Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

IMG_20170518_172731955_HDR.jpg

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood!

Back from vacation!

It has been a while since my last posting, and of course much has happened (Trump and terrorist related), but for the next few days I’m going to turn this into a travel blog, detailing and reviewing the four brand new history museums that I visited on my trip.

I’ll start today with the big one: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Like many of you, I’ve been anxiously awaiting my chance to visit this amazing facility, and I can tell you that despite my high expectations,  I was not disappointed.

It didn’t start out that way. As I am sure you are aware, the only advance tickets at this point must be reserved months ahead of time (they won’t be taking orders again until July, for September visits!). I failed to do so, which means I had to get up at 6:30 AM on the morning of my visit (last Thursday, May 18, 2017) to try and snag some same-day tickets on the internet. Despite the fact that three of us were trying to get the tickets, we all struck out, and they were sold-out for the day in a matter of 15 minutes (or less). We were saddened, but decided to make the best of the day by visiting other DC sites we had never seen, or had not seen in a while. This sent all four in my group scattering in different directions.

There was still one more possibility, however. The museum gives out a very limited number of “walk-up” tickets at 1 PM, and I was the only one in my group that decided to give it a shot despite the odds. I showed up at around 12:30, and the line was already a monster. I had little hope.

But then a miracle occurred. As I took my place at the back of the line, a museum employee was working her way around asking for veterans or first responders. It was not until she made it to two people just in front of me that she found two of them, a married couple. Pulling them out of the line, she said she could take them straight in, as well as two others as their guests. They had no others with them, so one woman spoke up immediately and  uncouthly begged, “take me! take me!” So she was chosen. When asked who else they wanted to take inside as a guest, the couple demurred (we were all strangers, after all), so the museum employee asked where they were from. Would you believe it? They said “Alabama!” (Even better, they were Alabama fans, not Auburn).  I then spoke up and said, “me too!” Which got me chosen as their guest! Yep, I was in the massive walkup line for all of 5 minutes before I got to walk right into the museum. I chalked it up to good karma. 🙂 Roll Tide.

Once inside, I quickly submerged to the underground bottom floors where the museum begins shuffling visitors through a chronologically displayed tour of American history. The design is brilliant, as the early exhibits deal with European history and conceptions of race, as well as the powerful West African kingdoms, in the 1400s. These are laid out in a way that shows the convergence of the two, and at the same time  gradually crams visitors tightly together in the replica hull of a “Middle Passage” ship. It was very dark and cramped, as I viewed slave shackles, original beams and planks from a slave cargo ship, and other Atlantic slave trade relics. It was a powerful and sobering start.

As the timeline-advances from Colonial to Revolutionary America, the rooms get slowly larger as the interpretation takes on the paradoxical nature of the American Revolution and its impact on slavery. Eventually, I emerged into a large room with the opening words of the Declaration of Independence looming massively large overhead and an impressive life-sized statute of Thomas Jefferson presiding over the scene. He stands in front of a wall constructed from bricks representing the number (and names) of the slaves he owned. (The exhibit takes it as a given that he fathered Sally Hemings’ children). Pictures do not do justice to the powerful nature of this interpretation and display design, especially as you enter the large room after being cramped in the tighter spaces.

IMG_20170518_130858616.jpg

From there, the museum takes you through displays covering slave life and resistance (both violent and subtle), abolitionism and sectionalism, the role of African Americans in the Civil War, and finally Reconstruction (embracing Eric Foner’s interpretation of both the failure and the small but extremely important successes of the Reconstruction era). Relic highlights here include Nat Turner’s small bible (awesome), a large cotton gin, a slave master’s whip (on loan from Oprah Winfrey), Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal, first edition copies of slave autobiographies, and most impressively, a full sized slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina (not a reproduction, the real deal).

This first (underground) floor is simply amazing. If the museum were just this first floor, it would still be a remarkable facility.

IMG_20170518_134255395.jpg

Nat Turner’s bible. Just wow.

At that point, visitors climb a ramp up to the second floor, where exhibits focus on the early 20th century/Jim Crow Era, as well as the modern Civil Rights movement. Here, displays and relics focusing on the cultural construction of black stereotypes and their purposes are particularly powerful and well done, as are those that deal with black migration during the world wars. I felt that while the modern Civil Rights movement displays were extensive, they were less than comprehensive. Still,  the Emmett Till exhibit was particularly powerful, especially the viewing of his coffin. (I came in expecting to be shaken up by the sight of it, and I was). This rather morbid display is crucial to what the entire museum is trying to accomplish.

