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.

Don’t Go There: The Commodification of Cultural Heritage

One of the challenges of preserving heritage in a capitalist society is the inevitable commodification of cultural heritage. In an earlier post, I talked about how seeing objects of cultural heritage can create a sense of ownership in people who view those objects and the impact of that feeling on issues of repatriation. In this post, I will be revisiting some of those topics, and also discussing some issues that occurred to me the in the last couple of weeks as I’ve been reading a few news articles related to Native American heritage.

Men of the Docks by George Bellows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Men of the Docks by George Bellows, the first painting acquired by the Maier Museum through student and local fundraising, was deaccessioned under then President John Klein for sale in 2007. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

For better or for worse, one of the main ways that capitalist societies determine value is by assessing monetary worth. The highest value a painting can have, for example, is to be “priceless,” something we associate with paintings like the Mona Lisa. While some of this value is conferred by the painting’s quality and rarity, it is also derived from its exposure to the public. Pricelessness can be relative. I have to admit here that I am somewhat biased on this front; I am a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and along with a number of my fellow alumnae, I was outraged when the college made the decision to sell several masterpieces from the Maier Museum’s permanent collection to replenish coffers damaged by the Great Recession. Though the college has since changed its name and begun admitting men, for me at least, the decision about the art remains for me the most tangible demonstration of the administration’s profound disregard for our legacy. Though the paintings were owned by the college, it still feels to me as though they belonged to the alumnae and the people of the Lynchburg who were able to see and enjoy these masterworks free of charge.

With my own perspective well and truly noted, I wanted to discuss something far more significant: Native American heritage. In 1990, the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which required federal agencies and institutions receiving federal funds to restore items of cultural heritage to their appropriate Native American tribes, organizations, and/or descendents. The law and its enforcement have not been uncontroversial, but on the whole it seemed to be a step in the right direction in terms of respecting the cultural heritage and cultural sovereignty of Native Americans. In the past week or so, however, I came across a couple of articles that brought home for me how far the United States government and its citizens still have to go.

The first article comes from NPR’s fantastic Code Switch blog and discusses the sale of Hopi artifacts at auction in Paris and a US Appeals Court decision upholding the right of the Arizona Snowbowl (a ski resort) to spray artificial snow made from treated wastewater onto the San Francisco Peaks, a sacred site for a number of tribes including the Hopi and Havasupai. The second article is an op-ed piece in the New York Times on the growing preservation problem facing Pueblo ruins in the Navajo Nation caused by tourists who feel that having GPS coordinates for these sites entitles them to sneak out to the sites and explore them (and then post photos on Flickr, naturally).

The San Francisco Peaks (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The San Francisco Peaks (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

These articles bother me because they indicate not only a disregard for the cultural heritage and beliefs of Native Americans, but what seems to me to be an apparent unwillingness or inability to even consider those matters. The cultural value of these objects and spaces cannot be quantified in dollars and cents, and yet because some individuals or institutions are willing to put a price tag on them they are instantly commodities. In the court case on the mountain issue, for example, the Court acknowledged that spraying treated wastewater onto the sacred space was offensive, but decided it did not pose an undue burden on the Native American tribes concerned. The wastewater, however, was not being sprayed for some ecological purpose or stop a wildfire that threatened nearby homes, but to provide snow for a ski resort–a purely commercial enterprise.

This ongoing legal disregard for the cultural value of spaces sacred to Native Americans has broader implications for how non-Native American citizens treat the cultural heritage of Native Americans. Sneaking into Pueblo ruins, for example, and then blatantly posting pictures showing that you visited the site and damaged it with your presence is galling. It reminds me of a story that one of the narrators I interviewed in Selma shared. She described being at a mass meeting on voting rights in First Baptist Church when Sheriff Jim Clark and several deputies entered the church and arrested two leaders who had been leading prayers at the pulpit. The violation of this sacred space was still viscerally painful to her even fifty years later.

