Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Public History Emancipation Proclamation

Public history must free itself from the fetters and chains of academic historians and academic institutional bias. Public historians have for too long been the lap dogs of history professors, seeking their approbation and approval in order to move on any given project, as though permission is required. We must rid ourselves of this pernicious influence and stand on our own feet. We don't need their help. They monopolize grant opportunities for their own careers' sakes, leaving public historians feeding off of the crumbs of their academic tables. If they want to lecture about slavery or the Napoleonic wars, or the age of the robber barons, etc,. OK, but also let public historians, who know what they are doing, do it.

Not only must public history be free from academia, but it must likewise be free from well intentioned but ahistorical reenactors and "farbs." This has been especially evident in the presentation of the past during black history month (February in the United States). Why do we have to be bombarded by grown men in their 60s dressing up as USCT (United States Colored Troops) and telling the TV audience how great their "ancestors" were? I doubt they have any lineage to USCT, but they insist, as do whites with CSA and USA, in role playing and convincing us that they are somehow historians. They are not historians, they are recreationists, so to say. This, as I said, holds true for the grey clothed rebel and blue clad yankee reenactors. THEY ARE NOT PUBLIC HISTORIANS, THEY ARE NOT EVEN HISTORIANS. They insist that they portray heroic heritages when they don't even begin to know how awful and boring and disease ridden were the lives of soldiers. Where's the glory in that? So, they shape the public's perception because they dress in an odd costume, loading and firing Enfield rifles for any who will watch and listen. The public goes away with only that as the information they know about the past. The past is much sloppier and much more complex than some reenactor shooting a rifle off to the squealing delight of children and the otherwise uneducated.

One such reenactor retorted to me during a meeting that "we" (African-Americans) need heroes. OK, but don't limit it to "heroes" who shoot guns, but others who drove the wagons, cooked, repaired railroads, cleaned the streets and even preached, and especially the ones who got their arms and legs shot off, or died of dysentery or measles. This emphasis on martial glory is wrong and must be stopped. It confines the public's view to a narrow spectrum of the past.

When I was a boy, a Cub Scout, we learned about the constellations in the night sky by taking an empty round oatmeal box and with pencil we drew the outline of a constellation – say the Big Dipper- then we took a pin and punched holes in the right places, and then we could look in the open end of the box and see the stars, etc. Well, history should be looked at in the "oatmeal box theory of history," that its, you study the past, which is analogous to punching a few holes in the box, and you look in and you see something, then you punch a few more holes, and you see more, and so on and so on, until eventually you obliterate the end of the box and you see "everything" within the preview of the round box. But, it isn't everything, it's just what history you can see through the confines of the box. So, you have to repeat the process, ad infinitum, until you see more, but you'll never see all of the past – but you can try, or at least know what you see isn't all there is to see. These reenactors only punch a few holes and call it comprehensive. They delight in dressing up and playing Civil War soldiers, justifying their activities as "educational." They have no right to claim to be educators or historians, only reenactors. It is as though if you have a rifled musket and can load and fire it while in a recreated uniform you are a historian. This is wrong and must be stopped.

More later on the administrative barriers to the practice public history.

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