Sins of the Past

At what point can a society or organization recover from its past mistakes and cease needing to dwell on and apologize for them, specifically within historical projects?

Historical projects, whether they be academic writings or public exhibits, can easily become bogged down in the “mandatory” treatment of topics that border or directly pertain to race, religion, gender, or sexuality, to name just a few. Nearly any Western European/American (including North, Central, and South, here) historical topic set in the 18th and 19th centuries must have the obligatory chapter discussing the horrors perpetrated against slaves and indigenous peoples, lest they be called out for ignoring or denying that such issues existed. Yes, it happened. It was the 1700s and 1800s. No, it wasn’t right. Now, what were you saying about missionaries again? Can we get back to the topic at hand?

Let me emphasize here: I do not condone silencing minority histories. I do not condone the actions taken that are now considered reprehensible. I simply am challenging at what point such issues become common knowledge and understanding, that we, as historians, can move past the mistakes of a society and organization and focus on the topic we wish to discuss.

This specifically came to me as I began Ebony and Ivy. I was immediately accosted with pages full of the demonization of white American culture during the early 1800s. I often had to step back and remind myself that the book actually intended to discuss how elite higher education was/is connected to racism and slavery. At the same time, for a different class, I am reading a book discussing the role of missionaries within a slave rebellion in Demarara (now Guyana) during 1823. The same social and cultural issues were discussed and acknowledged, but in a far less aggressive way and in one that pertained to the topic at hand.

Regarding public historical works, the line is far more gray. It is more difficult to discern what would be considered common knowledge among the public at large. However, the same issue can be even more pressing, what with limited space, funding, and attention spans: At what point can the sins of the past be understood as part of the cultural picture (albeit an ugly part) that makes up the world within which the topic inhabits? Being obligated to focus on well-known social issues that border, or even are ancillary to, the historical topic mandates extra space, cost, and time within the exhibit. The loss of any or all of these may do a disservice to the efficacy of the exhibit.

On a separate note, I am beginning to intimately understand the public historian’s struggle regarding communicating with the wider community: It is intensely difficult and stressful to express one’s own take on a situation, let alone a highly-charged historical issue, to a community in a way that will be understood and not taken as an affront. In fact, if one tries too hard to avoid raising the ire of the community, nothing ever gets said or done. If one does not, and the community is angered, very little also gets done, as the flow turns against the historian in question.

Women of Summer and the Philippines

The bulk of the documentary was interesting, though difficult to follow. I was wholly unaware of the summer school program and was intrigued to learn about it.

What upset me, however, was the portrayal of the school one alumni founded in the Philippines. Much of the documentary was forward-thinking and culturally accurate (or, at least, open-minded.) That is, right up until they whipped out the White Man’s Burden and followed that alum to the Philippines where she founded a school in her husband’s home town and educated all the poor Filipino children. Singing was a constant theme throughout the documentary, identified with Bryn Mawr and their revolutionary activities. What is the first thing we see the children doing? Singing, as if the alum brought that cultural aspect to them and they are being raised enriched with Bryn Mawr ideals.

Nope. Singing, especially by school children, is a huge aspect of Filipino culture. They have parades, showcases, competitions, celebrations, and a variety of other opportunities to sing, dance, and perform. My father recently visited a good friend of his in Cebu and was able to catch the Sinulog Festival; he was taken aback by the skill, passion, and artistry of school children performing for the festival. (The closest American parallel might be marching band competitions.)

I was dismayed by the sudden paternalistic shift, as the documentary followed the specific alum to the Philippines. NOTE: I do not intend to characterize her work as paternalistic or colonialistic. What little we know about her specific attitudes and intents seems well directed. I am, instead, calling out the work of the film’s production team and the choices made that cast her work in such a light. Perhaps it was an accurate portrayal, but I would hope to think not.

“Outsider” History-makers?

Benjamin Filene’s Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach Us was an interesting, but intensely irritating read. Yes, he does spend part of the article discussing the merits of the methods used by those who work with historical topics without an academic foundation in history, which he calls “outsider” history-makers. However, he spends the vast majority of the article deriding and dismissing their focus and their work, lumping all such “outsiders” in a small handful of generalized groups, to the exclusion of many. My overall irritation stemmed from his assumed “right” to call non-academic enthusiasts “outsiders,” as if those without an academic foundation specifically in history could not possibly do their work with as much intellectual rigor as those with such foundation. Filene argues that “outsiders don’t particularly care about any of these standards,” such as “originality, evidence, and context.” (19) That is simply not true.

Take his discussion of re-enactors for example. He asserts that “re-enacting is driven by a fantasy” and their motivation is the same as the draw to Disney’s Main Street. (18) (Don’t even get me started on that point. Main Street U.S.A. was never meant to be a reenactment of anything; it was designed as an intentionally idealized homage to Walt Disney’s home town.) I have personally spent a great deal of time with a Civil War re-enactor. His, and his group’s, draw to the historical time period had nothing really to do with history. They were gun enthusiasts fascinated by the specific weaponry of a specific era. In contrast, I subscribe to a handful of channels on youtube, created by individuals that Filene would lump in the same category as the disparaged re-enactors, for re-enact they do. Just not on youtube. Instead, their videos describe ways of life, death, warfare, and culture during their chosen historical time period. The depth of their research is tremendous and their rigor is strenuous. Some of it comes from first-hand experience. You’re not going to find an archive document on why cloaks are so bloody useful, but you’ll figure it out pretty quick when you’re standing in torrential rain and are still warm and dry. The majority of their information, however, comes from research that would rival any academic historian.

While I do agree with Filene that academic historians have a lot to learn from the approaches taken by what he calls “outsider” history-makers, I bristle at his suggestion that academics can take those approaches and make them “better” or “correct” by applying academic rigor he assumes to be missing. While it is not present in all circumstances, he is doing a disservice to those non-academic historians who are putting in the effort and research. There is nothing wrong with a narrow focus, if it is taken in context and researched adequately.