A Trip to the Zoo

So I made it to Johannesburg, and I’ve now officially been here for a week. It seems like a lot longer, in part because it took two days to get here. I left last Sunday (Sept 28), flew overnight to London where I spent 14 hours (during which I visited the fantastic V&A Museum) before catching another overnight flight (10.5 hours) to Johannesburg. The trip to London was a bit rough; I didn’t sleep well, due to adrenaline and a bad seatmate, but I did get to see a great movie I’d been meaning to catch, Belle, which I recommend thoroughly. If you’re wondering why I don’t have any pictures from London, it’s because I left my camera at home, because of course I did. Fortunately, I am renting an iPhone while I’m in South Africa, so I have plenty of photos of my adventures here.

View down the street in the Melville suburb; walls and gates the entire way. (Author’s image)

After spending a day recovering from my journey, I decided to ease into my trip by starting out with a visit to the Johannesburg Zoo. One of the things that has really struck me about Joburg (or Jozi, as the locals call it) is how little public space there is. All of the houses are behind walls and fences and gates, so there’s very little to see when you walk down the street. Several tourism websites recommended the zoo as a place where it is possible to walk around and see things without concerns for safety that seem to be embedded into the physical space of the city elsewhere, and I definitely found that to be the case.

I took a taxi to the zoo (because everyone drives here), and I was pleasantly surprised. The zoo is laid out informally relative to a lot of zoos I’ve visited, by which I mean that there’s no clear direction of traffic or path to follow. There are some paved walks, but other walks are little more than dirt paths, though they are clearly meant for visitors since there are markers with information about the animals in each enclosure. One of my favorite things about the zoo was their work on historic preservation. Though the zoo has only limited space in which to expand, they have retained the historic animal enclosures and interpret them for visitors.

Old Polar Bear Enclosure Marker
IMG_0018 Interpretive marker for the Old Polar Bear Enclosure and Old Polar Bear Enclosure (Author’s images).
Lion cubs (including a rare white lion) playing in their new enclosure (author's image).
Lion cubs (including a rare white lion) playing in their new enclosure (author’s image).

Some of the enclosures have been repurposed to house new species. The Old Polar Bear Enclosure (pictured above) is now home to the bushbabies. It’s a great lesson on the evolution of animal husbandry, though it’s a little horrifying to imagine some of these animals being kept in such small spaces. Along with the Old Polar Bear Enclosure, the zoo also still has the Old Carnivore Enclosure and the Old Elephant House. These sites all have interpretive markers that discuss when they were built, and acknowledge that these facilities were state-of-the-art at the time they were constructed. While the zoo still has lions and elephants, they are now housed in much more generous spaces.

Preservationists like to talk about the importance of protecting the layers of past embedded in the landscape, meaning that we want to protect the evidence of how the use of the physical landscape has changed and evolved. In a historic house, this means keeping additions made throughout the house’s life that show how various residents adapted the house to their changing needs. In the case of the zoo, it means keeping and reusing old structures so that visitors can see and appreciate how this zoo (and zoos generally) have evolved to provide better and better care for their animals. The approach used by the Johannesburg Zoo is a great example of an effective and low-maintenance way to expand the visitor experience to include education about history as well as animals. If you find yourself in Joburg on a beautiful day (like I did), it’s well worth a visit.

Friendly shire horse
Of course I made friends with this very sweet Shire horse from their farm exhibit (author’s image).
Getting kisses from a juvenile sable antelope
I also made friends with this juvenile sable antelope (author’s image).
obligatory zoo peacock
Obligatory zoo peacock (author’s image).

“It’s Complicated”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about interpreting uncomfortable history. It’s something I’m engaging with in my dissertation, and it’s something that seems to be popping up a lot.

