To borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, some public history work is born political, some becomes political, and some has politics thrust upon it. Whether we intentionally locate ourselves in controversial settings, have something blow up in our faces, or encounter less spectacular kinds of resistance or misunderstanding, we’re always on the edge of the political, even when we don’t set out to be.
This fundamental tension within the field will be the subject of a structured conversation at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, in a session called “Hardball History: Public Historians on the Edge of Politics, Advocacy, and Activism.” Between now and then, the participating panelists will kick things off with a series of blog posts that we hope will lead to some pre-conference discussion and help shape our session in Nashville. Continue reading →
Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit: David Rotenstein
Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.
Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values. Continue reading →
Film canisters in the National Archives, Washington, DC. Photo credit: MrTinDC
Having laid the groundwork, the History Relevance Campaign (HRC) is ready to take a big step forward and needs your help. The HRC started a little more than two years ago, with early conversations taking place at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History in Ottawa and continuing at last year’s annual meeting in Monterey. Since then, organizers have been talking with many people in the history field in the US and refining a “Value of History” statement. Many NCPH members have contributed to the HRC efforts thus far.
Several weeks ago the HRC unveiled a new website. The website offers information on the variety of projects underway to raise the profile of history in our society. As we’ve said all along, this is not a new conversation, but unless we create a unified voice, shout more loudly, and demonstrate our relevance, history will continue to stay nice but not necessary. We want people to value history for its connections to modern life and to use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues. Continue reading →
As public historians, we like to think we know something about narrative. We know that human beings construct meaning through stories, and that history is the art of constructing compelling stories from the traces of the past. Psychologists have demonstrated the emotional and inspirational power of “hero’s journey” narratives in which protagonists overcome great odds through self-sacrifice and determination, and return from the journey with wisdom and gifts to improve the world. Such narratives emphasize the hero’s “exceptional” qualities, the ability to triumph over adversity and to serve as a guiding light to others.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that opponents of recent changes to the AP US History (APUSH) framework are so concerned about narrative emphasis. In August 2014, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution condemning a framework released by the College Board in 2012. The resolution claims that the framework “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes (Italics mine) negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The resolution calls on Congress to “investigate the matter” and withhold any funding to the College Board until a suitable framework is produced. Continue reading →
Mike Alewitz’s “The City at the Crossroads of History” mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it. Photo credit: Mike Alewitz
Muralist and activist Mike Alewitz has finished his tribute to the labor and social justice movements, an imposing four-panel painting titled The City at the Crossroads of History–but the museum it was commissioned for doesn’t want it.
The Puffin Foundation, a grant maker that frequently supports politically left artists, engaged Alewitz to create the mural for a new gallery at the Museum of the City of New York. The gallery is now open with an inaugural exhibit about social activism without the mural, while the artist has launched a petition drive to try to have it displayed as originally planned. Continue reading →
History Communicators, like Science Communicators, will advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted. Continue reading →
“I am Charlie” has become the expression of solidarity of people around the world in support of the French weekly newspaper following the January 7, 2015 attack. Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker
The killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris this week have prompted a passionate defense around the world of political cartoons as free speech, a form of journalistic expression that exemplifies (and occasionally pushes the boundaries of) a free press’s role as critic and gadfly. In thinking about historical precedents and comparisons for the horrific attack, I’ve been struck by a couple of things.
Homepage of the “Slavery at South Carolina College” website.
In the final post of this series, we consider how the “Slavery at South Carolina College” project has been received. The most important effects have been local. The website has acted as a catalyst that has increased awareness of slavery at the university and an interest among students and faculty in speaking plainly about that history. The Richland County Public Library invited the team that created the site to present the research to community members in February 2012, and individual students have guest-lectured on the topic in university classes. Responses from students and members of the community seem to reflect a desire among at least some in the public to learn about and discuss tough issues in our shared history. Continue reading →
Last Thursday, the US Supreme Court and a federal district court issued separate rulings striking down voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas. The Texas ruling should be of particular interest to public historians because of the extent to which history is at the center of US District Court Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos’s decision. Continue reading →
Former Trio Laundry Dry Cleaning Building, 20 Hilliard Street, Atlanta, Ga. Photo credit: David Rotenstein
Earlier this year The New York Times dubbed Atlanta, Ga., “the city too busy to remember.” The play on Civil Rights-era mayor Ivan Allen’s municipal sobriquet came during reporting on Atlanta’s demolition of a historic African American church, Friendship Baptist, to clear the way for new stadium construction. In the two weeks leading up to Labor Day weekend, a handful of historic preservation activists demonstrated to city officials that not everyone in Atlanta was too busy to remember the past and its architecture. Preservationists combined old-school tactics with information-age networks to win a reprieve for a city-owned early 20th-century industrial building. Continue reading →