Besides the coffin, relic highlights here include two of the dolls used in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, IMG_20170518_150909466.jpga full sized and segregated railroad car, a bucket that MLK used to soak his feet after the Selma March, and most imposing, a plane used in training the Tuskegee Airmen.

Lastly, the ramp takes you up again to the final chronologically arranged exhibits, using 1968 as its starting point for carrying visitors through the ongoing fight for Civil Rights, culminating with Obama’s presidency.  (I was born in the momentous and eventful year of 1968, so it really interested me to pause and consider the ways that my own life growing up in Birmingham, Alabama played out during, and was shaped by, these more modern events and cultural transformations).IMG_20170518_152719854.jpg

Most interesting to me were the displays dealing with the role that 70s and 80s television and movies played in shaping and changing perceptions of African Americans. Here, Bill Cosby was noticeably missing from the narrative. This is understandable given his current troubles, but I feel The Cosby Show and its creators and cast deserve to have its very important cultural impact significantly explored in the museum.

Some will question the ending of the history lesson with Obama, but I have no doubt the museum will continue to evolve and is not ending the story with our first black president as a means of embracing the concept of a “post racial” society. The last video that we see before emerging on the ground floor contains a clip of Obama’s brilliant speech at the Pettus Bridge in Selma (I am convinced it will go down as one of our greatest presidential speeches), in which he strongly rebukes those that believe there has been no racial progress in this country, yet insists that the artificially and purposely created barrier of race is far from dismantled.

As the museum’s interpretations are largely focused on our artificial construction of race that has prevented us from living up to our greatest founding promises, this ending is appropriate. The museum definitely embraces the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” interpretation of American history, (which is physically conveyed as visitors start in the darkened lowest floor, slowly rising via ramps to more airy and elevated spaces) while still acknowledging that it is our responsibility to fight the powerful and deeply entrenched forces that have and would bend it off course and backwards (hence the importance of uncomfortable relics like slave shackles, whips, pictures of lynchings, and Till’s coffin). It is a sobering presentation and ending, but a clearly hopeful one.

From there, visitors can explore the above ground floors that take you on a less chronological tour through the American past, focusing on the cultural and pop cultural impact of African Americans in the shaping of the United States. I was disappointed by the jazz exhibits, but the TV and film and sports sections were quite good. Highlights included a short film on the transformation of the depiction of blacks in movies, as well as relics like Chuck Berry’s guitar and convertible Cadillac, the track shoes Jesse Owen wore in the ’36 Olympics, the gloves Joe Lewis used in his rematch with Max Schmeling, and Jackie Robinson’s uniform.

IMG_20170518_162933679.jpg

Joe Lewis’ boxing gloves

But these just scratch the surface of what is upstairs (they even have Eddie Murphy’s jacket from the first Beverly Hills Cop movie), as these cultural exhibits are heavier on objects than they are on interpretation (the reverse is true in the below ground, chronological history sections). These exhibits are more fun and certainly entertaining.

I spent a total of about 4.5 hours in the museum, only because I did not get in until 12:30ish. I definitely needed more time.

Besides not having enough hours to do the upstairs portions more justice, I was mostly disappointed by the number of kids and teens frolicking around seemingly oblivious to the remarkable facility’s interpretive power. Don’t get me wrong, I saw a large number of youngsters transfixed and interested in the exhibits (and there are many high tech and “immersive” exhibits meant to draw them in and get them pondering what kinds of choices they would have made if they had been in our past), but those that were treating it like a playground made me feel sorry for all the people that have been trying to get into the museum and were not as fortunate as myself (like the three friends I traveled with). All in all, the museum was not as successful at keeping the attention of children as were the three other museums I saw on my trip (more on those in later postings).

My final assessment: A few quibbles aside, the museum is every bit as amazing as you have heard and read about. I was astounded by the relics, at times numbed by the experience, and inspired by its sobering, yet ultimately hopeful interpretation of United States history.   A+.

Get there ASAP.

Historians on the Comey firing; Thoughts on Underground’s second season; Jefferson Davis gets hauled off; Fiorina and Colonial Williamsburg?

170209-news-underground-hp-lg.jpg

Tubman stealing from the collection plate??

I’ve been away from this site for about a week now because of the grading that comes with the end of another semester. Anything happen while I was gone?

