dialogue with the monument. Yes, that dialogue was destructive, but the thought and meaning behind that act was pure and deeply intellectual. The person working the spray-can could not find themselves represented in that place. They found a way to talk back to it in their own language.

They were engaging with the meaning of the place. The medium they chose was destructive and illegal, but the engagement with the place and the thoughts behind the act were deep.

Fast-forward to this week. Another voice entered the dialogue. The same deep thought took place, the same pure sentiment was expressed. This new artist chose a different mode of expression, that of wood, cheap hardware and mixed-medium. The installations were bolted to the fences surrounding the monuments, not leaving a mark on the outdated marble and bronze. They serve as stark counterpoint to the Confederate narrative. They plaques speak to Davis, Jackson and Stuart. They hold a dialogue with the historical landscape. And, most importantly, they do so without destruction of the landscape.

Are the plaques vandalism? No. They could be best classed, if called a crime at all, as littering.

The newest actions are truly civic engagement through constructive artistic expression. They begin a discussion on the landscape, shift its meanings and help the citizens of Richmond see multiple perspectives in sharp, geographic contrast.

Poll results on as of 12:01am seem to show the community at
large sees the tablets as harmless expression, not vandalism.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Past is a Foreign Country: But They Still Eat Ketchup There

Earlier this week, the folks over at the Gettysburg National Military Park Facebook page posted a link to their Gettysburg School Bus blog highlighting a post on integrating the Civil War into a language arts curriculum. I love the concept. I think in the current educational environment, which seems to be spurning history and social studies in primary classrooms, anywhere we can integrate the stories of the past into the state's standards, sneaking the history back in, is awesome.

But the Facebook post got me thinking. Particularly the way it was phrased, and especially this tidbit:

In our world of instant communication the idea of handwriting a letter home to loved ones seems quite foreign. But for these soldiers it was their only way to express their thoughts, feelings and concerns for their families.

The concept of difference, of discontinuity with the past, is often the first place our minds drift as both historians and visitors at historic sites. It is one of the stumbling blocks of many living history presentations. The "gee-whiz, they were so darned different back then," factor can make the past seem like "a foreign country," as L. P. Hartley described it.

But is it really? And is accentuating the differences really the most powerful technique when we try to help visitors connect and find relevance within the past?

One of my students, a promising historian and avid 19th century chemist named Cory, was frantically trying to polish a paper Monday night in the office on campus at the same time I was entering this semester's grades across the room. We started talking about 19th century photographic techniques and that particular Facebook post. The conversations began to weirdly cross wires...

I recently listened to a story on NPR's Fresh Air about a cave in France filled with prehistoric paintings. The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, and the travails of documentarian Werner Herzog to capture its wonder, caught my imagination. It still swirled in my mind Monday night discussing the weakness of interpreting the differences.

A human eye saw these animals and
a human hand captured them on
a cold cave wall in modern day France.
/ CC Wikimedia Commons
In the cave are paintings encrusted with thousands of years worth of calcite, brilliantly preserved. Crafted in charcoal, the pictures can help conjure the image in the mind of an itinerant early hominid, obsessively studying a majestic herd of bison crashing over a dale. He rushes back to the dank cave and by the dim light of a half-extinguished torch frantically tries to fix the image on the wall, trying to freeze the fleeting moment in time.

Just a few millennia later, you can conjure an itinerant enlightenment artist standing at a canvas. He glances over the edge, back and forth from taught fabric to blushing beauty to canvas again. He obsessively studies every line and crease of her evanescent youth as he places brush to canvas. Then he frantically tries to fix the image on the canvas, trying to freeze the fleeting moment in time.

A human eye saw these men and
a human hand captured them on
a cold glass plate in Gettysburg. / PD
Less than a century later, an itinerant early photographer, obsessively focusing his camera on a putrefying landscape of death and destruction. He stares at the frosted plate on the back of the camera, obsessively studying the death and destruction before it succumbs to its transformation from human to dust. Then he frantically shuttles the sensitized medium from wagon to camera to fix the image on a glass plate, trying to freeze the fleeting moment in time.

Just a century and a half later, an American, living in an increasingly itinerant culture, obsessively studies a sunset as the burning orb creeps toward the horizon. She squints at the bright neighbor-star, all the while adjusting the exposure rate of her Nikon digital camera. Then she catches the precise color in he eye, raises the camera and frantically snaps shot after shot, trying to freeze the fleeting moment in time.

We are the early man. We are not separated from him. Our humanity unites us. Our impulse to preserve the moment, the ephemeral and the fleeting unites us. You can understand, for just a moment, the ancient man. You feel the weight of his crude brush in your hand. Then you dip that brush in oil paint. Then you adjust the hand-ground lens of your camera. And you push the button, you snap a shot to preserve the moment.

What is a Civil War soldier's impulse within his letter? Nothing different than our perpetual impulse as humans. He wanted to connect. He wanted to, if only for a moment, feel the warmth of his family and friends. And he wanted to update the folks he left behind on his status.

The Civil War soldier's letter was not simply a private affair. It was to be read aloud in the parlour for aunt and sister and cousin. It was to be shared with the neighbors, reprinted in the newspaper, preserved for generations as a final sentiment of love from a dying son.

Facebook updates live from 1861...
This status update was a human impulse, an impulse we still have. We post quick notes letting our friends know how life is going. We send them far away, hoping and praying those that see them read them and know we're in good spirits, happy, content, safe and still OK. Or that we're not and we desperately need help.

What is a Civil War soldier's letter but a 19th century Facebook update?

Isn't that sort of sameness far more meaningful, more able to put the pencil in your hand after frantic battle than pointing out how different a pencil was from an iPhone?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

This past Saturday night, I was standing in one of my old haunts. The Dry Goods Store at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is perhaps my favorite place to be an interpreter, especially at night. Low wattage lightbulbs (simulating whale oil or tallow lamps) and the darkness outside the windows make that building a perfect time machine. Near the end of the night, a family came in with two enthusiastic sons. One wearing a toy kepi and carrying a brand new souvenir envelope of Confederate money rushed around the store asking if he could, “buy that with this.” His excitement at being in the historical space could not be contained.

The other boy was more sedate. He was wearing glasses and bundled in a sweatshirt against the dark cold outside. He quietly looking over each of the objects near the back of the store, studying them.

“Is that a knife,” he asked me.

“Well, there’s some knives in there, but there’s also a razor for shaving your face, and a strop to keep the razor sharp,” I replied.

“And what type of pistol is that,” he continued down the line of windows guarding artifacts.

“I believe it’s a Colt,” I said, “after John Brown’s raid here, thousands of pistols were solid all across Virginia. People were scared of abolitionists and wanted to protect their families from violence. So they bought weapons.”