FBI poster of missing civil rights workers
FBI poster of missing civil rights workers

On Wednesday night, I made the trek up to Nashville to see a documentary, Freedom Summer, being shown as part of the Nashville Film Festival. As you might have guessed from the title, the film focuses on the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project of 1964, during which hundreds of college students from around the country poured into Mississippi under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to assist and encourage black Mississippians in attempting to register to vote. The registration effort led to the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative integrated delegation of Mississippians who unsuccessfully attempted to replace the all-white official delegation. Freedom Summer gained national attention when three civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) disappeared while investigating a church burning in Neshoba County. Their bodies were later found buried 12 feet beneath an earthen dam. The story was dramatized for the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.*

Thursday night, I went up to Nashville again for a curator-led tour and roundtable discussion of the Tennessee State Museum’s new exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation.** The exhibit, which was two years in the making, is a close study of life and relationships on a 13,000-acre Robertson County tobacco plantation. It’s a great (and free) exhibit, and if you find yourself in Nashville before August 31, you should make a point of visiting. The event was organized by the Inter-museum Council of Nashville, so attendees included museum professionals, historians, and people in related fields, and we had a great conversation about the evolution of the exhibit and some of the challenges of interpreting the painful past. The Wessyngton Plantation story is unique in that nearly all of the plantation’s records from the antebellum period survive, including farm records that detail the involvement of the plantation mistress in both industry and punishment of slaves. The exhibit also features a math workbook that belonged to one of the Washington men, which includes word problems that talk about dividing workloads among overseers and slaves, showing how the institution of slavery shaped every aspect of the antebellum plantation world.

The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via tnmuseum.org)
The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via tnmuseum.org)

At the same time that these conversations were taking place, a friend sent me a link to this great video describing what’s going on in the Central African Republic. I love the vlogbrothers, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should remedy that maybe right now. Anyway, aside from the content, what really grabbed me about the video was the point John makes about how as Americans, we’re very attached to good vs. evil in our narratives, and that this is something that we both deliberately and subconsciously project onto our history. I also came across a good piece on History@Work (NCPH’s blog) about finding a balance between the need to tell a story that won’t put visitors off without backing away from hard truths.

The thread that pulled these various moments/experiences together for me was that tension between the need to be good historians who confront the truth in all its ugliness and good storytellers who can engage and entertain visitors. Sometimes we do this well, and other times we do it less well. For me, the success of the Wessyngton Plantation exhibit in presenting the lives of the enslaved people is that alongside accounts of punishments and a display case with neck shackles is the story of individuals who created their own lives and families within bondage. The exhibit does not fetishize the violence and brutality of slavery, nor does it try to paint a picture of happy slaves under a “good” master. It simply describes what was and leaves it to the visitor to make what he or she will of it.

I had more mixed feelings about Freedom Summer. While it was an excellent documentary, I found myself a little frustrated by the ending, which on the one hand connected rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the rise of black separatism (yes!), but then on the other hand tied it to the success of the Voting Rights Act. Now, I agree that the Freedom Summer Project had an important impact on that legislation, but the connection with the material presented in the film felt like an afterthought–a need to tie a bow and put a “happily ever after” on a story that frankly didn’t need one. So much of the film focused on how the experience of Freedom Summer changed the way both the civil rights workers and the black Mississippians thought about themselves that tacking that connection on at the end felt awkward in an otherwise beautifully made film. The film would have been stronger overall if the creators had simply let the work speak for itself and left viewers to decide for themselves whether the ending was happy or not.

Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.
Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.

I think that sometimes as public historians we can fall victim to that desire to create a neat, tidy narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and in particular, we want to end on an optimistic note. There’s nothing wrong with at impulse, and a huge part of our job is presenting content in accessible ways that encourage people to think critically. While I don’t have any great magic trick for solving that problem, I think it’s worth looking at pop culture for ideas. I think we’re at a really good moment in pop culture for engaging with complicated stories that go beyond the epic good vs. evil grand narrative of say, Lord of the Rings.*** There are popular shows with much more complicated stories that engage in much more complex narratives, shows like Mad Men where the characters do terrible things to each other and themselves and yet we still care about them, or Game of Thrones where good guys die, bad guys live, and it’s hard to find a hero(ine). While I’m not suggesting we pattern the history we present after these programs (both of those shows have serious issues with representations of people of color, for one thing, and we have enough trouble with that already), they point to a willingness of the public, or at least parts of it, to be entertained by and engaged with complicated stories and multidimensional characters. If people can (and do) follow along and be fascinated by complex characters like Don Draper and Varys, surely they can do the same for figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

The way we think about and understand the past has a tremendous impact on how we think about and understand the present. Is emancipation a happy ending for enslaved people? Does the civil rights movement have a happy ending? Does it have an ending at all?


