Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book review: Slavery and Public History

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory is a collection of essays edited by historians James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton.  Published in 2006, the book anticipates many of the conflicts regarding the role of slavery in American history in general and the Civil War in particular that are sure to arise as the sesquicentennial of the latter draws closer. I bought this book a few months ago at the book store in the Natchez, Mississippi, visitors' center, but hadn't gotten around to reading it until this past week.  All the chatter about the governor of Virginia proving his knowledge of history would fit on a postage stamp inspired me to finally pick it up and read it. 

Public history is the field of history that deals with making history accessible to and understood by the general public;  museum docents, subject matter experts who plan exhibits and brochures, tour guides, interpretive rangers at state and national parks, living history actors, and so on are all working in the field of public history. One of the challenges of public history can be helping visitors to a museum or a historic site to recognize that knowing more about the past isn't always going to make you feel good, a notably difficult task when most visitors begin the experience by seeing their visit to a museum or historic site as potential entertainment or as a celebration of American progress so, unless they're visiting a site like Andersonville or Manzanar, are expecting tours to be upbeat. But, as one of the essays notes, "if you don't tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be."

When history involves the tough stuff -- slavery, civil rights, internment camps -- things can get especially messy.  Most people prefer a comforting myth over a nasty truth any day, so it's no surprise that for the general public the history of slavery in the United States comes wrapped in multiple myths, ranging from the erroneous belief slavery existed only in the Southern states to the ludicrous notion that there were thousands of black soldiers in the Confederate army.

The essays in this book examine a number of recent events for which the history of slavery either served as the initial reason for the event or became entangled in it as planning progressed, including changing the docents' scripts at the Brown house in Rhode Island, placement of a statue honoring Arthur Ashe in Richmond, Virginia, and the unexpected reaction to an exhibit on plantation life at the Library of Congress.  Rhode Island, in fact, although a state that in the public mind is not normally associated with the history of slavery, provides three of the case studies in the book:  Brown University and the issue of reparations, the Brown house and the history of the slave trade, and efforts to honor the first Continental Army regiment comprised of men of color, the First Rhode Island, which fought in the Revolutionary War. 

I'm reasonably well-read in U.S. history, so Slavery and Public History didn't contain any major surprises.  There were issues I hadn't heard about before -- the controversy over the "Behind the Big House" exhibit at the Library of Congress, for example -- but overall the essays served more to provide additional insights into topics I'd heard discussed in other venues.  I knew that there's been quite a bit of debate within the National Park Service over resource education at battlefield sites.  For many years, interpretation at sites such as Shiloh focused almost exclusively on what happened on the day of the battle (e.g., troop movements, casualty counts) while remaining essentially silent on the larger social and political context that led to that battle being fought. (This was true not only of Civil War sites, but also sites associated with the Indian wars, like Little Big Horn.)  When NPS began to change interpretive programs to do more than rhapodize about the heroic actions of our glorious dead, the gallant lads in blue or gray, howls of protest were heard, primarily from members of organizations like the Sons of the Confederacy.  Understandable, of course, because it's not much fun to be reminded that the Lost Cause your ancestors died for was a morally repugnant one.

Although I found all of the book to be interesting as well as thoroughly researched, the chapter debunking the myth of African-Americans being a sizable presence in the Confederate army was particularly interesting.  It's been common practice for a number of years for Confederate heritage organizations, e.g., United Daughters of the Confederacy, to claim that thousands and thousands of blacks willingly served in the Confederate army.  This is, as I stated above, ludicrous.  It's been debunked many times, and in his essay "In Search of a Usable Past" Bruce Levine does a nice job of debunking it again.  Levine shows how the supporters of the theory have resorted to tactics like deciding that slaves used as camp cooks or for doing other support work (collecting firewood, taking care of the horses, digging latrines) were actually serving in the Army.  The fact slaves had no choice in the matter is, from the viewpoint of neo-Confederates, irrelevant.  Documents from the time period, of course, tell the real story.  Confederate officials, from Jefferson Davis on down, made it clear they had no interest in allowing any blacks into the army, with Davis in 1861 bluntly calling the idea "stark madness."  By March 1865, as the CSA ran out of eligible white bodies to use as cannon fodder, the idea was revived, but the Confederates never managed to muster much more than the equivalent of one small platoon.

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