Then the magic really began.

“I saw a bigger gun than that on Pawn Stars,” the boy excitedly shared, “it had a lever and went like this.” He mimed a lever-action repeater in his hands.

“Oh, it sounds like maybe a Remington repeater?”

“No, it was from the Civil War!”

“Maybe a Henry repeating rifle…”

“Yes!” he jumped, “that’s it!”

“You know, by 1864, soldiers started being issued those guns in Georgia. They were called Bummers. They foraged for supplies and food for the army when Sherman was trying to end the war.”

My friend and one of my mentors, John King, tucked his hand and voice into the conversation. He dropped a chuck on something in front of the boy and it thunked on the glass case like a rock. “You know, that killed more than all of the repeater rifles and pistols combined in the Civil War?”

“Do you know what it is?” I added.

The boy studied it. The hunk of something was pitted with tiny holes, hard and mummified.

“Is it a rock?” he asked puzzled.

I responded, “No, it’s bread.”

His face twisted. “Bread!?”

“This is hardtack, what the soldiers were issued to eat. It’s so tough that they had to soak in it coffee just to bite it sometimes. See those holes there. What do you think caused them?”



“Ewww!” he withdrew, “What’s it made of?”

“Do you have Playdough at home?” I asked.


“The same stuff as is in your Playdough: flour, water and salt. Do you think you could live on nothing but this and bacon?”


“Don’t you need vegetables?” I asked with a smile.

“I like them,” he responded.

“Good! They keep you healthy,” I said, “If you ate nothing but this bread and bacon, your digestive system would be a big waterslide. Men in the Civil War died of diarrhea. They pooped themselves to death because they couldn’t keep any water or food in their bodies.”

“That’s terrible,” the boy responded.

It is. It’s facts like that, when you say them aloud, that force your body to quite physically commiserate with the people of the past. Your stomach sinks for them; you want to vomit on their behalf. You feel, for just a fleeting moment, the Civil War alive inside your stomach.

He wandered down the counter, still studying every single thing he could touch and see. After a fascinating few minutes spent with a stereo-viewer, imagining visiting Paris or Jerusalem in his own living room, just like he can with his TV remote today, I plunked another photographic technology on the counter in front of him. A small ferrotype photograph of a face in profile.

“You know what that is?”

“It’s a picture of someone.”

“Exactly, do you see anything weird about it?” I asked.

“Well,” he puzzled, “he’s not looking at the camera.”

“No, he’s not,” I encouraged him. The boy’s mother began to hover over his shoulder to catch a peak as well. I revealed the answer: “he’s dead.”

“Oh!” the boy said with piqued curiosity.

His mother exclaimed, “It’s a person! I didn’t even see that until you just said that. Look at the detail!”

“I know, look how detailed it is,” I said. The boy took the picture in his hands, holding it close to his face to inspect every line in the corpse’s face.

“Photographs took a few seconds to expose in the middle of the nineteenth century,” I explained, “but when you’re not shooting a picture of someone who needs to stand still, the detail can be perfect.”

The boy lowered the photo and looked at me again. “I saw a picture like this on Pawn Stars, where the person was dead.; it was easier to take their picture because they had to wait like 10 seconds to make it and they didn’t move because they were dead,” he blurted out fast, like it was all one word spoken in a single breath.

“Why might you want a photo of a dead person?” I asked.

“I dunno,” he replied.

“How many pictures of your Mom do you have in your house,” I asked, looking to catch his mother’s eye.

He replied: “a lot!”

“If your Mom died, and you couldn’t see her anymore, you would still have lots of pictures to remind you of how much she loved you, right? They’d help you if you were sad?” I asked.

“Yeah, I could look at the pictures of her.”

“Imagine,” I said, “if you were in the 1850s. You might get your picture taken every few years, maybe. What if someone you loved died and you didn’t have a picture of them?”

“You could take one of these,” the boy exclaimed.

“And then you’d have at least one picture left to remind you of what they looked like and how much they loved you,” I helped him along.


A time machine, giving us small glimpses of the 19th century, is an amazing tool. You don’t have to step into a jury-rigged Delorian or a blue Police Telephone Box to travel into the past and try to feel what it was like to live then. You don’t personally need to wear an expensive set of period clothing to wear on an immersion weekend in the backwoods of Georgia or Pennsylvania.

All you need is a heart, some dim lamplight, a good story, a piece of 'the real' and a cold December’s night.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Huck Finn, Robot Jim and John Denver: Language, Young Man!

The "book trailer" for a new edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

I'll be teaching a section of Civil War Era Studies 205, Intro to the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College this spring. I had been puzzling over my book list for the past month or two, trying to decide which tomes to assign to students who need an overview of the era and a firm grounding in the four Civil War historical schools: social, military, political and memory. While Drew Gilpin Faust and Charles Dew have drifted onto and off of and back onto my list as I've been planning, one firm holdout has always been Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Like all college survey courses (I believe it is required by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charter), I needed to include the requisite novel. Instead of Killer Angels or The March, I've decided to punch my ticket with a primary source.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens' birthday was yesterday, so I've been thinking about him a lot over the past 24 hours. Clemens is this particularly troubling character for a modern viewer, specifically because of his transformation. In our age of denigrating flip-floppers and those who periodically reevaluate their views, Clemens strikes an odd chord. An unabashed racist in his youth, a true product of his surroundings, Clemens through the voice of the crafted character Twain overcame his prejudice and became one of the most ardent voices for social reform our nation has ever known.

It is this deep, inside-baseball understanding of the imbecility of the racist system of slavery which gives Adventures of Huckleberry Finn its raw power. Twain turns the entire social order on its head through his use of language, through his subversion of words' meanings and through his conjunction of incongruent thoughts in Huck's simple yet profound mind. The language matters.

All of the above just stands as prologue as to why I am not assigning the NewSouth Books edition of the book. New South's edition, which replaces each use of "the n-word" with the word "slave," destroys the subversive meaning behind Twain's work. Twain's use of language, and his particularly crafted subversion of "the n-word", is critical to the plot of the novel and its deepest meanings. But "the n-word" has such deep and rightly-earned emotional baggage for America, no matter skin color or heritage, that many see that word as unprintable. But "the n-word" is necessary to fully understand Twain's meanings, that Jim is not simply an "n-word", a label attached by an oppressor, but a reasoning and thinking human being.

