Seeing What’s Real

There is a counter at the bottom of this page that I hope will explain my month long absence from the blog.  I’m participating in the 2010 National Novel Writing Month–which pretty much requires that I write 50,000 words in 30 days. We’re reaching the last week, and I’m about 6100 words behind so this weekend requires me to put on my game face and write as fast and as much as I can.

If you want to check out some my other writing this month I did post twice on the PreservationNation.org blog.

The second blog post is about my recent trip to the National Archives to view the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was on display for four days following the opening of the second part of an exhibition entitled Discovering the Civil War. In “The Power of the Document” I wanted to describe how seeing the physical object was just as important as reading the text:

So why is seeing the original document so important to me? Its history is well known, including its role in the larger narrative of the United States beyond the Civil War era. Many have undertaken analysis on Abraham Lincoln’s reasoning and timing in presenting the proclamation, and we can see the text written out after a quick Google search. We know that on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that all slaves within rebelling states would be “thenceforward, and forever free.”

It makes it real. In a modern world where much of the conversation lives in the virtual realm, the tactile, the physical existence of an object in space strengthens its meaning and connection to the actual events that you read and learn about in history courses around the world. The value of seeing Abraham Lincoln’s signature—teeny and cramped–and reading the words scrawled across sheets of paper gives history texture and life.

For this post I wanted to talk about historical reality and the present. I’ll admit, part of this was due to the recent publication of President George W. Bush’s memoir, and how much of the discussion about the events during and around his eight years in office have, within two years, turned into a trip down nostalgia lane. What I mean is talking about events from two yeas ago as part of a very distant, closed past, without (and admittedly I only watched fragments of two interviews) discussing the future. What I’m asking does not have anything to do with politics, or choosing a side, though I will admit that I am moderate who leans to the left.  What I want to know is the following: at what point do we, as Americans, look at recent events and instead of acknowledging these events as part of a still moving present, put it in the bucket of history–it happened, case closed, book shut.

As a historians, we know that of course, naturally, nothing lives in a vacuum. Everything has consequences–sometimes consequences that cannot be seen until a longer period of time has passed (or as Marc Bloch, and the other historians from his school of thought believed, after the longue duree [long term]). However, we also recognize the role of the individual in shaping those events and realities.

When we made the field trip down to see the Emancipation Proclamation these questions popped up again–that the power of the document was partially in knowing its effect beyond Abraham Lincoln’s initial issuance. That despite what it said, its proclamation had far more, long reaching consequences–some of which reverberated into the twentieth century and the civil rights movement.

So, in seeing what’s real–we are only able to interpret, at any given moment, a fragment of the bigger picture, a picture that is always changing and growing.  But like those before us, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility to look at that fragment from a unique position in time, and place.  Right here, right now, today–but with the forethought that recognizes that those interpretations will shift and change as we shift and change.

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