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

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 The decree was eventually repealed in 1979, but the student uprising is credited with reinvigorating the anti-apartheid campaign by organizing youth against the regime.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.

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
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

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
March on Washington flyer (via

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.

Remember the Alamo?

I’ve been visiting a dear friend down in Houston for the last few days, and while there, I accompanied her to a wedding. The reception was in Cypress, just outside of Houston. As Katie and I made our way down the long, tree-lined drive, I was startled to see that this was no hotel-style conference center. It was instead an amalgam of historical replicas, and the reception we were attending was being held at “the Alamo.”

I have no memory of this place.
I thought we were in Houston?

“The Alamo” is tucked away in a park-like setting, surrounded by meticulously landscaped lawns and trees. Several other replicas were nearby, including the “Settlement House” (a mock hotel/saloon complete with a replica of Frederic Remington’s The Wicked Pony), the “Log Inn” (double bonus points for the pun), and most inexplicably, a “New England”-style chapel. There was also an “Old West” style collection of storefronts, complete with a saloon, jail, and apothecary shop.

According to the conference center’s website, the Alamo is “an authentic replica” made from stone from the same quarry that the stone at the actual Alamo came from.

The REAL Alamo, for comparative purposes
The actual Alamo, for comparative purposes (wikimedia commons)

Our trip to the conference center reminded me of Busch Gardens Williamsburg, an amusement park I visited often as a child. If you haven’t been, I strongly recommend it–it’s a beautiful park with great rides and good food. It is also mostly “Europe” themed (one section is “New France” which is clearly meant to be French Canada). Busch Gardens’ version of Europe is deliberately and delightfully ahistorical; historical locations/time periods are chosen for their picturesque qualities, and the connection is more aesthetic than anything else. I don’t think anyone visits Busch Gardens and assumes they are getting a real sense of Europe, although a good friend of mine once visited Europe and facetiously complained that she wished it was more like Busch Gardens.

Anyway, as delightful as I find the ahistorical version of the past in a theme park, I found the conference center, particularly “the Alamo,” to be much more troubling. The Alamo itself has a controversial history that merits a much more detailed and nuanced examination than I will attempt here, but I want to briefly discuss some of the issues that occurred to me. I also want to add a big fat caveat that I realize that I am not a scholar of the Alamo, and that even scholars of the period have strong disagreements over the interpretation of the Battle of the Alamo.

Heroic White Dudes(TM)
courtesy of wikimedia commons

The Alamo is a symbol of Texas pride and independence. John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960) captured the popular understanding of the Battle of the Alamo: a couple hundred brave white soldier/cowboys are tasked with holding a lone fort in the name of Texas Independence against a vast army of thousands led by the dastardly Mexican General Santa Anna. There’s a lot wrong with Wayne’s version of events, starting with the reason the soldiers are there. They weren’t meant to be defending the Alamo; they were supposed to gather the arms and ammunition stored there and destroy the mission. This version also neglects the reasons behind the Texas Revolution, which included the fact that Mexico abolished slavery, a practice many Southerners who moved to Texas were keen to continue. Moreover, it ignores the contributions of the Tejanos, ethnic Mexicans living in Texas who also opposed Santa Anna.* It’s also worth mentioning that the historical consultants walked off the set, which is rumored to have occurred on the set of Mel Gibson’s notorious (at least for historians) 2000 film, The Patriot.

In short, John Wayne’s Alamo illustrates the whitewashed, heroic narrative of bravery and sacrifice that still casts its shadow over attempts to create a more accurate and considered interpretation.

As I stood before “the Alamo,” I thought about the architect who designed this space and the company that commissioned it (and that fact that it hosts a John Wayne collection). I thought about the people who celebrate their weddings at this site, or who choose it to host a conference. On the surface, it seems harmless enough; it’s a symbol of Texas, and the world if full of replicas (like Nashville’s Parthenon). The people responsible for this particular replica did not build it out of a desire to expand knowledge or understanding of the events that made the mission significant in American or Mexican or World History. They chose it for its symbolic power, the quintessentially Texan qualities attached to that façade. They worked hard to make it an “authentic replica”–the contradiction in those terms doesn’t seem to signify.

Complete with Athena!
Nashville’s Parthenon (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

I think what I find troubling about the rather thoughtless repetition of this imagery is that it undermines the efforts of scholars trying to get at the past and understand the Battle of the Alamo. It indicates that those things don’t matter, what matters is the symbol and all it means is Texas pride. It’s the same attitude that characterizes a lot of defense of flying the Confederate flag, for example, where (white) people embrace the flag in the name of “Southern pride” while overlooking the fact that it is a symbol of oppression and violence against black Southerners. I wonder if the Alamo’s use as imagery, the fact that it has become synonymous with heroic white men, discourages people of color from using this site. Heroes need villains, after all, and the villains in this story are Mexican.

Part of our job as public historians is to ask these sorts of questions, and find ways to encourage people to be more thoughtful consumers of history. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being proud of your roots, but I also believe that you can be both proud and critical. By turning historic figures into heroes, we place them in the realm of fairy tale and fantasy, which, for me at least, undermines their real accomplishments as men and women who achieved remarkable things. When we turn the Alamo into a Disney-castle backdrop, we do a disservice to the complicated and fascinating history of that place.

What other historic replicas have you visited? Am I hypocritical for being so hard on “the Alamo” and giving Busch Gardens a pass? (I am partial to roller coasters.) Is Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (2000) a latter day version of John Wayne’s The Alamo?

Sorry Pee Wee.
I did not find Pee Wee’s bike in the basement of this Alamo either.

*This article is a nice summary of some of the challenges historians in understanding and interpreting the Battle of the Alamo.