Saturday, March 30, 2013

Week Eleven: Colonial Williamsburg and Spaghetti Squash

This week's readings completed the book we began last week, The New History in and Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, by Richard Handler and Eric Gable. Of course, the book is filled with interesting information and thoughts to consider, but one thing particularly stuck out to me in the last half of the book.

Chapter seven is entitled, "The Front Line: Smile Free or Die." While that almost sounds like the title of  a psychological thriller movie, by the second page of the chapter, I was thinking back to some of our previous readings, and rather fascinated by the challenge presented. Colonial Williamsburg employees were told that the worst thing they could do was be rude to a customer. That would result in immediate dismissal. While on the surface, that sounds reasonable, Handler and Gable went on to say that Colonial Williamsburg's VP stated the reason for this as being that the museum is "an intellectually open environment: people can say or think whatever they want about history, as long as they remain polite in their dealings with visitors." (pp. 170, 171). Again, this didn't sound too bad until I read on, about the frontline guide's interpretation: "...from that fact, she concluded not that Colonial Williamsburg is a domain of intellectual freedom, but that it is a big entertainment center and not an educational institution." (p.171).

This got me thinking. While Colonial Williamsburg is presented as a museum, and a place of accurate historical education, it does also have to make money. While it would be nice to be able to have such a place only be concerned with the accuracy of information and nothing else, the reality is, this is such a large operation that private funding alone is simply not going to cut it. Colonial Williamsburg has to draw enough people willing to pay the steep admission prices to compete with places such as Disney World, Six Flags, and Paramount's resorts, among other popular vacation destinations. Of course, we talked about a similar issue weeks ago in regards to the "Disney's America" theme park, and many of us focused on the danger of "Disnefying" history. But what about Colonial Williamsburg? Are providing good historical presentation and good entertainment mutually exclusive? Or can they both be accomplished? Are there ways to reconcile the two without totally damaging the integrity of the history being presented?

I'm genuinely asking those questions- I don't know the answer off the top of my head. As an academic historian, I tend to want to say the only right course of action here is to stick with "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." But then, if we do that absolutely, what do we sacrifice? Do we then end up with a defunct Colonial Williamsburg? Does the existence of a Colonial Williamsburg that gets as close as possible to the absolute truth without sacrificing tourist traffic still present enough of the real picture to justify any changes it has to make here and there, or any intentional oversights or minimalizations of certain issues?

Maybe, maybe not. One of the difficulties for public- and academic- historians is knowing where the "happy medium" lies. This actually makes me think of my recent food experiences, as I've become pretty much a health food nut in the last few months. At some point when I'm cooking for other people, I have to find the balance of just how many "healthier" substitutions I can make before my guest is going to be disgusted by my substitutions of honey for sugar and coconut cream for heavy whipping cream, and spaghetti squash for actual spaghetti. I think Colonial Williamsburg, among other public history sites, is more or less chronically in the same place. At what point do they need to add in a little sugar or spaghetti to appeal to enough people to keep the museum viable? Does adding a little historical sugar completely negate the accuracy of everything else?

Again, I don't know. And I'm not even sure the above analogy made sense (I'm hungry, can't you tell?). But if I keep trying to get people to eat my super duper healthy paleo substitutions for everything, they're eventually not going to want to eat my food at all (and it has nothing to do with my cooking skills...let's just get that straight!). From a business perspective, Colonial Williamsburg needs to do more or less the same thing. Just how that measures up in terms of historical integrity, I'm not sure. But it's certainly something interesting to consider.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Week Ten: Road Apples and the Other Half

My time is limited this week, so my post will be short. For our reading, we were assigned what amounts to the first half of The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, by Richard Handler and Eric Gable. Of course, as a historian of American slavery, Colonial Williamsburg is very interesting to me, given the journey they have been on over the last couple decades, trying to reflect changes brought by the emergence of social history. As I was reading the first chapter of this book, a new question hit me: why social history? I mean, my interest in Williamsburg has always been more along the lines of how they implement social history, but this time, I started to wonder why social history is so important anyway.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a social historian to the core. I wasn't actually wondering if social history was important, more like how. Not that I didn't know, but sometimes we tend to overlook things we think are too basic or obvious, thereby missing some of the important details.

Early on, Colonial Williamsburg was a fairly sterile, clean environment, praising the lives and work of Williamsburg's elite. By the 1970s, Americans had grown bored with the sanitized version of history which overlooked the bad, praising too highly the good- or at least, what leaders and historians at the time wanted Americans to think of as good. Beginning in the 60s, people wanted to learn about the history of the working class, ordinary people. They wanted to see history's whole picture- not just the "important" parts.