Annie's Song... the radio edit.
Did you see what I did there? Every time you got to "the n-word" in the above paragraph, what did your mind do? Did it fill in the blank? It is very similar to the psychological phenomenon of pareidolia; your mind fills in the chaos with order. You subconsciously read "nigger" each time I wrote "n-word." Your mind will do the same thing to you when you listen to the John Denver song embedded at the right. This is the classic Annie's Song, but this is the version edited for airplay on national radio. Go ahead, click play. I'll wait right here.

Comedy duo Gabriel Diani and Etta Devine have created an alternate-alternate version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, instead replacing "nigger" with "robot." The trailer for their book appears at the tops of this post. The replacement is as meaningless and simultaneously disastrous to the book as replacing it with "slave." The new-new edition is brilliant satire. Your brain will still fill in the word, but now it will be keenly attuned to the absurdity of the matter. The character of Robot Jim, fundamentally altering the entire meaning of the book for the base level comfort of the reader, is the most absurd concept possible and points to the fundamental problem with NewSouth's edition and schools' propensity to censor the book.

The word nigger should be retired, much as the Confederate Flag. Both are hateful symbols, at their core working to deny the humanity of a race of people. But likewise both should still be displayed where they can teach and educate as to their hatred. That means that we can still show the flag in museums, we can still talk about the tough stuff of history in a proper context. We should never call anyone a nigger again as an insult or an epithet. But we can say the word in the right time, place and manner. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those places. Here the word is displayed in all its hateful meaning, the fallacy of its concepts being slowly unveiled across the novel until finally Huck utters those words which show how absurd the word and its concept is. Jim becomes a man, not the sub-human concept characterized by the word "nigger".

Huck contemplates sending a note he has written to Jim's owner:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.

He hesitates. He realizes that he, "was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now." Huck is left with the choice to either send the note or go to hell for trying to free his friend. His answer:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell"

And he tears up the note; he tears up that word. Which is more powerful, Huck tearing up "nigger" or tearing up "slave?"

...or maybe tearing up "robot" instead?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Forever Free: The Dakota People's Civil War

Who marched atop these walls?  Who built them?
Who marched inside?  Who sat inside as captive?
As I mentioned last week, I left Fort Snelling after our tour as part of the National Association for Interpretation annual conference unfulfilled. The potential for high-drama and deeply meaningful connections was palpable on that landscape. The audience, a crowd of interpreters, were begging for meanings. One African American woman in the group, after the site administrator mentioned in passing Dred and Harriet Scott being held at the site, asked about the nature of the labor used to build the fort. I was sitting in the row behind her. I could not see her face. But from the inflection in her voice, I could tell exactly what the unstated question behind her spoken one was: "Were slaves used to build Fort Snelling?"

She was desperately trying to imagine her personal story within the context of that historical landscape. She wanted to know how people with her color skin might have figured into the sweeping narrative that is the fort. She wanted to know what this place meant to her today, the impact and implications it has had on who she is, where she stands in American society and how American society sees her.

The administrator did come around to the answer she wanted: "The first soldiers stationed at the fort built it." She did coax out of him the fact that no slave labor built the original walls of Fort Snelling. But only after goading. And with that cold answer, the site lost much of its potential meaning for her. She was not given the opportunity to care. She was not given a moment to see herself in that place.

My blood boiled; it always does when things like this happen. It's why people don't like visiting historic sites along with me anymore. I start stewing with every missed meaningful connection I see.

So, how do you make Fort Snelling relevant? Where is that deeply meaningful story? How can you overcome the fact that black hands did not lift stones into place to build that fort and still make this place relevant to this one particular woman?

Military executions are commonplace in Civil
War narratives, but the largest mass execution
in U.S. history happened in 1862, when the
U.S. Government hanged 38 Dakota Indians.
Here's a hint: Happy Thanksgiving! You can use America's other most maligned ethnic group, pushed and prodded westward across the American landscape for centuries - the American Indian. The other American holocaust, the destruction of North America's native peoples, is linked indelibly with the American holocaust which I study most: slavery.

In 1862, the Dakota people (part of the Great Sioux Nation) noticed that Minnesota had been drained of its male population. Men from every walk of life in the newly minted western state had struck eastward, heading to the fertile farmlands of Virginia and the silt-doused banks of the lower Mississippi valley to reap a harvest far different than the one they had pulled in years past from the fields around St. Paul. In the army, these men would sow and reap death and destruction in a war begun because of one concept: slavery. That one odious word holds so much power. The image of whips and cotton fields, of bleeding scarred sable skin and hounds baying in a dark wood immediately leap to mind when that simple word is uttered. It is the ultimate American evil.

The Dakota people, however, were experiencing another American evil. Their lands and livelihoods had been systematically chipped away by unbalanced treaties with white settlers from the east, until they were left with a thin strip of farmland running across Minnesota. For a people who thrived off of a physical connection to the sacred land, being separated from their holy ground was the greatest of injustices. Boxed in, but seeing the opportunity afforded by the strong and able-bodied white fighters being a thousand miles away, the Dakota seized the initiative. They rose up in rebellion and attempted to seize their lands back. They failed, but not before over 600 men, women and children had been killed on both sides. White Minnesotans lay dead in the dust in the fall of 1862.

In fields in Maryland, white Minnesotans lay wounded and bleeding. The fruits of their suffering was a transformation of the goal of the war. Those soldiers in blue suits now would march to free 4 million held in chains, prisoners in a brutal system of oppression. Lincoln declared that, "the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of," the former slaves, "and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." The Federal soldier was now marching explicitly for freedom.

Looking at this photo of the
internment camp, it is hard to not draw
comparisons to the horrors of Andersonville.
But along the Mississippi in Minnesota, the military authority was doing the exact opposite for the Dakota Indians. A massive internment camp, which some modern historians have eerily demanded be called a concentration camp, was established by Federal soldiers. About 1,600 men, women and children were held in the stockaded prison through late spring of 1863. The tribe starved, suffered and sickened, all under the watchful eyes and keen rifles of Federal soldiers. While in Virginia and Tennessee, the blue uniform began to be seen as a symbol of hope for an oppressed people yearning to breathe free, on the edge of the prairie in Minnesota the blue uniform was the very tool of oppression.

As a culture, we often flatly look at the Federal cause during the war as wholly just. Lincoln becomes a great emancipator, free from any fault thanks in no small part to a bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth. But in 1862 and 1863, just as an American revolution in thought and definitions of freedom was taking place in the halls of Washington and the sea islands of the Carolinas, another race of people stood behind barricades erected by Lincoln's troops. The Dakota's freedom was stolen from them by forces dressed the same as those marching to preserve the freedom of the slave.

The war was about freedom. But so often in America, our struggles for the freedom of one group ignore completely the plaintive cries of another. The American story is one of piecemeal progress. We take slow steps, grasp at handholds and toeholds as we climb the peak to a more perfect union. But, we can only keep climbing toward a land where all are truly forever free.