HA! Look, there is really no point in me commenting here about the Comey firing, because you have already read all the stories about the parallels to Watergate. Here’s a good run-down of what some top historians have been saying about it on social media. Otherwise, I’ll spare you and just move on . . .

WGN’s Underground wrapped up its second season last night. I have not commented much since the season began (except on that awesome episode that was exclusively dedicated to a Harriet Tubman speech), and that is largely because I have struggled with how I feel about it. On the one hand, I like that it developed the growing rift in the abolitionist movement over the more violent tactics and fanaticism of John Brown, and it seems that a third season of the show will depict the Harper’s Ferry Raid. Further, if my Twitter feed is an indication, the show is becoming increasingly beloved by people who are excited that we have a pop cultural depiction of the Antebellum era that features an empowered slave community. On the other hand, as I have expressed many times before, I think that this recent pop cultural trend toward focusing on violent resistance is problematic, because it does a disservice to the overwhelming majority of the enslaved that resisted the complete control of their lives in more subtle and realistic ways (Mercy Street was far superior in depicting this). This season of Underground even featured a ridiculous scene straight out of Django Unchained, in which our heroes brought down an entire planation home in a fiery explosion and then made it from Georgia all the way back to Ohio with apparent ease. Ugh. I also noticed a strong unevenness in the episodes, which I am chalking up to disparity in the quality of direction. And what was with that scene in which Harriet Tubman encouraged our heroes to rob a church of its tithes? Further, Tubman’s near constant presence in Ohio this season is not historically accurate. And last night our heroes got into a full-scale battle with a Kentucky militia unit (or perhaps they were just slave patrollers) and yet they too escaped unscathed back into Ohio. About the only realistic thing that happened in the last episode was that our heroes that were left behind in Ohio (while the others were in KY) all got captured. (Setting up a cliff hanger).  Still, I can’t get too down on a show that has so many people looking at the enslaved with new eyes (delivering a powerful blow to the Lost Cause), and which appears to be headed toward the immediate events that led to the Civil War. Stay tuned for season three!

And speaking of the Civil War: The Jefferson Davis statue in New Orleans finally came down, and I love how Kevin Levin over on Civil War Memory pointed out that it appears that Davis has once again been hauled away wearing a skirt. Haha. Kidding aside though, my sentiments about these removals are on record (I am against it, but it is a local decision and is NOT “erasing” history), but when I see a video like this, (warning: rough language) I can’t help but feel they are doing the right thing.

And what the heck is this? Colonial Williamsburg has added Carly Fiorina to its Board of Trustees (yes, that Carly Fiorina). Does this mean the interpretation there (which is already changing drastically and in questionable ways) will become more conservative and/or politicized? Is she just trying to get more engrained in the Virginia community to test the waters for a senate run? Or does it mean nothing? Stay tuned.

Some humble musings from a professional historian: Did Trump “radicalize” me?

professor.jpg

“Trump made you a blogger.”

My friend and fellow professional historian, Christian McWhirter, said that to me a few months back, and I am reminded of it today because of a New Republic article that has been making the rounds on the internet. It claims that Trump’s ignorance of basic US history has “radicalized” historians. It is an interesting and short piece, so I encourage everyone to read it.

I am not sure exactly what they mean by “radicalized,” but the context suggests it means that historians have become more publicly vocal about their views on current politics. And more active in the resistance to Trump. Of course many of us spoke out before he was elected, and the fact that he won has many of us wondering if people even listen to historians, or perhaps even that our railing against him only actually made people love him more. (Probably so).

I have discussed this here before, but one of my biggest goals as a college educator was to never let my political leanings become clear to students. Most of us have had the experience of sitting in a college class, as a professor has used his captive audience as a chance to spew out political diatribes. I recall, for example, taking a course on Gilded Age America, but having to endure a professor that spent well over 50% of our class time holding forth on modern politics and all the problems he had with a current governor. I didn’t always disagree with him, but I got increasingly angry because I wanted to study the Gilded Age, not his political opinions about current events.

As a result of such experiences, when I began teaching college in the late 90s I dedicated myself to never letting my politics shape my lectures in an obvious way. Not only because it would be more fair to my students, but also because it would make my lectures more objective. I am a firm believer that one of the most important things that studying history does is create open-mindedness, forcing students to look at things from different perspectives than their own. I felt (and still feel) that having clear political leanings in my lectures only hinders that goal, as students will only become defensive (and thus close-minded) about their beliefs if they feel the professor is trying to indoctrinate them with a particular party’s political agenda.