In the case of Williamsburg, just over half of the population were African American slaves, giving its elite an unusually high standard of living. Showing the social history of Colonial Williamsburg would mean showing some pretty unsavory elements of American history. It would mean presenting the great leaders of that town, and the American Revolution, as being flawed. Showing "the other half" would mean bursting the bubble for many Americans. But then again, I come to the same question: why? Why show slaves in Williamsburg? Why have live animals and horses leaving their droppings, or "road apples" for everyone to see and smell? Why not just focus on the good? Why do things have to be real?

As I thought about it, I came up with an answer that at least makes sense to me. If we don't show the past as it really was, if we sanitize it, if we take out the bad, then the good of the present doesn't mean as much. Additionally, it marginalizes the struggles others have gone through, the things people have had to overcome to get to where they are. It also takes away a lot of our ability to accurately understand the present- both the good and the bad of the present. Social history- both at Colonial Williamsburg and elsewhere- allows us to study, analyze, and understand history as a whole. Without social history, we're only looking at part of the picture- a part that lacks a lot of the struggle and stark reality- good and bad- of the past and the present.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Week Nine: Rabbit Holes and the Civil War

I was arguing with someone online a few months ago who insisted that all of the human rights reform movements between the 1830s and 1920s or so were against the Bible; that God never told us to defend our own rights, but rather to turn the other cheek, submit to authorities, and yield our rights to do what we want. This struck me as particularly interesting, since he was defending the South in the Civil War (of course, arguing that the abolition movement entirely went against Scripture). I thought about it for a moment, and in crafting my reply, remarked aloud to my friend Christi that with few (if any) exceptions, civil wars are merely failed revolutions, in which either the country splits into two or more separate sovereign states, or remains intact, with a new government taking over. Regardless, if the rebelling side succeeds, we usually remember the war as a revolution, otherwise it is a civil war. Which then launched a conversation between Christi and me trying to figure out why the Civil War, as a failed revolution, was okay, in which the Southern states were rebelling and fighting for the right to govern themselves (whether rightly or wrongly, it really doesn't matter here), but an abolition movement led largely by whites trying to free the enslaved African Americans, or a women's rights movement (very much supported by a number of men as well) to work to pass new legislation.

I have come to the conclusion that the American Civil War is a maddening rabbit hole. I remember my first glimpse into said hole- I was 16, away at a music camp for 3 weeks, with a roommate from Louisiana, Mandi. I seriously had no idea until then some people actually argued the Confederates were right. The next several years, I met more and more people who thought the same way Mandi did. Not long after returning home from meeting Mandi, my Baptist church in Cincinnati even had an actual debate about the Civil War. I was a little taken aback that people from my church actually sided with the South. So I started to study the Civil War. I became more aware of Civil War reenactments, of old Southern balls, with men in Confederate uniforms, and women in their big 1860s ball gowns, etc. The older I got, and the more I argued, the further I slipped down the rabbit hole. The further I slipped down the rabbit hole, the more people I discovered who are also stuck in said rabbit hole. I am currently further down the rabbit hole than ever. The frustrating thing is, I have yet to find a way out. I keep getting sucked into long arguments about the Civil War, in which no one's mind gets changed, and we end up where we started, only having lost several hours of our lives and raised our blood pressures in the process. No matter how many times I resolve to quit arguing about the Civil War, I always break that promise. When it comes to swearing off these arguments, my resolve is about as strong as Marshall Erickson's whenever he tries to make a resolution about...anything. I'm not like this regarding any other war. In fact, bring up literally any other war (my friend John on occasion has tried to bring up the War of 1812...he's Canadian), I'll make an argument, spend maybe 5 minutes defending it, and then shrug my shoulders and say you either have a decent point that I'll have to consider, or I'll just decide I'm right and move on (kidding...kinda).

So what's with the fascination with the Civil War? Actually, it could better be called an obsession. If it was just me, that'd be one thing, and I'd shrug it off, like I shrug off my obsession with fuzzy things or Peeps. But it's not just me! It's a freakishly large portion of the American population, including residents from states that weren't even Alaska...people whose ancestors hadn't even gotten here yet, and as my friend James informs me, even some Canadians. Yes, apparently Canadians have American Civil War reenactments too...including Canadians who never had ancestors in the US. I know, bizarre. But then, is it really any stranger than the fact that so many Americans are obsessed with a war that ended 148 years ago, and even our very oldest citizens are a few generations removed from the war? It's fascinating to me that someone could walk in to a crowded room in most parts of the US and scream "AMERICA SHOULD HAVE LOST THE REVOLUTION!" and most people would stare, blink a couple times, and then go back to whatever they were doing. But send someone into a crowded room to shout, "THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD HAVE WON!" or, "GOD BLESS ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE UNION ARMY!" and almost guaranteed, chaos will ensue, and people who may have just been speaking with each other in a friendly manner will end up in an instant heated argument (kinda like the whole predestination/free will debate- ironically, I discovered that was a "thing" when I met Mandi too...). So why is it that very few people care if someone says we should still be British subjects, but almost everyone is up in arms over any such statement about the Civil War?