The American dream is one of fits and starts, not a smooth line of progress. It has been a very bumpy road. We can only endeavor to make it a little smoother. That's the meaning which lies at the heart of Fort Snelling.

Descendents return to Fort Snelling to commemorate their ancestors' struggles at this
monument inscribed with the words, "Remembering and Honoring."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Walking Out on the Meaning: Dedication Day 2011

A Wednesday "Extra!" for you about this past weekend's events in Gettysburg...

I am a nerd. Last year on November 19th I was stuck in Las Vegas, attending the NAI conference (the same one Jake and I have been grousing about for the last two weeks). This was the first Dedication Day event I had missed since first coming to Gettysburg in 2003. I was upset. I was disconsolate. I trudged the strip dejected. I toured the Atomic Testing Museum, which was fascinating but unfulfilling. I am one of those dorks who doesn't understand how anyone can schedule anything other than a trip to Gettysburg on November the 19th. The glitz of Vegas only underlined this cold fact.

Like a scene out of the best Ray Bradbury
short story ever: Downwind from Gettysburg.
This year, I was excited to once again be in Gettysburg on a chilly November day to celebrate the speech Lincoln gave 148 years ago. The crowd was massive, larger than a typical Dedication Day. This was almost certainly due to the fact that the event fell on a Saturday this year and ended up as a double-bill with the popular-if-gaudy Remembrance Day. I have deep problems with R-day. But I have deep reverence for Dedication Day. It was nice to see some different visitors exposed to the solemn events in the cemetery and not simply the pompous ones along Baltimore Street.

A massive crowd saw Stephen Lang speak. Surprisingly, Lang's speech was good. I thought he made some excellent connections and tried to delve into a deeper meaning of that place. It certainly was not the typical exercise in expounding how little appreciation young people have for history, something which not only comes off as holier-than-thou but is often preaching directly into the choir loft when directed at a Dedication Day crowd.

Why does this video an audience member uploaded
to YouTube abruptly end after Jim Getty speaks?
But I noticed something. When Lang finished, what happened to that massive crowd? About 1/4 of it vanished, trickling away from the cemetery. Next, after a few other pieces of business, Jim Getty was introduced portraying Abraham Lincoln. Jim does a fine job as Lincoln, although I personally find his reading of the Address a bit flawed (my problem has to do with syllabic emphasis, and points out just how pedantic my knowledge of this stuff can be sometimes).

What happened after Getty closed? Another chunk of the crowd evaporated into the cold November air, streaming away. What was left looked like a typical Dedication Day crowd. Only about half of the people in the audience as there ceremony began were still there.

But why does this matter? Simply because of the deep meanings and resonances which unfolded next, after so many had left. The final activity of the day, before the Gettysburg High School band played "America the Beautiful," was a simple ceremony. Sixteen members of the audience were asked to stand as their countries of origin were announced: Armenia, Canada, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Germany, India, Kenya, Somalia, Thailand and the United Kingdom. Then Philadelphia district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services Tony Bryson rose and approached the podium. He asked the candidates to raise their hands. He swore them in as citizens.

But why was this so meaningful?

No better definition of
the meaning of the Civil War...
Tony Bryson is black. He is an African American. His administration of the oath followed Lincoln's admonition to the nation that it should bloom with, "a new birth of freedom." We were at a commemoration of a speech which helped to redefine a national war fought so that men who look like Mr. Bryson were not held in coffles but were seen as citizens. This man who 150 years ago would have been looked upon by a majority of the American populace as sub-human and inferior, as something less than a citizen, was administering the oath of citizenship to new Americans of every stripe. That is the fundamental definition of an American revolution.

Lincoln's dream of a, "new birth of freedom," was palpable in the cold November Saturday morning. If only more people had bothered to stick around to see it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Just Interpret to Me: Reflecting on NAI 2011

Last week saw Jake and I in St. Paul, Minnesota for the annual National Association for Interpretation workshop, a week long gathering of professional interpreters from around the nation. I'll guarantee that the next couple of weeks will be filled with recaps from both of us on what struck us the most during the conference. Our reactions ranged from "meh..." to "Dude!"

To quote everyone's favorite viral video
"What does it mean?"
I'm going to begin with one of the "meh..." moments. Friday found us on a field trip to Fort Snelling State Park and Historic Fort Snelling (operated by the Minnesota Historical Society). The fort sits high on the bluffs overlooking the waters of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, dating originally to the 1820s. The fort has what seems to have been an amazing and vibrant history, filled with amazing national connections and deeply moving concepts.

Unfortunately, we did not hear that much about the meaning of that place when we toured the site. Our site visit consisted of watching the orientation video (a decent in-house production), a 35-minute PowerPoint presentation on the history of interpretation at the fort from 1970 to today and a very quick visit to the site wherein the staff unlocked doors for us and described the types of programming they do for the public. We were talked at for about an hour on the craft of what they do at the site, but never shown that craft in action to judge for ourselves. Why is Fort Snelling important? Judging only by what we heard inside of the fort's walls, I'm not quite sure.

To be fair, this was only a symptom of a larger impulse which seemed to pervade the conference. Again and again, instead of proving by showing the bulk of the presenters tried to teach their skills by telling. Concept after concept flew by, with little to no actual examples of what works, no attempt to show how meanings can be forged. A convention center full of professional communicators often had a tough time communicating.

We protect our cultural landscapes and interpret them because we believe that the real, the true, the actual is one of the most potent tools. This is the fundamental ethic in interpretation: tie a story to a landscape (what the craft calls a "resource"). But as soon as we step in front of a PowerPoint projector, even interpreters seem to lose this core ethic. Instead of teaching through effective examples, facilitating meanings for our audiences to show them new techniques for facilitating meanings, we begin blathering on about the craft endlessly. We read every word off of our slides and narrate endlessly to crowds quite visibly disengaged from what we are saying to them. We bore our audiences with theory the moment we are told they are interpreters. In short, for some reason we check our interpretive impulse at the door.

If we preach as a profession that interpretation is the most effective type of teaching, why not practice what we preach? Why not show how to interpret well through powerful examples of what is effective instead of simply telling how we think it might work?

Setting foot in an historic fort in Minnesota after flying nearly a thousand miles to get there, we were visitors last Friday. But the staff didn't see that. All we wanted was to see some effective programming that could help us feel why Fort Snelling was important. But the presenters didn't try to understand who their audience was and what they came to the site seeking. We weren't interpreters when we walked through the gates of that site; we were visitors. We came seeking meaning; we left unfulfilled. We walked away with no new tools in our toolboxes, only a vague understanding that Fort Snelling used to do first-person, living history interpretation and now no longer does.

