Talking Honestly About the Past

It’s been over a week and I’m still thinking about the Slate Academy symposium “How Do We Get Americans to Talk Honestly about Slavery.” Why? It’s not just because the subject matter resonates with a lot of current events on race and class. It’s not just because the panel mimicked how I think about public history i.e. through a broader lens of objects, oral histories, literature, and popular culture. Rather, it is because the conversation presented to us represents a lesson on how to talk honestly about the entire past, period.

A culmination of a podcasting series for Slate Academy the live symposium brought together experiential historians, museum professionals, divers, authors, critics, and a pop culture icon to investigate the process of myth-making surrounding slavery. The strength of the symposium lay in participants ability to delve beneath the surface of history to identify ways to encourage a dialogue in the face of resistance. To investigate, as culinary historian Michael Twitty says, how “slavery is not a blip, but a chronic condition.”

In the end I took away four key tools/thoughts about how we talk honestly about the past.

  1. Have the conversation. It doesn’t need to be structured, but needs to be direct.
  2. Be willing to take folks out of their comfort zones. Take ownership, don’t deny it.
  3. Examine the other side’s perspective. Examine your own perspective.
  4. Acknowledge what we are missing and question, always question.

With that in mind each panel really demonstrated the challenges surrounding inclusive history telling and how they are tackling those challenges.

Experiential Learning: Paul Gardullo (NMAAHC), Kamau Sadiki (Diving with a Purpose) Joseph McGill (Slave Dwelling Project) and Michael Twitty (Afroculinaria

Illustrating how to leverage the act of experience in order to begin a dialogue with audiences — the need to create a safe space.

The way the public engages and interacts with history is based on family, society, geography and time. So for this group of professionals, starting a conversation about the past involves navigating a complex maze of assumptions and ideas.

Joe McGill uses overnights in extent slave dwellings as a way to anchor descendants, students, and locals physically in place. In doing so he creates an atmosphere conducive to breaking past the dominant narrative of what life as a slave was really like beyond the “Gone With the Wind” romance. In a similar vein Michael Twitty dresses in clothes washed with lye and cooks food that slaves would have cooked as a jumping off point to speak with visitors of reality of living as a slave. The important thing here, he says is “to tell folks the truth, but feed them first.”

The experiential nature of the work McGill, Twitty, Gardullo, and Sadiki are doing takes loaded conversations and embeds them within an activity which provides a natural context for a dialogue. This creates an opportunity for an organic back and forth which is an alternative to more structured conversations that put participants on the defensive. Sadiki said, of his work with divers and slave ship wreckage, “It is absolutely impossible to leave my spirit the shore….[what you see] it moves you.”

A preview of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: Nancy Bercaw (NMAAHC), Mary Elliot (NMAAHC). 

A museum is really only as good as the objects it holds, and the power of those objects to encapsulate a fuller vision of a shared past.

The idea of linking history and culture to understand the past has always been a draw, so when Bercaw and Elliot began their preview of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture I was already a fan.

For one the positioning of the museum to sit symbolically on the National Mall between monuments to democracy and our founding, symbols of how “American History” is generally shaped is intentional. By focusing in on the African-American perspective NMAAHC will be flipping the narrative in a way that hasn’t been done on this scale before.

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Also objects. So much of the history we understand from marginalized communities comes from outsiders. For those communities the only way to re-gain that footing, that ownership of their own past, is through the objects, art, literature, and photographs that are left behind. In this case as Bercaw and Elliot described reading objects is not simply a matter of understanding enslavement, but also that these items reveal individual lives beyond the work bringing back humanity to a group of individuals who are often only seen from one perspective.

Words. Words. Words. Navigating Gray Space through Literature: Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Author of Wench and Balm) and Jennifer James (director of Africana Studies at GWU)

Telling the stories of the enslaved (and other marginalized communities) sometimes involves taking a leap of faith. How do you fill the gray space where evidence is lacking? What language do you use to define those spaces and the individuals that inhabit them?

At the offset of this conversation about historical fiction and the imaginary, Perkins-Valdez stated that history in the public realm forces us to treat certain subjects in binary -good//evil, victim//perpetrator-which makes everything seemingly easy to define. However, it is not that simple.

The one exchange that I can lay out as an example is as follows [Note this is paraphrasing Jennifer James] The historian Annette Gordon-Reed posits that we have to make room for a supposition that there was an element of emotion and love between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Because if we don’t we are relegating Hemings to being merely an object rather than a living breathing, emotional, human.

But, James says, that is incredibly tricky. It’s making an assumption that we can’t prove. And so Hemings in a binary context can only be identified as a victim. Perkins-Valdez says that in writing her books she wrestles with situations like this and asks questions as a way of teasing out what might have been.

For my part this was a fascinating dialogue about filling silences in the historical record. Of finding that the answers might be an unsettling truth where to “survive slavery you had to make compromise. If you didn’t then you died. It was that simple” (Perkins-Valdez). Both speakers admitted that they delve into the imaginary, but argue that sometimes that is all you can do, and that fiction provides the vehicle to investigate those pieces.

For more on African-American historical fiction check out my last two posts for the PreservationNation blog [Beverly Jenkins, Tiya Miles].

Mythmaking and Popular Culture with LeVar Burton (actor, director, educator)

The role of popular culture and questioning the past.

One overarching thread in this entire symposium was the need to question. Kamau Sadiki said that the youth who dive with him to investigate slave wrecks always interrogate what they see, trying to put the pieces together. Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Jennifer James interrogate the evidence we have to find answers for those history might miss, and LeVar Burton, in talking about remaking Roots said that when it first aired, the program pushed a segment of the American population to ask themselves about their own past.

At one point Burton said “Slavery is the original sin we have never been able to recover from. Until we can deal with this we won’t be able to move past the ghosts of the past.” The impetus behind remaking Roots was its place in telling this story for a new generation, and to draw a line from that shared past to conversations we are having today about race and equality.

The key, of course which was addressed in the Q&A panel later is to examine all of our biases. It’s not always just a one-sided refusal to engage. Joe McGill says he treats everyone as a hostile audience — that it’s not just one side that doesn’t want to talk. This way everyone comes into the experience on even ground with something to offer to the conversation.

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Even though I am a historian that thinks through issues of inclusion and the complexity of history as part of my job I still sometimes have trouble discussing the tougher subjects of history-despite my ability to  talk about a lot of things with ease. I worry that I will get impassioned, and insistent, and maybe come off as a little know-it-all and recognize that sometimes I need to take a moment to pause, breathe, and to let others think.

In this post I have touched only the surface of this discussion. The layers and politics of being honest about our past are not insurmountable, but at the present seem mired by pundits who are often willfully ignorant about the role they play in limiting rather than expanding dialogue. While we do live in an age where history and knowledge are at our fingertips having this discussion is even harder than before as virtual lies become mainstream. It’s a tough road but one that needs to be walked even as the landscape shifts around us. Consequently, I believe that having these conversations may be one of the most important ways to effect change in the coming years. So as difficult as it may be, as much as I still have left to learn — let’s talk.

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