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.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Standing Up by Sitting Down: Join the Student Sit-Ins at the Smithsonian

Continuing my review and discussion that I started last week of the NMAH's historical theater programs, this week, I want to talk about the other program I attended on my most recent visit down to the mall: the Join the Student Sit-Ins program. Long story short, Join the Student Sit-Ins is another great interpretive offering from the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The program thrives on visitor involvement and reflection. It's engaging, historically deep, emotional, and probing for answers, ultimately asking more questions than finding answers. 

The basis for the program is a training session being held in the wake of the initial Greensboro Student Sit-In that occurred on February 1, 1960. Visitors are thrust into the role of students who have volunteered to help carry on torch, spreading non-violent sit-ins to lunch counters around the city and throughout the rest of North Carolina. During the program, visitors and the interpreter, portraying a student activist who is leading the training session, engage in a number of different activities. Together the interpreter and visitors discuss what non-violence means and what it represents. They practice non-violent techniques including a demonstration where visitors silently crowd and stare at several audience members chosen to sit on stools, the objective being to try and make those who are sitting uncomfortable by the confrontation. And lastly, the group sings. They sing protest songs used during the sit-ins and other civil rights demonstrations. They sing, using the power of music to unite themselves, to show their strength, pride, and resolve in helping to change America just as the students did in 1960. You can watch the entire program online below. It's well worth the twenty minutes of your time.


As you can see, Join the Student Sit-Ins is a very experiential program with deep emotional and intellectual connections. And its all achieved in a short 25-30 minute program held in the lobby of one of wings of the museum. The program is held in the same lobby which houses the original Greensboro lunch counter, on display for everyone to see. The counter serves a backdrop to the program, a tangible reminder of the events not so long ago that inspired the program. Along with the Time Trial of John Brown, the Join the Student Sit-Ins program is on my imaginary "greatest hits" record of interpretation. I really can't say enough.

Where it all started / CC by Mark Pellegrini
But, what makes these two historical theater programs work so well? To me, the reasons they succeed come down to two simple things evident in both of the programs. One is both programs are about people. And two, the goal of the programs are not the instruction or education of visitors on historical events, but the provocation of feeling and meaning over those historical events. Let me explain.

Both the Time Trial of John Brown and Join the Student Sit-ins programs are about people. More than anything, they agree with John's definition of what history is all about (remember?...ideas put into action by people on a landscape) Both programs eschew getting caught up in the wide breadth of the overall events and movements the people are part of, instead just focusing on one man or a group of student's actions responding to the ideas of that particular movement. Instead of starting from a top down approach, by seeing the big picture and then focusing in on the details, these programs go from the bottom up - grassroots history of individual actors who play a leading role on the stage of American history.

Second, both programs focus on meaning and feeling. They ask provoking questions such as, "How do you  feel we should remember John Brown?" and "What would you have done if you were at the Student Sit-Ins? Would you be able to be non-violent? Could you restrain yourself while everyone else around you bullied and terrorized you?" Instead of sending you away with a nice take home message or thesis such as, "John Brown should be remembered as..." or, "The Greensboro Sit-Ins were instrumental in..." The programs leave you asking questions for which only you can give the right answer - ultimately, what you think and how you feel about that particular moment in history.