Thus my goal has always been to remain as objective as possible, with the goal that students would actually have a hard time figuring out my personal political sympathies. When asked by students if I am a Republican or a Democrat, I’ve always refused to answer. If I can create a classroom environment in which a student’s preconceived political leanings are challenged, whether they are a Republican or Democrat, I feel I have done my job. I think I have a history of being successful in that regard.

Further, when I started this “blog,” I never intended it to include long musings like this. I did not have time for it and felt no one would be interested anyway. My sole purpose was to simply post links to history related stories and blogs that I found interesting, share a comment or two, and encourage other folks to check them out. And I most certainly did not want to fill it with political diatribes. I still prefer it to be that way, and try to stick to that format.

Thus both here and in classes, I never intended to comment extensively on current political events. But yes, Trump changed that.

During the election, I felt he presented such a grave danger to our country that I had to publicly speak out, using my position in the classroom to demonstrate the danger of his ideas and his utter lack of preparation and qualifications for the job. Trump began to make regular appearances in my lectures, whenever a particular historical topic seemed to shed light on his shortcomings (which turned out to be numerous). I was uncomfortable with this, and still am, but it increasingly feels like a duty.

I have gotten some small blow-back from students, and have heard one or two grumbling about my Trump attacks. To counter such sentiments, I have increasingly argued that much of his policies are not mainstream Republican ones (especially foreign and trade polices), pointing out this is one of the big reasons that the Republican leadership tried so hard to derail his candidacy. You don’t have to be a Democrat to be concerned about this buffoon (just ask John McCain or Lindsey Graham).

And this carried over to my blog. If you have spent anytime here, you know that my friend Christian is right. Trump did indeed turn me into a more traditional blogger, as I find it near impossible not to unleash diatribes like this one whenever sharing a story involving him.

Part of me despises Trump for causing these changes to my classroom and this blog, but on the other hand, is this not exactly the role that historians should play? Again, I think that our most important work is to help encourage and develop the open-mindedness that is so sorely lacking in our world. How can an historian do that if they stay quiet when they hear Trump making asinine, untruthful, and historically ignorant comments?

Trump wants “truth” to be as he defines it, and anything that challenges that is “fake.” Isn’t that pretty much the definition of close-minded?

Thus if I were to just keep quiet about Trump in my classrooms and here on this blog, would it not in the end work against my own personal dedication to encourage and promote open-mindedness? I think so.

Sadly, however, I have to wonder how much good my efforts actually do, considering that Trump’s true believers listen intently to Fox News every night. There they are told that anyone that disagrees with Trump is a leftist radical, a “snowflake,” or a pompous self-important liberal. No, actually, that is not the case, and I am proof of it.

Disgraced political hack Bill O’Reilly took to Twitter and his podcast last night to explain to his followers how wrong American historians are about Trump’s recent comments on Andrew Jackson and the Civil War. Despite the fact that we make the study of both those things our professional career, knowing the history and the sources far more than he likely ever will,  he labeled us “morons.”

I am more than certain that his and Trump’s folks believe that to be true, despite our academic pedigree, or most likely because of it.  So why listen to a well educated professor? Bill O’Reilly says the president is right, so they have to be wrong.

Thus when I open my mouth in class to criticize Trump, even from a historical perspective, I am sure that my most ardent Trump supporting students only dismiss it as the inaccurate rantings of a liberal professor. The enemy.

In the past I would never have been someone you or anyone else would ever see as a radical (or a liberal). And in fact I would have run from such a label.

So does that mean that Trump has turned me into a “radical?” Sadly, in the era of Trump and Fox News, adherence to basic facts, objectivity, and open-mindedness have come to be seen as just that.  In a world of closed minds, objectivity is now radical.

So be it.  I’m a radical.

And as radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed during the presidency of slaveholder Andrew Jackson, “I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard.”

Thoughts on Trump, Jackson, the Civil War, slavery, and autocracy

18275120_1827256377288181_864178033832641531_n.jpg

Oh, Donald.

As I am sure you are aware by now, the so-called president opened his mouth again about American history, and demonstrated his utter and total ignorance of it.  In case you’ve not seen it yet, here is what he said:

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Just for fun, let’s break down how every sentence in that diatribe reveals ignorance in more ways than one.