The damage we do to cultural heritage is not always visible. One of the challenges of intangible heritage is that it is difficult to quantify; its value is what it means to the people who care about and for that space, and we have to both accept and respect their claims. We also need to bear in mind the context in which these claims emerge. The US Government has a deplorable record when it comes to respecting the rights of Native Americans, and if we truly wish to rectify the situation, both the government and individual citizens need to do what they can. While individuals can do little about court decisions, they can certainly educate themselves and others on how to respect sacred spaces and objects. They can not buy sacred objects at auctions or sales. They can visit appropriate parks and follow the rules for viewing or accessing sites. They can refuse to patronize businesses that do not respect the rights of Native Americans.

As public history and heritage professionals, we make our living from cultural heritage and thus have a special obligation to educate ourselves and the public about these complicated issues. While these articles (and this post) merely scratch the surface of the ethical challenges of cultural heritage, I hope that it can contribute to a broader exploration of the subject that seems to be taking place both formally and informally in popular culture and academic spheres.

Suggested reading:
Caring for Country: Aboriginal Australia

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.

On Diplomacy & Heritage Unseen.

The other day, I came across an article in the LA Times about how the US used the return of a chalice that had been illegally removed from Iran to help open the door for negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The chalice had been brought into the US illegally and was seized by customs, where it was held until its recent return to Iran.

This is where I assume they kept the chalice, next to the Ark of the Covenant. (from the Indiana Jones wiki)
This is where I assume they kept the chalice, next to the Ark of the Covenant. (from the Indiana Jones wiki)

The article mentions a couple of times that there are questions about the chalice’s authenticity; in particular, Iranian hardliners opposed to the recently elected President Hassan Rouhani and his stance regarding the West claim that the chalice is a fake. The head of Iranian cultural heritage and tourism, Mohammad Ali Najafi, replied that, “We do not look a gift horse in the mouth. Even if it is fake, it is worthy.”

The griffin chalice returned to Iran. (via the LA TImes, Mehdi Moazen / Islamic Republic News Agency / November 30, 2013)
The griffin chalice returned to Iran. (via the LA TImes, Mehdi Moazen / Islamic Republic News Agency / November 30, 2013)

Now, of course the chalice’s authenticity is not particularly important in this context. Its real significance is the gesture, the return of a piece of cultural heritage not to a ruler, but to a nation. Repatriation of cultural heritage can be a touchy subject; just ask the British Museum about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Diplomatic concerns aside, however, the return of the chalice is much less controversial than the repatriation of cultural artifacts and art removed under imperialism. The chalice was kept under lock and key in storage, and the dealer who imported it intended to sell it rather than display it in a public museum. There was no significant national attachment to the object, unlike the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, which many consider to be an integral part of the British Museum’s collections.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon in His Study
Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon in His Study

It seems to me that the question of display is central to our emotional attachment to cultural heritage. When I lived outside of DC, I heard about visitor complaints when the Star-Spangled Banner was taken down for much-needed conservation. Similarly, several years ago the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art underwent a significant renovation that required various sections of the building to be closed off. I visited during a stage of the renovation when large parts of the galleries had been closed off and was startled to see the most popular paintings jammed into whatever space remained available so that visitors would not miss out on their chance to see Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den or Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life. I was personally relieved to see David’s Napoleon in His Study, a painting I am rather attached to, having seen it for years every time I visited the National Gallery and then coming across it unexpectedly at a wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

In the case of art or antiques, seeing cultural heritage is how most people encounter it. Few of us have the resources to own a famous work of art, and I would argue that work people get to see and engage with is more culturally valuable than work hidden away in a private collection. In an age where visual media saturates culture, seeing something in real life is a unique experience. It’s so unique, in fact, that people will fight through amazing crowds just to take a crummy camera photo of the Mona Lisa so that they can show that they were really there and they really saw it. They could just as easily look at the painting and drop a Euro or two for a postcard reproduction, or spend nothing at all and look at it online. The value is showing that they saw it with their own eyes, and that experience sets the heritage object beyond financial value. When we think about repatriating heritage, we think about giving away not only the object itself but the experience of seeing it.

Crowds at the Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa (via wikimedia commons)

Giving the chalice back to Iran makes sense because it will hopefully allow the Iranian people the chance to enjoy this piece of heritage that was going unappreciated and unseen here. It becomes more complicated when the heritage in question has become a part of the culture where it currently resides.

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.