One of this week's readings comes from the first two chapters of Tony Horowitz's book, Confederates in the Attic. I've always meant to read this book, and now I'm going to have to- the first two chapters are pretty awesome, though I only really have time to talk about the first here. Horowitz begins chapter 1 with a very apt quote from Gertrude Stein: "There never will be anything more interesting in America than that Civil War. Never." I think she may be correct.

Horowitz begins by talking about his great-grandfather, who didn't arrive in America until the 1880s, but was always obsessed with the Civil War, passing down that obsession to his children, grand children, and great-grandchildren. A few pages in, Horowitz queries, "Why did this war still obsess so many Americans 130 years after Appomattox? I returned to Poppa Isaac's book. What did that war have to do with him, or with me?" At this point, I looked up from my reading and said, "Yes, why IS this still such an obsession?" As many people have seen on my Facebook wall from time to time, I occasionally opine that not only has the Civil War not yet ended, but it also NEVER WILL. Historian Kathleen has to be more responsible and give more academic answers than that over-simplified rant, but private citizen Kathleen absolutely believes that.

The book continues as Horowitz details his experience meeting a hardcore Confederate reenactor, and the time he spent with this guy and his other reenactor friends. It's amazing just how hardcore these men were. Every single detail had to be correct. They cared nothing about physical injury, as long as it happened authentically. Many even tried to lose as much weight as possible, trying to achieve a weight of 135lbs or less, and acquiring the underfed, gaunt Confederate soldier look. I'm sorry, but as a 29 year old female, I canNOT help but wonder how many of these men had wives or girlfriends at home. I'm trying to come up with any circumstance under which I would find a guy over 5'7" or 5'8" and weighing 135lbs to actually be attractive, and I'm not getting anything. How hardcore must these women be to be okay with this? Or all they mostly confirmed bachelors who care more about reliving a war than female companionship? I did actually laugh out loud  when I read the conversation in which one reenactor lamented that his girlfriend broke up with him because she was tired of trying to compete with a 130 year old event. Can't say I blame her. Actually, I'd probably give her a good fist bump if I met her. But as per usual, I digress.

I found the end of the first chapter to be somewhat disturbing. Horowitz recalls the a conversation with several of the hardcores. They talked about how their repeated reenacting experiences, in very unpleasant conditions helped them understand how easy their lives were, and one said he would not be upset to get ticks and lice: "If that happened, I'd feel like we'd elevated things to another level. It would suck, but at least I'd know what it was like to scratch my head all day long." To me, this comes too close to the medieval ideas of self-abasement and punishment. Extreme suffering as a kind of penance. In this case, what a read seemed to border on a psychologically unhealthy obsession with understanding fully- by actually feeling- what Civil War soldiers went through. But here's my question: for what? Is there a purpose other than just understanding? And if so, what is it? To take it a step further, though my argumentation does not approach the commitment level of the hardcores, reading this does make me ask what the purpose of such arguments are.

Why am I still arguing about a war that ended 148 years ago? Why is anyone?

I have a mixture of good and bad answers to those questions, and I'm really not sure there's one right answer, or even just a dozen right answers. But something about the American Civil War makes it one of the most unique and, frankly strange, obsessions in existence. For all of us afflicted with this obsession, it wouldn't hurt to return to these questions occasionally for perspective. Though maybe it's really just another mental illness, and in 100 years, it'll be right there alongside paranoia and delusional behavior. Hmmm...

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Week Eight: Hollywood and History

This week's readings centered around the film Black Robe, so as would be expected, we were required to also watch the movie. For my more conservative readers, I would say watch at your own risk, the movie does have an R rating, and it ain't the dialogue that got it said rating.

As a history geek, I have long been irritated by inaccurate portrayals of history in film. In many cases, Hollywood likes to sacrifice the real for the sensational, or edit things to prove the producer's agenda. For example, you know the scene in The Patriot in which the villagers are locked inside their church and burned by the British? I'll never forget the reactions of various professors decrying that as a sensational Hollywood lie. Of course then there's Song of the South which is a horrid perversion of a slave's life in the South. Pearl Harbor, Titanic, and many other movies have glaring historical errors in them.