1. “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” This shows that, unlike what others have been saying, Trump does know that Jackson was not around for the Civil War, so let’s be fair to him in this regard. However, the problem is the suggestion that the Civil War could have been averted by a stronger leader. So this means that:  a) Trump thinks Jackson was a better president than Lincoln, and B) that a strong leader would have been able to forge a compromise. The first point needs no comment, because it’s so patently absurd (and I doubt that even the people at The Hermitage would agree with Trump on that score). On the second point, it is not altogether clear what Jackson would have done about secession in 1861. On the one hand, in the Nullification Crisis he did make it clear that he felt that secession was the essence of anarchy, because democracy could not work if secession was a legitimate recourse for the minority when the majority ruled against them. This was precisely Lincoln’s stance on it, and is why he decided he could not let the South go when they seceded. Thus, the Civil War. On the other hand, Jackson’s wealth and elite status was dependent on slavery, so he might have decided that, like the South’s leaders, the preservation of slavery required secession. and thus, the Civil War. So whichever way Jackson went on it, you still get the Civil War.

Oh, but perhaps Trump meant that Jackson would have been able to forge a compromise. An entire generation of better politicians than Jackson repeatedly forged compromises on the slave issue, but eventually the Republican Party was born from the stance that compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion was no longer desirable, lest the “slave power” take over the government and the country. But even after they won the presidency on that platform (you know, with Lincoln, the guy Trump thinks most people don’t realize was a Republican), efforts at compromise continued in Congress (with Lincoln’s blessings), all failing to avert war. What makes Trump think Jackson could have worked something out when better men than him failed? Jackson is not exactly a man that is renowned for his ability to compromise, hence his defiance of the system of checks and balances in regards to Indian removal, and his killing of the national bank. Oh, and his proposed solution for the Nullification Crisis (more on that later), was to hang a U.S. Senator by the neck until dead. Yes, he had just the temperament the country needed in the volatile secession crisis.

2. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.”  Yes, indeed he was a very tough person, surviving wars, duels, and a bullet lodged in his back. But a big heart? Oh, so many ways we could smash this assertion, but I’ll settle on the two most obvious. 1) The Cherokee Indians helped Jackson win his first major victory at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, and he even had an adopted Cherokee son. Yet he betrayed them (in defiance of the Supreme Court), by forcefully removing them from their lands via a military process that led to the death of thousands. 2) His hunting down of runaway slaves and fondness for the lash are well documented. Wow, what a tender sweetheart.

3. “And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.'” The main way that this statement has been attacked is by pointing out that Jackson could not have seen what was happening in regards to the Civil War, because he was not around by then. But, as indicated above, I think Trump knows that. So he must be referring to one of two things here, or both: 1) the growing sectionalism of the country even during Jackson’s time, or 2) the Nullification Crisis. In either case, Jackson’s presidency and temperament in fact inflamed both situations.  Again, there are many ways to attack this, but I will stick to just two. First, by alienating the previously nationalistic John C. Calhoun from his administration, Jackson in many ways created the sectionalized John C. Calhoun that worked to unite Southerners in defense of their own best interest. The Nullification Crisis was one product of this and was indeed a precursor to the Civil War. It ended via a compromise that prevented a war against the state of South Carolina. Perhaps this is why Trump believes Jackson could have prevented a Civil War. But think about this second point: Had Jackson refused to allow a compromise, and had stomped South Carolina into submission when it threatened secession, perhaps the South would have never threatened secession later over the slave issue. It was Calhoun’s argument and demonstration of the effectiveness of the secession threat that proved its power to force federal concessions. So does Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis not actually in some way play a role in the South’s later secession that led to the Civil War? Hmm, maybe a stretch, but things to consider, Donald.

4. “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” Well, actually, if Donald would go down to the Library of Congress (or maybe just look around the White House, I am sure there are some good history books laying around), he might find that more books have written about this, and more historians have worked on this, than just about any other American history topic. It is also a question that students all across the country are confronted with in their basic US history classes from elementary school until college. In fact, I dare say many of them wrote essays on it just today on final exams (mine did). So this one statement shows that Trump is clueless about what historians do and of what gets taught in schools. He could just ask his son, I bet he just studied the Civil War this year in that expensive Manhattan private school that Trump is keeping him in at the expense of millions of dollars each day to the American taxpayer (in security costs). But that’s another topic.

