History Snobs ask Why Now? by Trace L HentzTweet
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
― James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985
This headline ought to get me a few gasps and new readers. No, I’m not a history snob. I’m a lover. I can’t get enough of what I call His-Story, where/there, when/then, what/that.
I watched (with baited breath) the live feed of the history symposium at Brown University. Official title: SLAVERY AND GLOBAL PUBLIC HISTORY: New Challenges. It’s about: Universities across the United States and the world have been forced to confront connections to slavery throughout their histories. From Brown to Yale, Oxford and in South Africa, students, faculty, and administrations wrestle with how to expose, conceal, honor, or memorialize the legacies of slavery.
Esteemed historians, I’ve met quite a few of them. I remember Yale at a similar symposium in 2000. I asked David Brion Davis an elderly Yale history professor about evidence of Native American slavery – he looked right through me. He turned away – no response at all. Why? Was I invisible? I introduced myself as editor of the Pequot Times. I think it was the question, not me, that stunned him silent.
History snobs? Oh yeah. Typically old white guys give their decades of purported research in their lengthy presentations. (Yawn.) Their expansive expensive exhausting history books, several hundred pages, of course, cost way too much time and money. (Other historians buy them, sure.) They talk to each other, not us. They owned all history but not anymore.
After that Yale symposium, I asked Mashantucket Pequot Museum Research Center Director Kevin McBride for his paper Genocide and Enslavement of the Pequots. I planned to publish it in the Pequot Times (in parts) and I did. Let’s say that history of New England Indians was pretty much unknown-unwritten, except for Kevin’s work and the museum. I was on a mission to publish local tribal history, as much as I could get my hands on, every month.
Years later in 2013, Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center had another symposium, Indigenous Enslavement and Incarceration in North American History. (I was there!) They said it was the most attended symposium in their history. (Wonder why?) http://glc.yale.edu/indigenous-slavery
The auditorium was packed with New England Indians, all ages, all ethnicities, and New Englanders too.
Many of us had lost interest in “his-story” when we were in grade school, age 10, 11 and 12, when we didn’t see ourselves “within” history. Without that, we didn’t trust it. Their version clashed with our family story or there was no history at all. Textbooks bored us, historians failed us miserably, and for that reason, many people today won’t crack open a history book, period. (Unless you have that Ivy League education.)
At Brown University in December, they gathered some of the world’s best and most brilliant scholars, museum curators and academics. I heard Yale’s David Blight ask panelists, “Why Now?”
I’d ask, “What took you so long? Why did you make history so white, so tainted, so discriminatory, so one-sided, so racist, so colonized? You expect us to care about you now? You were/are the purveyors of one-sided fallacies. You built the racial divide that exists in America and you lost many of us long ago.”
I wonder if they realize how much they suppressed and oppressed history by keeping it theirs, locked up in academia archives, in costly books, in their versions.
(Oh, our Indian bones are still locked up in their dusty drawers too in those same Ivy League Schools. To them Indians are the distant past, relics, disappeared. Some of these schools are sweating the revelations how they profited from the slave trade, too, of course.)
So, how DO you keep violence alive in a museum exhibit or book but not make people throw up or pass out? Very carefully.
In the past 20 years, there has been an EXPLOSION of books on slavery and the slave trade. New movies and historical documentaries are in the works. Digital websites and online exhibits are popping up worldwide. Things are changing in a big way, at least concerning the African slave trade. (Finally!)
I learned there is a new industry called “MEMORY TOURISM” and “Dark Tourism” when people want to see torture, murder, death, suffering, cemeteries, insane asylums and crimes of humanity/inhumanity. Some of the new Haunted Slavery Ghost Tours are worse than erasure – they are making a mockery of the slave experience, making money off it. These tour guides are teaching children dehumanized worthless bloody crafted-fictions!
But we are hungry for history, one participant said. The significance of story creates a hunger and longing in us for truth, to find our own ancestral past.
So who does the job of teaching history? America is filled with small and big history museums and historical societies. This symposium at Brown was about finding new ways to reach the broader public. Panelists talked about “Truth Plans” and agreed the public (you and me) make sense of the past with artifacts and story. A Brazilian presenter even talked about decolonizing their museums, showing slaves and owners in a truthful way.
Memory Studies are a new big thing. Memory is emotional, so history done right is capable of invoking a wide range of emotions. PTSD, coined in 1983, is concerning them, conceptual in therapeutic public intervention, to create empathy but not traumatize.
Truth Plans? Confronting Traumatic History? It’s going global via new heritage tourism.
“Why Now? Are we now in the place of long-term reckoning (on the horrific and catastrophic reality of people trapped in the global slave trade)?” Yale panel moderator David Blight asked.
I still wonder who invented slavery. They didn’t answer that.
Slavery in historical perspective
Slavery was the cornerstone of the colonization of the Americas. Of the ten million or so people who crossed the Atlantic before 1800, about eight and a half million – roughly six of every seven people – were enslaved Africans. By the time the transatlantic trade was finally suppressed in the 1860s, a total of 10 million to 12 million Africans had been carried into New World slavery, while an estimated two million more had died in the passage.
Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz: “The Miseducation of Native American Students”
Turtle Talk blog
In Education Week, here.
While distortions and myths of Native American culture plague many schools, textbooks often fail to mention Native history after the 19th century. In a 2015 study, scholars Antonio Castro, Ryan Knowles, Sarah Shear, and Gregory Soden examined the state standards for teaching Native American history and culture in all 50 states and found that 87 percent of references to American Indians are in a pre-1900s context.