The Post Commander's Window Dred and Harriet Scott's Window
How might the very different people who looked out of these very different windows have seen the world?
Just one of the amazingly provocative questions I was hoping would be asked of me at every turn but never was...

Jake leaned to me at one point during the day and said, "Remind me to never mention that I'm an interpreter to anyone when I visit a site. They immediately stop interpreting for you and just want to talk shop."

Jake, consider yourself reminded in spades.

So, what were the missed interpretive opportunities? Tune in next week when I'll try to give you the interpretive program I didn't receive at Fort Snelling. Just in time for Thanksgiving, I'll share with you the power of an historic landscape to show us the impacts of European colonization of the Americas. And it's a Civil War story to boot.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Don't Say Slave: Interpreting Slavery at NAI 2011

Back from the 2011 NAI workshop and back to our regularly scheduled programing! We both have plenty to share from sessions on interpretation, field trips to local history sites, and eating breakfast in a dining car on the national registry of historic places.

Slave, servant, fugitive, runaway, master, slave owner, and farm. What do all of these words have in common? Well, if you went to Angela Roberts-Burton's NAI session, "Overcoming the Obstacles of Interpreting Slavery," you would know that all of these are words that she urged interpreters not to use when interpreting slavery and slave life. Instead, you should use: enslaved, freedom seeker, fled bondage, slave holder, and slave plantation.

Although Roberts-Burton's presentation was overall, highly informative with some great discussion, I had several issues with her presentation, mainly her handout, "Words Have Power". In the handout, she urged the above mentioned restricted vocabulary when interpreting slavery. The reasoning behind not using words such as slave and fugitive is that they are demeaning. The handout argues, referring to the word slave, that:
No one asked to be a slave. This is not what or who they were. When people (especially African Americans) are referred to slaves, it is dehumanizing. they become ambiguous, without feelings, thoughts, or individual personalities.
 Roberts-Burton's handout continues on the words fugitive and runway:
These terms imply that wanting freedom was wrong.
I agree with Roberts-Burton on what these words mean. Words do in fact carry a lot of power and implied meaning - that's their nature as bits of language. And that's precisely why I don't think interpreters can or should restrict their vocabulary when dealing with such a controversial and important issue such as slavery.

I want to use the word slave, fugitive, and slave holder interpretively. I want to be able to point out the fact, or better yet, have a visitor realize how stilted the language we use today and those in the past used to talk about slavery. I want to use the word fugitive to illustrate the paradox of someone who is fighting for their freedom and yet simultaneously breaking the law. I want to use those above mentioned terms to illustrate multiple perspectives, those of the slave holder and the slave, those who benefited from slavery and those who are only know principally for their status as slaves. Using those terms is essential to confronting one of the worst facets of slavery: that although slaves were in fact human beings with emotions, feelings, needs, and wants, they were after all in many people's minds just slaves - pieces of property to be bought and sold by slave owners and masters. I want visitors to respond to the injustice and inherent wrong that is the word slave and all that it represents.

Courtesy Prints and Photographs, LOC.
By not using these words and confronting all the difficulties and layers of meaning represented by these words, we risk losing sight of the nature of slavery, and all of its intricacies. We risk painting it with broad strokes instead of rooting out all of the details that made slavery a degrading, morally corrupt, and overtly hypercritical human system that it was. Slavery is too important an interpretive subject for us to confine ourselves to certain  vocabulary words. Instead, we need to embrace the whole vocabulary of slavery for all its interpretive possibilities and worth.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Last Prisoners at Gettysburg: A Gift for Kind Hearts

Linnaean Hall on the Pennsylvania
College campus / GettDigital Collection
I have been digging quite heavily into the history of Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) College and the American Civil War these past few months, trying to fill a gaping hole in the scholarship not only of the college but of the local civilian story in the war. This has meant long Thursday nights at Adams County Historical Society culling through every random mention of the college and the complex relationship which the students and faculty had with both the citizens of the borough and the armies which invaded it. It has also meant that I've had the opportunity to revisit Gettysburg College's Special Collections in-depth for the first time since I began working with the college's Civil War history in 2006.

It continually surprises me how little has been unearthed from archives and newspapers on any topic I research. How any historian can 'discover' a source which was published in a newspaper in 1863 and has been sitting on a roll of microfilm for 20 years, or how they can discover a source which comprises part of the official record of an institution spanning more than 175 years of history and sitting in that institution's archive for over a century is a mind-boggling concept. Historical research is one never-ending instances of the thing you need being hidden in plain sight.

So, what did I find hidden in plain sight the other night in Gettysburg College's Special Collections?

The finding aid listed the following in the files of the Board of Trustees from 1864:
1 May 1864 - Letter to members of the Lenean [sic] Association, presenting them with two globes bought in Murfreesboro, TN from the sale of confiscated property of a professor

That date, that description of the content... it was just too tantalizing. My 'discovery' of the document was, in fact, exhilarating.

In May of 1864, the college received a letter and (presumably) a crate containing two globes. William Earnshaw, formerly a Methodist Episcopal Minister from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, had forwarded the geographic instruments to Pennsylvania College with his regards. Before the war, Earnshaw was a circuit riding minister and for a time was based in Gettysburg. As the war broke out, Earnshaw volunteered his services to the state of Pennsylvania. By the spring of 1863, he had resigned his commission as chaplain in the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and volunteered for duty as a hospital chaplain. He was eventually attached to the Army of the Cumberland, and would spend the balance of the war in central Tennessee.

Earnshaw's globes were, "purchased at the sale of confiscated property in," Murfreesboro. The provenance of the globe was sketchy at the auction, Earnshaw admitted, but he relayed to the college that, "so far as I can learn they belonged to Professor Henderson formerly of the 'Union University.'” The previous owner of the hemispheres, "at the Commencement of the Rebellion," had given, "all his force against the dear old flag."

The globes immediately reminded the minister of the small college in the town in south-central Pennsylvania where he had made his home for a short time. "And remembering the kindness of the able President of the Penna. College, and many pleasant associations with the Professors + Students," Earnshaw explained, "I felt and now feel great pleasure in commiting [sic] to the care of your noble society," the globes.

Earnshaw was present at Gettysburg during the battle and hospital period, nursing the wounded and ministering to soldiers' destroyed bodies and souls alike. The "kindness of the able President," could refer to Henry L. Baugher's care of over a dozen wounded Federal soldiers in his home over the course of the three-day battle. The, "pleasant associations with the Professors," could refer to the amiable Martin Luther Stoever and his penchant for inviting any wayward soul wandering the streets of the town after the battle into his parlour for tea. If he did in fact set foot inside the hallowed walls of the college, he witnessed how the halls of the, "noble," Linnaean Society had been soaked with the blood of hundreds of wounded soldiers dashed to pieces by three days of carnage.

