Over the past two days, I have presented, attended and been a panelist in 3 sessions at the Association of American Geographer’s Annual Meeting in New York City.
Always a fun place to be, I didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city, although my accommodations at the Salisbury Hotel on W. 57th Street were great, I was in close proximity to Central Park, a few doors down from Carnegie Hall (which I have played in), and close to just about everything else you could expect to visit in Manhattan. But for all it’s fun times and exciting nightlife, I was there for work and did not get a chance to take in as much of the city as I would have liked to.
This particular group of sessions that I attended were about slavery and memory and how across disciplines we can come together to really encourage conversation on this topic. I was excited to be asked to present and share some of my ideas and could not wait to hear from some of my colleagues. My presentation talked about sharing the interpretive load in third person in regards to slavery. This would be stemming from my experiences at Historic Brattonsville as well as the dilemma that my departure of the site meant to interpretation. Since there was not another African American on the interpretive staff, it would be imperative to have my now former co-workers pick up where I left off. With their help, we explored what it was like to interpret slave life from the perspective of one who did not resemble the enslaved. Through a series of emails, we corresponded on how school programs were handled, what visitor experiences were like and just the general experience of being responsible for a subject that for so long, they honestly weren’t responsible for. The feedback was amazing as these ladies stepped a little out of their comfort zone to fully embrace a story they knew a little bit about but not as much as they could have until now. Thankfully, my presentation was well received and hopefully opened a lot of eyes.
There was a lot of discussion about how slavery is being interpreted at a lot of sites across the South and even the North. I will admit, I found some of the research critical and unfair, but I had to stop and think, these are scholars, who are not necessarily in Public History, these are Academia minded individuals and they will have that criticism of “this is missing, this is not right, this is bad”. It was a tad frustrating at first because to someone who is not involved with museums from the back end, you can go some place and say they aren’t doing enough about this one area and they need to do better and have a judgment about that site. But for someone who has a background in museums, there are some histories and topics that may be controversial to the outside (like slavery), but also controversial to the inside as well.
There may be museum staff who want to implement more about slave life at a particular site, but find resistance from other staff members or members of their board. There is a desire to not “rock the boat” for some. Massive changes could affect the bottom line…and while your thinking will say, it could be for the better, there are those who say the bottom line could be negatively affected and the risk is not worth it. And let’s face it, if a site for so long has given you “Gone with the Wind”, and then suddenly snaps visitors out of their iconic image of Southern Plantation life to the truth, which was not Scarlett, they just may lose that bottom line, and as a professional, you may lose your job.
As ideal as it is for all sites to tell complete and true histories, the reality is, this will not happen universally. There are entirely too many factors in play that cause this unpleasant statement to be a reality. What you can do however is work for change over time. Some of the other public historians that I met with and talked to, as well as others who were not directly connected to public history, knew that these changes were necessary, but that there is a constant struggle. The question remains, how do we illicit such change?
There was a call to immediate action and activism, no matter what the cost, but for many of us, the cost is too great to just rashly jump in and make demands. As one collaborator said, for so long we have been looking to change the NARRATIVE and that can breed resentment and negativity. However, if we change the CONVERSATION, and get an open discussion going, things can happen. There has to be give and take, compromise is key. You may not be able to get a full blown exhibit, tour, program, etc. based on slavery in one take, but little things like history contained in a brochure, talking points along the way, mere mention that “a slave would have helped so and so get dressed” can start to give you the change in perception and attitude that you so desire. We’ve heard this quote over and over again, but “a spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a gallon of vinegar”. In other words, while most of us in this field want to see slave life out in the forefront, we know that to accomplish educating our public on a forgotten past, we must do it with care and careful planning.
To my colleagues, I would admonish you to not be too quick to judge unless you do know what’s going on behind the scenes. I would also encourage more scholarship on what sites are doing right, even if there is a lot that you see they are doing wrong. As a public historian, trust me, I cringe too when I hear about the mint julep fantasy being portrayed on some sites. Also, reach out to those public historians who make this their focus, and who can find ways to implement the ideas that are present. It won’t be an overnight movement, but with enough of us involved, we can do more to empower sites to talk about slavery as it pertains to their past.