5. “Why could that one not have been worked out?” I could go into a whole lecture here about the causes of the Civil War, but the funny thing about this is that it comes from a man that has just recently admitted he thought the job of president was going to be easier than it is, and who has expressed frustration that he has not been able to even work his legislation through a Congress controlled by his own party.  Oh, and how about that North Korea thing? You tell me, Donald, why is it so hard to work things out?

But there are two bigger things to consider here.

Let’s say that Jackson did work it out, and there was no Civil War. Guess what Donald, that means that slavery would not have been destroyed (because any compromise would have had to ensure the survival of slavery in the southern states at the very least). That means that four million people would have remained in bondage (subject to the brutalization of southern slave masters like Andrew Jackson). Trump has recently praised Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass. Perhaps he should consider what their thoughts would be on a compromised settlement that would have averted the Civil War, leaving slavery intact. (Maybe he could call Douglass and asks, since he seems to think he is still alive). Was there really “no reason for this?”

And then there is this:  These statements from the president are not just ignorant and funny, they are frightening from several different perspectives. We have a man that repeatedly demonstrates he is absolutely clueless about his own nation’s history. Which is scary enough, considering how important history is for understanding our world and for making crucial decisions while leading it. Almost all of our presidents have been history buffs, and some of them, like Theodore Roosevelt, were historians themselves.  But this is also a man that has recently asserted that congressional rules are “archaic” because they require so many check and balance hoops to navigate (which protect the minority from majority tyranny), and who also seems to be considering a proposed challenge to the 1st amendment. Couple those things with these new statements about Jackson which reveal Trump (who’s presidential hero is a man that defied the system of checks and balances) thinks that powerful leaders can somehow singlehandledly bend events to their will, and this all once again points to the fact that the so-called president apparently fantasizes about autocracy.

THAT is what is scary about this Jackson/Civil War statement. And what we can’t let get lost as we continue to laugh at, criticize, and defy this presidency.

Do we need to re-write American history?; NOLA’s mayor on monument removal; Trump’s proposed tax cut is not the largest in U.S. history, but perhaps the opposition movement he spawned is

landscape-1493086970-cms-excavation-9.jpg

Could this find cause a major re-write of American history?

OK, this could potentially be huge find, or not. Remember how last year we got word that the path that we have always believed the first humans took across the “land bridge” is probably inaccurate? Well, this new development would shake things up even more than that. Researchers have discovered what they believe is stunning evidence that humans were in North America as early as 130,000 years ago (that is about 100,000 years sooner than is generally accepted). If this is true, how did they get here?  (Watercraft??) Others are very skeptical, to say the least. But this is definitely interesting, and could radically change those first lectures that teachers and professors all over the country give on the first day of a US history class!

More on monuments: The Washington Post has a good interview with the mayor of New Orleans about their ongoing project to remove monuments in the city. Two best quotes: ” “You can’t change history. Taking down a monument doesn’t change history.” And “We ought to be able to look back on [the Civil War] … and say, ‘You know what, the Confederacy was wrong.” Amen, brother.

Trump’s tax cut is not the “largest in history,” as he claims. Although it would be in the top three. The problem? It would cause the national debt to become the largest in history, that no amount of economic growth would fix.

But take heart, Donald! There is one way that you have made history in your first 100 days in office, and that is the historically unprecedented protests, marches, and general civic activism that your presidency has spawned. (And just a reminder, on the day after the election I predicted this was coming , and that prediction was based solely on the things I heard my millennial college students say that day when we discussed Trump’s victory. I think there is a lesson there about listening to the young).

 

I promise you, Confederate history is NOT being erased; Oh, and that Declaration of Independence is NOT an “original.”

APTOPIX_Confederate_Statues_New_Orleans_13411.jpg-d372c.jpg

Oh my gosh! Look at that man erasing history! NOT.

Quick thoughts on monuments in the news:

So, New Orleans has begun the process of taking down monuments, starting with one that is NOT a Confederate monument (no matter how it has been labeled as such by the media). They are set to remove three others that ARE Confederate monuments in the coming days. I really don’t have the desire to comment much on these types of removals, because I think I have made my position on this very clear in the past.  Simply put, I prefer contextualization and/or counter monuments (which is a powerful way of confronting and challenging the iconography of previous generations in a way that is in itself educational) instead of removal. Yep, you heard me right. I do not think removal is the best way to deal with this.