In Tennessee, Earnshaw experienced a new sort of carnage: reinterment of mangled men. As the war drew to a close, he was put in charge of the military cemeteries at Stones River and Nashville, later to be placed in charge of the cemeteries at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth and Memphis as well. Frank Conover explained in his Centennial Portrait and Biographical Record of the City of Dayton and of Montgomery County, Ohio in 1897 that, "in the presence of thousands of unreconstructed rebels, and of women and children who were imbued with the idea that secession was just and the northern soldiers usurpers, this duty was most arduous." Earnshaw, assisted by the men of the 111th United States Colored Troops, "in the face of insult and intimidation and personal danger," helped to find a final resting place for, "the bodies of 22,000 fallen Union soldiers... gathered from their shallow, temporary graves." Earnshaw reported to the War Department in 1866 that all of his, "assistants were brave soldiers who had served throughout the war." He cherished the thought that as long as he lived he would, "remember how tenderly they performed this work amid untold difficulties; how cheerfully they set out on long and toilsome journeys through rain and storm in search of their fallen comrades, and the proud satisfaction expressed by them when the precious remains were laid in the new made grave."

College mueseum collection inside
Linnaean Hall  / GettDigital Collection
After traveling far from the thick of the horror that was Gettysburg and plunging into a far more sinister landscape of rotting patriots, fresh-dug graves and racial strife, Earnshaw still thought fondly of that Lutheran college which sat on the border between heaven and hell for the entire summer of 1863. The two tokens of his esteem, everyday educational objects like those in colleges and classrooms across the United States, were laden with meaning. Where the globes are today I know not. They most likely drifted to an antique collector's shelf or a landfill's depths long ago, their story mute to the world. But to think of the meaning embedded in the simple act of spinning a globe, the meaning of the simple motion of a student running their fingers across its surface to find a far away land, is tantalizing. In 1864 those globes ended up sitting on a shelf in the Linnaean Hall at Pennsylvania College, expatriates held in a foreign land, the last prisoners of war lodged in buildings which had held so many destroyed sons of the South.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Sit Down Together at a Table of Brotherhood": Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

The Stone of Hope: a kind King
As we walked along the tidal basin back toward the Smithsonian Metro Station, I began to cry. Just a few tears, here and there, welled in my eyes. It wasn't the monument or the quotes. It wasn't the deep feelings I had looking at his face. It was overhearing a simple conversation. Two 30-something black women in a group of tourists were talking to one another about photos.

"You need to get your picture taken, girl," one asks the other.
"Why?" she responds, "I've got plenty of pictures."
"To prove you were here," the first woman responds.

That hit me. This place was special and meaningful, far above the power of even its creators to see. The very act of visiting the huge stone monolith needed to be documented and shared with those at home, like evidence of a hajj to a sacred spot where all yearn to stand.

During our visit we walked past an older couple, old enough to have been dating as King embarked on his final campaign for the sanitation workers of Memphis in '68. The woman pushed the gentleman in a wheelchair, both looking up reverently at King's face as they moved forward. His black hand rested on her white skin perched gently above his shoulder.

A Family and a King quote
In front of the monument a huge crowd gathered. Many were black, many were white. Everyone seemed enthusiastic to be there. They were elated just to be standing on that spot. Above the crowd arms reached, holding aloft smart phones and cameras.

Along the walls behind King, next to quotes about strength and weakness, about war and peace, about violence and justice, families posed to have their photos taken. Others studied the quotes, pondering for long minutes. Along the pathways, lining every inch of curb, groups sat. They were talking.

Stepping into the Lincoln Memorial is often like a walking into a wall of silence. Crossing the plain of the columns on the east front, the air becomes deathly still in reverence to Lincoln's gaze. But walking onto the plaza surrounding King's feet, a low murmur permeates the scene. It is not irreverent. It is simply people being people. Some I overheard discussing King or their lives or the meaning of the place. Others were planning where to eat dinner or hashing out the best route to their next stop. Some were simply taking a moment to sit a breathe, looking across the tidal basin toward the white dome in the distance. But everyone was using the park, not simply soaking it up as a static visual landscape to be consumed. They were active participants in the place.

Walking around the site, my girlfriend Jess noticed something I missed. "Look at all the disposable cameras," she remarked. She was right. There were so many people not with the latest Nikon or Kodak camera slung around their neck, or an iPhone snapping quick shots of King, but with $5 and $10 disposable film cameras. "Those people aren't here 'cause they want to be," Jess mused, "they're here because they need to be. They saved money for the Greyhound down from where ever because they had to see this. It is a need, not a want."

Not Diversity: Only A Manifestation of America
All around us, people were there because they each knew they had to be. This diverse crowd was wonderfully unlike anything I've experienced in a National Park before. The crowd didn't feel artificial like it usually does when I visit Civl War parks, with the visitors around me being very white and typically old. It didn't feel like the Martin Luther King Jr. home in Atlanta, where I felt what I can only describe as the good kind of discomfort of being the only white person in the entire park on the first day of my two-day visit. Comedian Stephen Colbert has called Washington, D.C., "the chocolate city with a marshmallow center." The neighborhoods ringing The Mall and the Federal center of the city are predominately black. The crowds on The Mall and in the Smithsonian museums (not to mention the representatives in the hallowed halls on The Hill) are predominately white. Stepping out of Smithsonian Metro Station onto the Mall or walking the few blocks down while waiting for a pull time at NARA, l'Enfant's "grand avenue" feels too lily white for a city with such rich diversity teeming in every street to the north and east.

But at the King memorial, it doesn't feel artificial. It doesn't feel like I'm alone and different. It doesn't feel like anyone is missing. The only thing surrounding me at the King Memorial this past Saturday was what defines America: ordinary people of every stripe and any color.

The most amazing thing, though, is looking beyond King's gaze. Across the tidal basin lies the Jefferson Memorial. On one side of the water stands the author of the immortal, "promissory note," that men are entitled to, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." On the other side, just a stone's throw and two centuries away, stands the man who made it his life's goal to see that the, "promissory note," would be cashed for a race of men yearning to breathe free.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident..."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wittingly Effaced for Too Long: Hidden in Plain Sight

The former Gettysburg College
logo, phased out in early 2001
but still available on the
Internet Archive.
A few years ago, Gettysburg College changed their wordmark. The previous college logo featured the words "Gettysburg College" topped with a line art version of the flag flying from the cupola of Pennsylvania Hall. The logo explicitly acknowledged the sense of place, referencing the 34-star flag which flies above the Civil War era field hospital both night and day. The logo acknowledged the Civil War inherently.

