Week 9 Reading Response


Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz – Chapters 1-7

Organization of American Historians, Imperiled Promise  – Sections: “Framing the Challenges: A Brief History of History in the NPS,” “Gaining the High Ground: Reinterpreting Slavery and the Civil War,” and “Transporting Visitors to the Open-Ended Past: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Antietam National Battlefield.”

Vestal, Whites-only covenants still exist in many mid-century Spokane …

There is a contradictory sentiment regarding the past in the United States, try to have public discussion about the Civil War and its legacy people object stating “It happened so long ago and we should let the past be” but try to get people to stop flying the battle flag of the Confederacy and some of those very same people lose their minds, saying that it represents their “heritage” and not hate. The Civil War and slavery is the specter that haunts American history and society, no matter how much we deny it for many Americans its presence is always in the background of their lives. Of course these legacies are felt very differently across the United States and its people.

As a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest I thought of the Civil War as a event that happened in the far past and very far away in relation to where I live. Spokane literally did not exist when it occurred, the region was sparsely populated and would not get connected by rail to the eastern US for another 15-20 years. So when I read Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz I finally feel as if I have insight to the complexity of how Southerners feel about it and how they grapple with its legacy. Written during the 1990s this book is an account by Tony Horwitz, a journalist who had done conflict reporting in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the first Gulf War, who decides to after a run in with hardcore Confederate Civil War reenactors to tour the South and see how Southerners live with its legacy. The portrait that he paints of how regular white Southerners get obsessed with the war was fascinating, for instance I knew about the the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy but I never knew just how prevalent it seems to still be in the modern day.

I think chapter 5, Kentucky: Dying for Dixie in which he describes the impact of the murder of Michael Westerman has on the small town of Guthrie is an encapsulation of how the legacy of the Civil War is a real tangible wound in Southern society. The whole incident of his death seems very murky but Westerman flew the Stars and Bars from his truck and while on a date night with his wife who had just given birth to twins, there was some kind of altercation with a group of black teenagers concerning the flag which had the ultimate result of Westerman being shot and killed by one of those teenagers. His death divides the white and black community, Michael is transformed into a neo-confederate martyr, the KKK shows up and passes out racist literature, a school meeting to decide whether to change the Confederate Mascot becomes a very charged display of whites asserting their “heritage” and Freddie Morrow, a black teenager is convicted of Michael’s death in a bench trail and sentenced to life in prison.

The National Parks Service handles in addition to many other holdings, the battlegrounds of the Civil War and how to handle historical interpretations for visitors has been a challenge. The Organization of American Historians produced a report detailing how the Parks Service is carrying out that duty and also talks about how the Service has been and not been successful in developing historical interpretations and approaches incorporating modern historical scholarship. The report details how since the Service has been greatly expanded in terms of the sites it had to manage, from National Parks to historical sites they had to develop a historical interpretative branch but they also had to preserve these sites. The preservation side of the service dominates while leaving the historical interpretation static and rooted to a historical program that was very rarely updated in terms of its analysis. This report examines various efforts by the Service to change and update its programs and visitor approaches, like taking tour groups to the Sunken road at the Antietam National Battleground and describing how Confederates got caught in a flanking maneuver by Union units, trapped in a murderous crossfire that felled so many that fleeing Confederates stepped only on bodies, feeling no ground underneath their feet. It will be interesting to see if they can comprehensively reform their whole historical program throughout the whole service.

The infamous Sunken Road at the Battle of Antietam (Baltimore Sun’s Darkroom, Whispers of Antietam http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2013/09/whispers-of-antietam-then-and-now-2/#1)

The last reading is really the comment thread of an recently posted article from the Spokesman Review about how many deeds in Spokane had whites only covenants and attempts to get these covenants formally stricken. Of course many of the same sort objections about talking about the Civil War are made by commentators on this article, stop trying to divide us or this happened in the past get over it. We like to pretend that we are not racist in the Pacific Northwest but as this article and  comments show that is a lie. People want to only remember the Civil War for its battles, antebellum South for its plantations and ignore the underlying reason for their existence, slavery. They want to remember Dixie and forget the lynchings, the degradation of a people held in bondage for centuries. However these things are inseparable and deserve to be told to future generations, to show how far we come and how far we still have to go.

It took nearly 50 years for interracial marriage to get above 50% in national polling. (Gallup, http://www.gallup.com/poll/163697/approve-marriage-blacks-whites.aspx)

Week 8 Reading Response

Readings this week:

Cauvin: Chapter 11 and 12

Presence of the Past: Chapter 3, 5 and Afterthoughts

Are public historians arbiters of what constitutes history? Are they wise curators who select a particular interpretation of history to present to an uninformed public? Is the public just a collection of ignorant rubes who absorb what they were taught about history passively? Do historians have a duty to act as social activists? The readings this week grapple with these sorts of questions, the two chapters in Cauvin are on public participation in sharing interpretations of the past with historians and the role that public historians play in civic engagement and social activism. While in Presence of the Past the two chapters are on how respondents to the survey use, connect, and relate to the past to understand their present and their futures while also coming to an understanding of how they relate to larger narratives and communities.

It is very easy to see just influential the 1995-7 survey on how Americans understand the past is by reading Cauvin after reading Presence of the Past. Chapters 11 and 12 are very much based on the conclusions drawn from the survey, particularly in how much emphasis is placed on making the audience an integral part of the interpretive process, Cauvin labels this process of collaborative interpretation between historians and audiences, Shared Authority. Of course this practice has definite limits particularly on subjects whose interpretations are varied and extremely polarizing, where discussion in of itself is still taboo. Cauvin provides concentration camps in Germany, European responsibility in the consequences of colonization in Africa, and Native American history as the type of subjects that are still emotionally charged. I think that the point Cauvin makes about the ultimate purpose of shared authority is that “not to make history more opinion-based, but to make public understanding of the past more critical” (p. 226) is a very important guiding principle. A bad outcome of shared authority would be the enshrinement of historical interpretations that merely confirmed instead of challenge a visitors understanding of the past.

I found Cauvin’s chapter on Historians as social activists interesting if only it severely cuts against academic expectations of the proper place of historians. Maintaining a certain distance from the subjects you are writing about in order to have “objectivity” is 180 degrees from what Cauvin advocates. I understand the evolution from civic engagement to social activism especially for subjects and peoples who have been ignored by traditional historical narratives. However I think there is a danger for the historian as social activist, if only that their advocacy would appear to the public as partisan and personal. I think Norman Finkelstein’s tenure denial is an instructive episode.

Indeed I ended up thinking a lot about the state of contemporary America while reading through the Presence of the Past. The reveal that most Americans are interested in history but not through their exposure in school and the classroom, they experience the past personally through intimate and familial links. The finding that “white” Americans tended to view their past through their family and then somewhat nebulously to wider national narratives in comparison to Latino, Black and Native Americans who tried to connect their families to a larger community to more or less degrees. I also found it interesting that for whites they seemed to view the present as being in a state of decline compared to their past. A lot of the baby boomers in the survey seemed to also lack trust in the national government and its institutions, it is sort of natural to expect this feeling from this generation when this survey was taken however I could not help but think that if this survey was done now then almost everyone would express that belief. The general erosion of trust in institutions is a major issue and perhaps one that can be combated through shared authority and increased visitor participation in interpretations.