The movie Black Robe is about a Jesuit missionary who embarks on a journey and has dealings with various First Nations tribes in Canada, including the Algonquins, Mohawks, and Huron. It is true that the portrayal of these people groups is less than flattering. It is also true that to someone who knows absolutely nothing about any of these tribes (and very little about Native Americans and First Nations in general), it has an air of authenticity. However, according to one article I read in response "And They Did It Like Dogs In the Dirt...An Indigenist Analysis of Black Robe" by Ward Churchill, the content was actually less than accurate. For one thing, the movie had Algonquians speaking a Cree dialect. I mean, not that I'd know the difference, but seriously, people? I wouldn't make a movie and have a Mexican speaking Castillian Spanish, nor would I make a movie and have a Ukranian speak Russian. If you're going to go to the trouble of having a large portion of a movie's dialogue be in a foreign language, why not make sure it's the correct one? Sorry, I just don't get that.

Churchill decries the film critics who claim to know anything about history at all, claiming it to be "historically sound," etc., and I'll agree, this is a problem. Film critics should comment on the film as a film, not as a representation of history. But aside from that, Churchill criticizes the filmmakers for quite obviously misrepresenting the various tribes, especially the Mohawks, showing them to be far more bloodthirsty or sexually deviant than they actually were. According to Churchill, the details were so thoroughly researched (sets, costumes, etc.) that it would be impossible to do so much research and not be aware that the child captured by the Mohawks would have simply been raised as a Mohawk, rather than killed in front of the child's family. Churchill accused the filmmakers of having an agenda to show these tribes as being savage- as if in an effort to justify white domination over the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada. I'll have to agree with him (assuming his facts are correct), that if so many minute details were correct, the filmmakers must have known what they were doing, and to intentionally villainize these people is wrong.

However. In his article, "In Defense of Black Robe: A Reply to Ward Churchill, Kristoff Haavik disagrees with Churchill, in spite of claiming to be an avid admirer of Churchill's work. Haavik actually states that Black Robe was an accurate portrayal of Native Americans.  After having read both articles, I have to say I'm more inclined to agree with Haavik, as he points out a few discrepancies between the film and Chruchill's retelling of it. Haavik states that Churchill has "something of a point" in his claims about the Mohawks killing their child prisoner, saying it would be more likely for the child to be adopted into the tribe, but killing children as portrayed in the movie was not unheard of for Mohawks- just far less common than adoption. Haavik's article goes on for several pages about native culture and Churchill's points.

It is not terribly uncommon for historians to disagree on things such as this. However, this dispute does raise a valid question: Can films be used as legitimate ways to teach history?

My answer to this question is a cautious "yes." One of the history professors at Ouachita (where I did my undergrad), Dr. Motl, used films in three of the four classes I had with him: Modern Germany, Modern America, and American Women's History. We watched Schindler's List, and then discussed it. He was careful to point out the few things here and there that were sensational add-ins on the part of Steven Speilburg, but that was easy to do, and on the whole, the film was incredibly useful in our class. It brought the horrors we were studying to life. I also remember watching the film Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this case, the film was almost entirely accurate (yes, sometimes Hollywood actually resists the urge to change history!), and I learned so much more about the Cuban Missile Crisis than I would have EVER learned otherwise. After watching the movie, I more fully understood everything that was at stake during that time, and how fantastic a job the Kennedy administration did in dealing with it. But I think the most significant movie (for me) that I watched in Dr. Motl's classes was the HBO film Iron Jawed Angels. Again, Dr. Motl did explain a few things that were sensationalized, the fact that the senator's wife was a fictitious character added to the story, etc., but the movie overall was an accurate portrayal of what women in America went through to gain the right to vote. It also showed Woodrow Wilson in a less-than-heroic light (which, in the case of women's suffrage is totally accurate!). I will never forget the force-feeding scene with Alice Paul in the prison, during her hunger strike. She wanted to starve to death to make a point, and of course, as was said in the film by the men opposing the suffragettes, "We can't have any martyrs on our hands."

Seeing those things on film helps people understand significance and sometimes context better. If we see it playing out in front of our eyes, we're much more likely to connect than if we hear a professor say it, or read it on a page in our text books. Dr. Motl set a great example for me as an aspiring college professor, in knowing exactly how to use films to teach in a way he couldn't do by just talking about something (sorry, Dr. Motl, but even Darth Vader has limitations!). Those are lessons and films I will never forget. In my own classroom, with my students, I even used film clips to help drive home certain points. I did show the force-feeding scene from Iron Jawed Angels, and I had half my class come up to me and ask for the title of the film so they could go watch the whole thing. I showed 70 minutes of The Help to show my students the kinds of things African Americans dealt with during the Jim Crow era, and to show them a good portrayal of African American agency at the same time. They responded to those things way better than they would have responded to me rattling off the facts during yet another lecture.

Sure. As teachers, we have to be careful to use films appropriately. Sure. There are teachers who use films as cop-outs, not knowing anything about a specific event or topic (sometimes including whether the film is accurate). But used correctly and with caution, films can be fabulous tools for teaching about history. We simply have to use our own professional integrity in choosing well what we use, and how.