In early 2001, everything changed. The logo shifted to a simple blue and orange wordmark of "Gettysburg College." No flag, no war, no history. As the re-branding initiative continued throughout the 2000s, a company named Cognitive Marketing helped the college pilot a campaign to, as the college newspaper reported on November 6th, 2003, help, "Gettysburg College [seem] new and in the moment." The article went on to make the cryptic observation that, "the culture does not embrace the rich history of Gettysburg."

This seems to have been the norm within the college's history community for quite some time as well. The most recent college history, a two-volume, 1060 page work from 1987 by Charles Glatfelter entitled Salutary Influence and available here [136mb], devotes under 9 pages or roughly 0.8% to the war years. If you weighted each year evenly, 5 years of Civil War should take up 3% of the book, or roughly 30 pages. Tumultuous years like the 1860s would seemingly demand an even closer investigation, not a lesser one.

Two of Gettysburg's
Civil War programs'
old logos.

The college has in the past gone out of its way to efface the Civil War from its landscape. Today, that trend is being reversed by a forward thinking administration who seem to see that the Civil War is one of the things which makes this place unique.

Why do I mention all this? I've been working on the college's Civil War history since 2006, trying to piece together something meaningful from the bits and pieces. I offer tours for groups of college alumni and parents around the campus, helping unfold the Civil War stories hidden beneath the surface. A few weeks ago, I gave a tour for some high-power alumni, parents and trustees, all of whom were outrageously interested in the hidden history of this place. They connected to this landscape (which some of them spent years crossing on their way to class) in new ways. They were floored at how rich the stories of Gettysburg's students, faculty and the soldiers who inhabited the college's campus could be. I am stockpiling research to hopefully put together a book on the college and the Civil War in time for the 150th in 2013.

As I've been searching, I found an intriguing article in a 1937 issue of the Gettysburg College Bulletin. Workmen digging the foundations for the north portico of Pennsylvania Hall, the non-historic porch of the building, "came upon some bones said to be human." Barely stopping the excavation, the workers almost seem to have been expecting to find remnants of the, "amputations of soldiers wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg." Among the other artifacts were, "an
old-fashioned key, a piece of shell, a penny dated 1838." The article boasts that the college's new addition was, "deep-seated in courageous history." The enthusiasm is palpable. We can take some inspiration from this profound excitement: sometimes it is a far more effective strategy to embrace the histories we might not like instead of eschewing them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Race of the Interpreter: "I'm Not Going To Spend My Life Being A Color..."

I am often put into an interesting place when recounting the tales of history. My passion is the history of race and abolition, the Civil War and the development of Civil Rights in the wake of the memory of our great fratricidal conflict. I'm white. Yet I am never afraid to broach the subject of race. Stephen Colbert's character on The Colbert Report often mentions that he doesn't, "see color." I would never be that bold. But I will say that I try to ignore color when I am interpreting to an audience. Put an audience of white visitors in front of me and I'll still tell them about the black characters in the drama of American history. Put a group of black visitors in front of me and I'll help them to see the landscape through any historical eyes, black or white.

Perhaps I'm naive, but I don't think there is such a thing as white history and black history. I think there is history. Some of the characters are white and some are black. All are intriguing.

I am not so naive to think that race has had no bearing on history. In fact, that's quite a bit of what I study. I delve deep into the minds of racists wearing hoods and lighting crosses on Civil War memorial landscapes. Likewise, I try to see the world from the lenses of racial egalitarians on quests to destroy a vial system of slavery based solely on a slight difference in pigmentation. I look at the evil and good in human character. But I can draw inspiration from the black characters in these narratives just as easily as white, in spite of my own skin color.

Why do I bring this up? I've been mulling the concept of black history for a while. Back in January, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park released a report on prospective black visitors to their site. One of the questions and a few of its answers have stuck in my mind, rolling around.

The survey leaders from Kennesaw State University posed the following question to their focus groups: "If you visited Kennesaw Mountain or another Civil War site today, what would be your expectations regarding the historical and cultural interpretation of the American Civil War?" Two answers stick out to me.

Imagery. We need to see people who look like us - Black people - to feel comfortable. They need to be part of the staff and decision-makers.


We keep getting people from, no offense, these big universities up north somewhere to come down and to tell us about the south. We need to invite people who look like African Americans – not just our White friends… We need people from the Talladegas, the Tugaloos, the Tuskegees, because they have kept a record of this history… We really need to bring the people who have lived these experiences.

I've asked the question of who owns black history before. The question still resonates with me. I understand the desire for diversity in the workplace and the world. I want to see every color everywhere. That's the very definition of America.

But can a white face tell a story about a black face and black hands? What did these respondents mean when they said, "we need to see people who look like us," and, "we really need to bring the people who have lived these experiences." In the case of the Civil War and slavery, those who, "lived these experiences," are long lost to us. Instead, we have their stories left. Why does it matter who tells that story?

The report's compilers suggested that Kennesaw, "consult with researchers, local historians and experts at HBCUs for consultancy opportunities to uncover African American history." HBCUs are wonderful resources. I had the pleasure of visiting Tuskegee University last year and sitting down for a chat with a brilliant student Park Ranger with a true passion for Booker T. Washington and the Civil Rights movement of the early 20th century. But even he would not have said that black colleges are the sole arbiters of the history of Americans of African descent.

This past summer, as part of my experimental programming on John Brown, my tour explicitly featured one white and one black character. The twin pillars of Thomas Boerly and Dangerfield Newby can help illustrate the pure tragedy of John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry. But I saw tears in the eyes of white folks over Newby's struggle against slavery to free his wife and children in bondage in Virginia. I saw tears in the eyes of black folks as I narrated the tale of Thomas Boerly, struck dead in the streets of Harpers Ferry while trying to defend his family from harm as his adopted home came under attack.

There are no black tears. There are no white tears. There are only tears. In the end, it shouldn't matter whether the characters in our stories are black or white. It should matter that they're human and that their struggles move our souls. Likewise, it shouldn't matter what color skin our interpreters have, but instead we should judge the content of their tales and their ability to move us.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Dictatorship of Meaning: Villainizing Multiple Perspectives

Sorry for drifting a little off course from the promise of a discussion of universal relevance, but this one seemed important. Tune in next week for some thoughts on universal relevance and race. Now, on to this week...