BUT removing them is NOT “erasing history,” it is an attempt to be honest about it. If I hear or read another person claiming this is an attempt to erase history, I am going to have a full on conniption fit. As I have seen other historians say, don’t worry folks, we are not going to be letting anyone suddenly forget what the Confederacy was and what it stood for, I promise you that. It is what me and a great number of other people are paid to do, and we do it passionately. Research and teaching about the history of the southern confederacy and the Civil War isn’t going anywhere, monuments or no monuments.

So don’t worry, hundreds of Civil War books are going to keep coming out every year, the Civil War is still going to get taught in class, more and more battlefield land is going to be preserved (which has only increased in recent years), and historians are going to keep increasingly getting involved in public history and on social media.

But you say, it is erasing older interpretations about the Confederacy and the Civil War, and replacing them with ones you don’t agree with. Nope. We may be correcting/challenging older interpretations, but we aren’t  erasing them. The fact that people once interpreted the Civil War in the ways reflected in the monuments is not going away either. It too is part of the story, and I can again promise you that historians are not going to let anyone forget how the Civil War used to be interpreted. This is called “historiography,” and every professional historian is trained in it. You can’t be a good historian without learning how events have been interpreted by others, and how that has evolved over time. In fact, the removal of these monuments only adds to the story that historians tell about the Confederacy and the Civil War. In essence, it is Confederate history continuing to be made today. The removals are now part of a story that will never be erased. So please just stop saying that history is being erased. Just stop it, please.

But as to the removals, regardless of mine or anyone else’s opinions, these decisions are best left to local communities that have the right to commemorate or not commemorate whatever they want to. Yet there are two things I find funny/hypocritical in the nationwide reaction to New Orleans’ decision. 1) We hear people say that today’s Trump protestors need to “get over it” and move on. Yet they seem to be the most vocal against these removals, which is ironic given that the placement of the monuments themselves is the product of people who couldn’t “get over” their loss in the war, and their attempt to reframe what it was all about. (The “Lost Cause.”) And 2) it seems that Republicans are the most vocal against these removals (like this clown pretending to be a southerner and running for governor of Virginia), which is ironic because they are supposedly the champions of letting state and local governments do most of our governing. So shouldn’t we let local governments/communities make their own choices about these monuments? I’m just calling for some consistency,  . . . again.

And while we are on the Lost Cause, yesterday was “Confederate Memorial Day” here in Alabama. Ugh. But I take it as a sign of progress that the ceremony marking the day at our state capitol building was attended by a whopping 150 or so people. Nice. It is a good thing we have these people around to remind us of the Confederacy, since its history would apparently just disappear if they weren’t here to remind us.

Lastly, and on a different subject: Another news story that is all over the place is that a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence has been discovered in a British archive. Unfortunately, the story is getting blown out of proportion and/or misunderstood by people that are apparently inspired by that stupid Nicholas Cage movie. My local news got it all wrong last night, as has been the case all over social media. This is not an unknown second “original” copy of the Declaration. It is a handwritten copy that was made on parchment in the 1780s, which is rare indeed, but not exactly an original and/or something that should set off conspiracy theories. Researchers believe it was commissioned by James Wilson (who was the signer that was treated so poorly and portrayed so inaccurately in the otherwise awesome musical 1776). How did it wind up in Britain? That seems to be mostly a mystery.

Philly’s new American Revolution museum opens; More big finds in Egypt; Trump’s history shortcomings bite him again; Dana Carvey’s history lesson on “maniac” presidents

066A7693bc copy.jpg

Just a few odds and ends on a Friday:

Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution opened this week with great fanfare and high profile speakers, including David McCullough. It appears that the new institution is strongly dedicated to telling an inclusive story, which sounds awesome, unless you are this guy. (As previously noted, I plan to be there next month, so my own review is forthcoming).

This week we got more news of big discoveries in Egypt, this time of a tomb containing eight mummies and thousands of carved figurines. The sarcophagi are covered with intricate and colorful drawings in red, blue, black, green and yellow and are well-preserved. Check out the photos. 

Trump’s ignorance of history has gotten him into trouble again, this time with our South Korean allies. (I’ll give him credit though, I heard him say something historically accurate today for a change when he acknowledged that as far as secretaries of the treasury go,  Hamilton would be a tough one to beat for best ever. You are correct, sir. Don’t get used to it).

