Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Your Circuit's Dead, There's Something Wrong": Let's Reboot This Experiment

It's been exactly 2 years since I posted a regular blog post. Aside from my ruminations on the march from Selma to Montgomery, it's been radio silence here. And that's been for reasons.

I don't want to say it has been for good reason, but just reasons. In fact, it was for bad reasons. The Civil War interpretive world is a very insular place. It's a very codified place. It's a very static place. And I was scared.

Yup. That's the best word for it. "Scared."

I think my fear was warranted. I was afraid I was ruining my career prospects by blogging openly about how we might do this whole job of discussing the Civil War with the American People better. I was.

I was afraid I was functionally making myself toxic and unhireable. I was.

I was afraid that I'd never work in the Civil War interpretive field again. And frankly, I likely won't.

Five years ago, a reply to this blog came in a letter to myself and my former co-author. It came on the email equivalent of official stationary from a major Civil War National Park Service site. In much longer, deeper and more rambling words, it basically said, "I wonder at your temerity."

That moment infected me. You can look back at the posts I wrote in reply (but at the time didn't overtly admit as such) and see the seething anger I had at that moment. And that, in the end, fueled my fear.

But I'm done with fear.

In 1931, in the building where I work in Harpers Ferry, a woman tried to stand up to the powers that be. And they denied her entreaties. Choir Director Pearl Tatten begged of the white Storer College President, "Do you think we should appear on such a program when we honor John Brown and feel that while he may have used the wrong methods, his motive was just?” He didn't listen.

Pearl's choir sat on the rostrum as the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated what they themselves called a, "Loyal Slave Monument." The black choir, with its black choir director, sat behind speakers as they praised racism, praised what America used to be, praised slavery and the, "black mammy."

The college president had been warned. He should have known better. He should have just cancelled the choir's participation. He didn't.

Pearl stepped up to the podium. She wasn't supposed to speak. She did.

"I am the daughter of a Connecticut volunteer, who wore the blue, who fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow. Today we are looking forward to the future, forgetting those things of the past."

The crowd sat gape-jawed.

"We are pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of new freedom and rising youth."

The local black press called that moment a bolt from the blue, striking the crowd and electrifying the air. There were murmurs. There was outrage. Someone in the crowd, undoubtedly one of the daughters who were trying so hard to prove that the cause their fathers had fought for—the cause of slavery—was just, scribbled a note.

"I wonder at your temerity. Your untimely remarks were out of place, in poor spirit, and most discourteous. Such ignorance is colossal."

I've been thinking about Pearl Tatten more and more. About that moment when she literally laid her life on the line for the dignity of her students and the future of her nation. I think about everything she could have lost. As I've said time and again while interpreting her story in the building, women across the south were lynched for less.

And I think of how much privilege I have and my retreat into silence. And I feel shame.

I think finally shame is outweighing the fear.

I'm back.


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