The Hector Pieterson Museum & Memorial

On June 16, 1976, some 20,000 students in Soweto (a township southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa) gathered to march in peaceful protest against the implementation of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. The decree represented a significant attack from the apartheid regime on the already struggling education system available to students labeled “non-white.” Unlike white students, who received a free and mandatory education, parents of children classified as “non-white” had to pay tuition and for books send their children to non-compulsory schools where they were taught by teachers who were paid a pittance in appallingly poor conditions. The majority of students did not speak Afrikaans, nor did many of the teachers, so the transition to this new language would make it virtually impossible for many students to learn.

to hell with afrikaans
Reproduction of a sign from the June 16, 1976 protest. (via http://www.gutenberg-e.org/pohlandt-mccormick/archive/detail/DSCN2081.jpg.html)

The students planned to march from the Orlando West suburb of Soweto to Shap Stadium for a rally, but they encountered police led by Colonel Kleingeld. Kleingeld fired the first shot, and violence erupted as students fled or threw rocks at police, who in turn loosed dogs and fired tear gas canister and bullets at the students. A young man, Hector Pieterson, was shot, and photographer Sam Nzima snapped what would become the iconic image of the uprising, in which Hector’s body is carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo as his sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs alongside.** The violence led to more than 150 deaths, and in the following days students across the city and notably from the University of Witswatersrand joined in the protest. The decree was eventually repealed in 1979, but the student uprising is credited with reinvigorating the anti-apartheid campaign by organizing youth against the regime. If you want to know more, Helena Pohldant-McCormick has an amazing digital book project on the student uprising that is well worth checking out.

Hector Pieterson Museum (author's image)
Hector Pieterson Museum (author’s image)

I went to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial twice during my visit to Johannesburg, both times as part of township tours of Soweto. I had no idea what to expect because the museum does not have a website or much of an online presence, at least not that I’ve been able to find beyond a few short blurbs on wikipedia and travel websites. I was impressed with the museum, which interprets the events of 1976 and contextualizes against both what happened before and after, and most impressively, includes discussion of lasting impact of the events and their interpretation and commemoration.

Memorial to fallen students in the courtyard at the Hector Pieterson Museum.
Memorial to fallen students in the courtyard at the Hector Pieterson Museum. (author’s image)

The museum constructs its narrative using extensive oral history testimony from many sides of the conflict; students, parents, and police. One of the things that stood out most to me was that there was a real effort to convey what happened in all its confusion and nuance. Contrasting interpretations are offered, as is testimony that complicated ideas about innocence in guilt. In particular, I was struck by the inclusion of the story of a young man who took part in the looting of a shop, probably because of how such reports in the US have been used to discredit the acts of rioters in Ferguson. The museum presents the participants as human beings with agency, and there is no effort to cast them as passive victims in order to make it clear that the violence committed against them was criminal.

For me, this was the most important aspect of the museum. In the US, we have a tendency to want to paint our conflicts in the most black and white terms possible; we like our heroes to be paragons of virtue and our villains to be flawed and malevolent. The problem is that history is made up of the acts of human beings who are inherently flawed and rarely all good or all evil. When we perpetuate these ideas in our presentations of history, we encourage the spread of these ideas in our larger culture. It perpetuates the idea that the only real victim is one who is totally innocent, not just in the context of the crime committed against him or her, but of anything ever. It’s why Trayvon Martin was labeled a thug. It’s why the Ferguson Police felt the need to inform the public that Michael Brown was suspected in the theft of a box of cigars on the day he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. It’s the reason people wonder what rape victims were wearing.

Our cultural institutions are often reflections of the values we hold as a society. While they cannot single-handedly reform attitudes, they are uniquely placed to encourage dialogue about the past and the issues of race, class, gender, and justice that we still deal with today. When we visit these types of sites, we bring with us values and ideas that can be upheld or challenged by what we see. These sites should be places where we are encouraged to embrace complicated ideas and stories, and then carry that willingness to be uncomfortable and uncertain into the rest of our lives.

*South Africa had a number of racial classifications under apartheid, each of which conveyed a different level of privilege (all subordinate to white, of course). I place “non-white” in quotations because it is the language of the regime; I only use it here to refer to the laws of that period, as I recognize that it is no longer acceptable, and to convey the arbitrary nature of racial classification under apartheid.

**This photograph is widely available online, but I have chosen not to show it here because I do not have the permission of Sam Nzima. The image has a long history of incorrect attribution and appropriation of which I do not want to be a part. You can easily find it by clicking the link above or simply typing “Hector Pieterson” into the search engine of your choice.

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.