Friday, May 29, 2009

Book Review - Slavery and Public History

I just finished reading Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory edited by James Oliver and Lois E. Horton. This book was the topic of a discussion session at last year's AASLH Annual Meeting in Rochester, but I chose to attend a different session at the same time. Many of the nation's leading historians are featured in this very thought provoking collection of essays. All of the essays are equally good, though the topics of some are a bit dated. I don't want to write a full review of each essay, as that would take up a massive amount of space, but a few observations can be made.

David Blight's essay is excellent, and I continue to be awed and amazed by him. Having had the opportunity to hear him speak on three separate occasions, I can say he is one of the best presenters around, and a very nice and gracious person as well.

Ira Berlin's essay is very good, though I felt that it was cut short. He elaborated more on some points, and much less on others. I wish he'd gone further on some of those.

The essays by John Michael Vlach, Joanne Melish, Lois Horton, Dwight Pitcaithley, and Bruce Levin were my favorites. Each of them highlighted the current state of cultural politics and the "Culture Wars" in today's public history field by looking at different controversies that have arisen in the past decade or two. All of these essays were very thoughtful and well written.

James Oliver Horton's essay was very good, but it is the one that I did take issue with on at least one point. In the essay, he committed the misstep of stereotyping. What do I mean by this? On pages 46-47 he stereotypes all Civil War reenactors as card-carrying SCV members. While discussing the Virginia governor's 1998 mention of slavery as a cause of the war in his proclamation of Confederate History Month, Horton writes: "Centered in the South, but spread throughout the country, there are networks of Civil War reenactors, mostly men, who dress in period costume and meet on weekends to re-create their 'authentic' versions of the Civil War.....almost immediately after Gilmore's proclamation their lines were buzzing with reaction." He then goes on to quote SCV sources of discontent. Later, in making a comparison he writes: "The Confederate flags waved by fans at University of Mississippi football games...or flown over South Carolina's state capitol...and the recent surge in Confederate reenactments (emphasis mine) are all relevant to the discussion about slavery and race that Americans seem unable to have." So why do I have an issue with this? First, it is unfair and invalid to imply that all reenactors are members of the SCV. There are thousands of Union reenactors in this country that certainly are not, and surely not all Confederate reenactors are either. It is simply an unfair characterization. Also, to use the term "Confederate reenactments" is misleading. I have yet to attend a reenactment where no Union troops are present (it wouldn't really be a reenactment then, would it?). I realize that to most people this isn't a big deal, but I consider myself a reenactor and have many friends who are as well. We aren't all SCV members, and in fact, some of us wear the blue as much as, if not more so than, the gray. Many of us are able to have conversations about slavery and the causes of the war, and are perfectly comfortable doing so. To lump us all together under the SCV banner is simply irresponsible.

Now that my soapbox speech is over, I would recommend this book to anyone in the field of public history, or anyone who is interested in the issue of slavery and it's interpretation. I think all historic site and museum employees would be wise to take a look at this book and learn as much as possible from it.

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