*Mississippi Burning is a problematic film in a lot of ways, not least of which is the passivity that characterizes all of its African American characters and the heroic role it assigns the FBI.

**Much of the research for this exhibit is based on the work of John F. Baker, Jr., who has published a book on the topic. Full disclosure: I have purchased the book, but not yet read it.

***I love LOTR, please don’t send me hate mail.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sarah Palin, and White Privilege

Martin Luther King, Jr. at a 1964 press conference (via wikimedia commons)
Martin Luther King, Jr. at a 1964 press conference (via wikimedia commons)

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day when the federal government shuts down and our nation celebrates Dr. King’s contributions and legacy. This holiday usually sparks some commentary pressing people to recall that King was not a warm and fuzzy character who encouraged others to dream about racial equality. He was a radical, and his commitment to nonviolence was a key part of that radicalism. Like many other civil rights leaders, King was under intense surveillance by the FBI, a fact that seems even more salient given the US’s current NSA surveillance controversy.

The struggle to remember King’s radicalism is particularly salient in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela. NPR used the occasion to discuss what happens when media outlets agree to agree, calling up the examples of King and Mandela. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent piece over at The Atlantic on Mandela’s rejection of nonviolence that also cites comments on the topic by King and Malcolm X, a reminder that while King embraced nonviolence, the story was more complex than Kumbaya.

While it may seem tiresome to some audiences to continually speak to King’s radicalism and fight back against the sanitization (whitewashing?) of his image, the cost of not speaking out is higher. Just yesterday, former Alaskan governor and reality TV star Sarah Palin used King’s words to accuse President Obama of “playing the race card.” Palin’s remarks immediately drew fire from most circles, including her supporters. While most comments have focused on contextualizing her statements and arguing about whether Obama has played “the race card,” fewer looked at her misappropriation of King’s words and legacy.

The reason I bring up Palin’s remark is that it is a perfect example of the impact of white privilege on society and how we talk about the past. I can basically guarantee that whatever Palin was thinking when she posted that comment, it had almost nothing to do with Dr. King and his work and everything to do with her whitewashed ideas about him. When we don’t talk about the parts of King’s legacy, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, that make us uncomfortable, that remind us that he was a human being instead of a saint, we lose the significance of his contribution. He becomes the comfort food version of history; empty calories that feel good without providing any nourishment.

If we can’t talk about Dr. King’s complicated legacy, how can we expect to create a society where we can talk openly about white privilege and other aspects of institutionalized racism? One of the more recent pieces I’ve seen discussing the topic (cited here on Buzzfeed) evidently drew so much ire that the author took down the tumblr where the comic originally appeared. Pieces surface all over the place, from Peggy McIntosh’s classic “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to articles written in dude-speak to posts on “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” These ideas are difficult to discuss even in communities where respecting different perspectives is supposedly the ideal; just look at the #solidarityisforwhitewomen controversy that erupted in the name of finding a path to more intersectional feminism.

March on Washington flyer (via crmvet.org)
March on Washington flyer (via crmvet.org)

I was attracted to public history because it seemed like a way to make history useful and relevant. As I have worked on civil rights history, and more importantly talked with people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, I have to come to believe that as a public historian, I have an obligation to facilitate a discussion about social justice, especially when the injustices of the past connect with the injustices of the present. The way forward, from my perspective, is finding ways to talk about complicated topics that are respectful both of those engaged in the conversations and the facts themselves.

So let’s start talking about Dr. King’s radicalism. Let’s talk about Mandela’s rejection of nonviolence. And in the meantime, white people, before we say anything at all, we need to ask ourselves, Yo, Is This Racist?

*This post was originally developed for another project, and as such is cross-posted elsewhere.