I read Louis De Caro's "John Brown the Abolitionist -- A Biographer's Blog" regularly because I deeply respect the work which DeCaro has done in researching Brown, particularly putting him into the context of his religious life. I assigned "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown to the students in my class this semester on Brown, as it is an intriguing look at the abolitionist. But I read DeCaro's blog because I don't agree with him on many of his criticisms of how Brown is interpreted in a modern context. I try to follow a rule of thumb: you need to read those with whom you disagree voraciously, to keep you from growing complacent in your opinions.

DeCaro repeatedly has expressed issues with how the National Park Service (and others) have interpreted Brown's raid and his justification in taking others' lives, most recently in his post about the Smithsonian's "Time Trial of John Brown," a program which Jake highlighted last week. DeCaro is critical of the Smithsonian's Susan Evans' statement that, "We don’t want to make out John Brown to be a hero at all...." He continues, stating that, " the staff at the National Park Service at Harper’s Ferry, evidently the staff at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum/Theater have an opinion about Brown."

The hat I wore at Harpers Ferry, atop a
period advertisement for a slave raffle.
My day job is in the NPS. I worked at Harpers Ferry for three years in the living history branch, wearing the clothes of both civilians from 1859 and soldiers from 1862-1864, all the while helping visitors to understand and appreciate the blow for freedom Brown struck in the small Virginia town. You don't work alongside a figure like John Brown, in the places he inhabited, without forming an opinion about the man. To say, "evidently the staff... have an opinion about Brown," is a relative no-brainer.

So what's my opinion on Brown? I think he struck the match for a holy war, a war that was guided by a principle that there is law and there is justice, and the two don't always meet. I think he struck for freedom, using violence to combat a violent system and begin the destruction of the purely evil concept of human chattel slavery. I think that Brown was, to some degree, just. I hate violence, I don't think it is the right answer, but I can understand and appreciate how someone might come to the conclusion that it is necessary. I have never had chains on my wrists, never been dragged along in a coffle, and never seen friends subjected to that treatment. I simply don't know what violence would well up in my soul if placed in the position of a Dangerfield Newby, Shields Green or John Brown.

Here's the clincher, though: my opinion of the justice of Brown's actions matters not one lick. My opinion is not valid in the case of Interpretation. Instead, it comes down to the visitors' opinions of Brown and his raid. The difference between History and Interpretation is a question of dictatorship, muddied by an intersection of language.

Above all else, this is a place to investigate
ideas. / CC by Mike Sheridan

"The chief aim of Interpretation," father of the craft Freeman Tilden intoned, "is not instruction, but provocation." Interpretation is a process by which the individual begins thinking about a place or person or thing. The aim is not learning, but drawing ones' own conclusions. "Information, as such, is not Interpretation," Tilden outlines in another of his principles, "Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things." The outcome of Interpretation is not for a visitor to walk away with one meaning for a place, imparted to all, but to walk away with a personal meaning for that place, developed by themselves. Interpretation represents a democracy of meanings, where only one intellectual vote counts: that of the visitor in their own internal decision of what this place or thing or person means. "Any Interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor," Tilden warned, "will be sterile."

History, on the other hand, is chiefly instructive. Any historical monograph has a deep seated position, with which it is the author's aim to entice, persuade, goad and sometimes even force the audience to agree. There are right interpretations and wrong interpretations in History, with opinions being as sacrosanct and immovable as the facts and information upon which they are based. There are experts, there to impart a distinct view and interpretation of an event or place or person.

Note that word: interpretation. This is where understandings of the fundamental differences between the two fields begin to break down. The concept of an historical interpretation, or an opinion about what a collection of facts mean in the greater scheme, has little to do with Interpretation as an activity. Capital "I" Interpretation is about eschewing enforcement of specific interpretations on visitors. In short, the difference is as simple as the difference between dictatorship and democracy.

Those are two very loaded words. But they are illustrative. Historical dictatorship only allows one viewpoint. Like Stalin effacing malcontents from photographs or Winston Smith sliding disappeared Ingsoc Party members into a slot in his office's wall, the grand majority of facts left within historical argument are those which support a thesis, either predetermined or crafted from those facts which fit it. Historical argument, to a greater or lesser extent, is a game of stage magic. The proof of something happening comes from not only illustration, but from misdirection as well. But the clincher in this paradigm is that "p" word: proof. Historical dictatorship comes through a distinct use of an officious tone. Historians impart singular "truths" and sole meanings for events like dictators, with a sense of certitude which often the public rejects. It is a chief reason that academia is disdained by a chunk of the populace as the embodiment of arrogance: the continual hubris of thinking "we know better than you."

Was Brown a terrorist? It is a valid question.
And the answer all hinges on whose eyes
you try to see him through. / CC by Stephanie
The flip side of the coin, the Interpretive democracy, offers up all the contradictions. It offers up disparate parts and multiple perspectives. It presents the evidence for a point, against a point and everywhere in between. It not only leaves the malcontents in the photos and the documents unburned, but demands that you try seeing the world from their perspectives as well. In this world, you try to see the world from the perspective, through the eyes, of a Virginia planter looking northward at the threat of more Harpers Ferrys. You look through the eyes of the Washington politician just hoping to live out your term in office without provoking a war between white and black, or state and state. You look through the eyes of Brown too, and try to see his perception of justice.

Most importantly, you don't offer a meaning. You offer the ideas of the past, the multiple perspectives, but then refrain from judgement. This is not because judgements should not be made. Everyone does have a right to judge the past and find meaning in its folds. No, this is to make sure that judgement is never imposed. Each visitor's judgement is sacred, is sovriegn. They vote on their personal meanings in a democracy of one.

I gave programs in Harpers Ferry this past summer, focusing on the moral quandary of John Brown's Raid. In it figured Dangerfield Newby, free slave and avenging husband, killed while desperately grasping for his family's freedom. In it too figured Thomas Boerly, Irish immigrant and protective husband, killed while doggedly trying to repel raiders from his town and his family's doorstep. Who was right? I never said. When you wear that badge, when you wear that hat, your word is law. Those two symbols are too powerful to make a judgement. Instead, I left it to the audience. If they walked away believing John Brown a saint, I did my job. If they walked away thinking John Brown a terrorist, I did my job. If they walked away thinking anything about John Brown, I did my job.

A friend of mine (now lost to us) wrote in his journal in 2002:
A story - that has to be the holy word. More than a plot or narrative - it has to offer real opportunities to meanings. Not a TV movie. A story has to weigh more. Be able to crack open at the details.

The formula now is really quite simple. Make people care about a character, place, - something. Then understate the obvious. First let them feel.

Letting people feel these places and draw their own conclusions is the ultimate democracy of history. Letting them question and prod from any angle, and most importantly not telling them they are wrong for a belief based in the place's story, is the ultimate opportunity to connect with a place. That's Interpretation.