Agency & Ambiguity in 12 Years a Slave

I saw 12 Years a Slave on November 29, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I don’t quite know how to talk about how the film made me feel, but I can tell you that it was the opposite of a clinical, academic reaction. I went to an evening show, and I was glad that I could leave the theater in the dark and did not have to go about my business for the rest of the day. 12 Years a Slave

I went to see the film on the heels of a week-long trip to Selma to conduct interviews, and as I watched the film, pieces of those narratives flashed through my mind. The use of the n-word. The contrast between Ford and Epps, two points on a spectrum of evil, one complicit the other openly sadistic. The destructive toll on the humanity of all involved. More than anything, Northrup’s struggle against and within a system designed to strip the enslaved of all agency. As I watched, I thought about the stories my narrators had shared, and I saw Jim Crow in the attitudes and relationships on screen.

Part of why I wanted to see 12 Years so badly was that I was still angry about Django Unchained, the Tarantino revenge flick about a white man who frees an enslaved man and teaches him how to wreak vengeance on his former oppressors. Django bothered me on a lot of levels; beyond its obvious function as a statement piece so that Tarantino could prove how not racist he is by using the n-word liberally, I hated the way the movie bought into all of the stereotypes we have about the mid-19th century without challenging them. I hated the way Tarantino underdeveloped his female characters. I hated the way he played along with the made-up sport of mandingo fighting, when the true sadism of slavery, I thought, was in a thousand more mundane and horrifying moments. The excessive violence and Tarantino’s self-congratulatory smugness sickened me–and I generally like Tarantino’s work.

Django UnchainedThe problem at the core of Django, for me, is agency. Both films depict slavery as a state where agency is largely stripped from black (male) character. Django is given his agency by the protagonist of the film, the bounty hunter Dr. Schultz, and he uses it to go on the offensive and rescue his wife–after, of course, he fulfills his bargain with Schultz, who freed Django because Django could identify Schultz’s quarry, the Brittle brothers. The problem, from my perspective at least, is that Tarantino repeatedly implies that the enslaved men could be free if only they stood up to their oppressors. As others have pointed out, this entire premise implies that enslaved people did not engage in resistance and that if they had, slavery would have ended.

12 Years also engages in questions of agency, and part of what makes the film so gut-wrenching is how hard McQueen drives home that sense of powerlessness and the arbitrary nature of the justice meted out. There is a scene where Northrup stands up for himself against the plantation’s carpenter. Several members of the audience openly cheered when this moment took place, and I even laughed once because while it was as unexpected as it was welcome. At the same time, though, my chest clenched in anxiety because this act of rebellion, this moment of seizing agency, would only bring more violence on Northrup–and it did. When Northrup ultimately regains his agency, like Django, it is at the hands of white men, although the context is far more complex as we see Northrup leave behind his fellow enslaved workers who will be no doubt bear the brunt of Epps’ wrath at losing Northrup.

Unlike in Django, where white slave owners and their minions are treated as uniformly evil, 12 Years presents a much more nuanced picture. McQueen lets us see the spectrum of complicity, as well as the toll the entire system takes on those who are a part of it. The “good” plantation owner Ford remains a slave owner, and for all of his apparent compassion for Northrup, the human being he owns along with many others, it is he who sells Northrup to Epps who is known for his cruelty. Ford only seems good in the sense that he lacks Epps’ sadisim, but he is still a willing and conscious participant in the system. Epps, meanwhile, is indeed a sadist, but seems also to be tormented by a mania that disrupts his wife’s life as well.

Mistress Epps and Patsey
Mistress Epps and Patsey

The women in 12 Years are more than the two-dimensional characters presented by Django. The relationship between Mistress Epps and Patsey, and their relationships to Epps is complex (and there’s a fantastic discussion of it here). McQueen allows us to see the intersections between race and gender and how these relationships play out in the omnipresent violence of white (male) supremacy. This tension continued well beyond emancipation; the defense of white Southern womanhood prompted lynchings and rioting well into the 20th century. To me, this is the most profound contribution of 12 Years; not its depiction of slavery per se, but the way the film shows the complex racial and gender-based relationships rooted in slavery that have continued on well past emancipation.

The end of the 12 Years is ambiguous. Our protagonist Northrup has been reunited with his family, but he never receives anything approaching justice for his years in bondage, nor are the men responsible for his capture held liable. The circumstances of his death are unknown. We never learn Patsey’s fate–she is always standing in the dusty road, scarred visage fading while Northrup begins his long-awaited journey home. This ambiguity parallels much of the historical experience; emancipation did not beget equality, the desegregation of schools has not closed the achievement gap, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement have not resolved institutionalized racism, the election of President Obama did not usher in a post-racial society.

Our role as historians is not to shy away from these ambiguities, but to bring them to the fore and discuss them. The (admittedly idealistic and possibly naive) reason I decided to pursue public history was to find ways to use my interest and skills as an historian to make some sort of contribution to society. I am deeply optimistic that despite the ambiguity of our victories and distance we have left to travel, that by engaging with our past we can find solutions to the challenges of the present and even hope for a better tomorrow.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blessed:

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

*This post was originally developed for another project, and as such is cross-posted elsewhere.

Post the First

When I created this portfolio over a year ago, I also planned to use it as a blogging platform. Unfortunately, every time I sat down to work on a post, rather than writing down the no doubt brilliant ideas only moments from viral fame, I became overwhelmed by anxiety. Since I have finally decided to have a proper go at this, I thought the best place to start would be to discuss what exactly it is about blogging that makes me break out into a cold sweat, and why I have decided to do it anyway.

Historians have a complicated relationship with the internet. Digital media has done wonders for us; honestly, I have no idea how anyone did history before WorldCat and searchable article databases. Since I began studying history as an undergrad, the digital world has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Back in my French history days, I poured over enormous musty copies of l’Ancien moniteur, always a little overawed by it. Now it’s online. The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University pioneered digital media. In addition to the wealth of source material now online, there are also articles, essays, and encyclopedia entries. These are some of the things that make historians nervous.

Except for Simon Schama
Almost every historian can relate to this.

This may come as a shock, but the vast majority of working historians aren’t exactly rolling in dough. I’ll pause so you can recover.

Ready? Good. I’ll save my theories on capitalism for another day, but one of the challenges facing historians is the fact that our main currency is ideas, which are difficult to protect. The internet has a fraught relationship with intellectual property and copyrights, so some of this anxiety is understandable. One of my concerns with creating this blog was that someone might use my work and beat me to the punch at a conference, or, even worse, in a publication. At the same time, I love reading other historians’ and academics’ work and ideas. They inspire me, and that by blogging, I can be a part of that conversation, rather than a lurker. I also believe that by participating in the online conversation, historians can help elevate the dialogue. It’s time for us to stop complaining about wikipedia, for example, and start editing it.*

That was a lesser concern for me to get past, though the American Historical Association’s blog post on embargoing PhD dissertations indicates that they might feel otherwise. The subsequent twitter scandal (#AHAgate) suggests that there are a multitude of opinions on the topic.

My next concern, and the one I have most frequently discussed with colleagues and friends, is the challenge of writing about an ongoing project involving living people and an active community. If you’ve looked at my portfolio, you’ve probably realized that my work relates to some sensitive issues. As my projects and research are ongoing, if I want to blog, I need to tread carefully. I think it’s important for public historians and preservationists to be willing to talk as much about the challenges and frustrations of their work as they do about their successes, but it’s one thing to discuss, say, a tense community meeting in an article for a journal that requires a subscription and quite another to do so where any community member might google the post. I’m nervous right now just suggesting that there might be things about my work that frustrate me, even though I realize that’s true of every profession.

You can see why it’s taken me so long to get started.

Negotiating these concerns will not be easy, but few worthwhile things are. I do not expect that all of my posts will relate to my work; some may deal with the vagaries of life as a graduate student, and others will almost certainly include my ramblings on popular culture. Hopefully I’ll get better at this as I go along, and maybe even learn how to properly end a blog post.

I hope you enjoy pop culture references.

Do you blog about your work? Which academic blogs do you read? Am I destroying my chances of ever finding a paying job and undermining the foundations of the historical profession by blogging?

*I realize that this type of work is time consuming and unpaid, but wikipedia is not going to get off of our collective historical lawn, and I am as guilty as anyone of not putting forward the work to improve it.