And to leave you with a laugh: Did you see Dana Carvey on Conan last night? The man has still got it. He unleashed a string of his presidential impersonations, arguing that Trump is not the first “maniac” to inhabit the White House. Best bits: Trump bragging about our “tremendous” nuclear war and the size of our bomb bunkers, and what Nixon would have been like on Twitter. Enjoy.

 

Why Mercy Street is too important to let die

Mercy-Street-Show-Image.jpg

Well, today I am mainly posting just one thing, written by me, but I hope that you don’t see it as self serving. Smithsonian Magazine has graciously agreed to help add their weight behind my plea for the saving of PBS’s Mercy Street. In the article I wrote for them I did a brief review of the way that the American Civil War has historically been portrayed on film and television, concluding that Mercy Street was becoming our most important pop cultural depiction of the American Civil War, and thus is too important a show to let die. I hope you’ll give it a read and help share it on social media.

(And thanks to rockstar historian Megan Kate Nelson for helping edit the piece so I could make my best plea).

The show is about to premiere in the UK, one of its creators, Lisa Q. Wolfinger just won a Gracie Award for her production of the show,  and we’ve recently gotten some indication that she has had meetings with some cable networks about possibly saving the show.

Obviously, I am very passionate about this, so please share the article on your social media and lets #SaveMercyStreet.

Last of the Doolittle raiders; new info about allied knowledge of the Holocaust; CNN’s explores the “soundtrack” of history; Georgetown makes amends

doolittle-raid-crew-1-1200x800-ts600.jpg

Today is the 75th anniversary of WII’s “Doolittle Raid.” The men that participated in the daring bombing raid over Tokyo in early 1942 have been gathering yearly since 1946 to toast each other and the men that are no longer with us. This year, there was only one left. Check out this story about the raid, the tradition (including their toasting goblets), and the 101 year-old veteran who is now their last man standing.

We’ve also got some of those cool newly colorized pics of the Doolittle raiders.

Well, this just changed one aspect of how I deliver one particular lecture (ironically one that I just presented today in my Western Civ class). Newly accessed United Nations documents reveal that the WWII allies knew about the mass murders in the concentration camps (or “Holocaust Centers”) earlier than is generally assumed. (Although, this article makes the mistake of claiming that December of 1942  is “two-and-a-half years earlier than is generally assumed.” Um, no. I guess the key phrase here is “generally assumed” but 2.5 years is stretching the significance of the find.)

CNN has another original series coming up, debuting on Thursday. Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History “explores seminal moments in history by illuminating how music played an integral role in celebrating, criticizing and amplifying these seismic events.” Sounds great, but lest we get too excited, the list of events are all only recent American history, with the oldest events taking place in the late 1960s. I was pretty disappointed with CNN’s last series, The History of Comedy, as it wasn’t much more than current comedians sitting around discussing their favorites and how they influenced them.  I hope to see more historians involved in this project, as well as musicologists. Let’s see how it goes.

As you know, Georgetown University has recently acknowledged that their institution was financially saved in the early 1800s by the sale of over 200 slaves. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a conference in the Louisiana town where most of the slaves were brought to after the sale. Now we learn that the university brought the descendants to campus for a ceremony honoring the victims, recognizing their forced sacrifice that saved the institution, and apologizing for the grievous deed that was ironically done by Jesuit priests. Georgetown has announced they they are going to give preferential admissions treatment to these descendants, the same as to the children of alumni. Discussions are also underway for an on-campus memorial and a scholarship program. Great ideas.

And speaking of universities and the enslaved . . . today is the birthday of my beloved University of Alabama. I’m glad to see that this short news blurb makes room for mentioning the enslaved laborers that played a large role in the early construction of the university’s buildings. As at many southern colleges and universities, research on the role of enslaved peoples on campus is pretty new and “hot” right now, and it is interesting to see how this is playing out at institutions around the country: from building name changes, to removal of monuments, to ceremonies and etc.

A couple of historical houses in the news; Prestigious award for PBS’s Mercy Street; Glenn Beck wants to prepare students to battle their college history profs; History of the White House Easter egg hunt

9D17C1B9-7CF8-461C-A764-1CB7F1B18E10_cx0_cy7_cw0_w1023_r1_s.jpg

A few quickies on a Good Friday afternoon:

Did you see the awesome story about a woman that recently visited the house that she was born in, as it is now on display in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture? The institution has it on display because it was originally built in 1853 as a slave cabin on Edisto Island, South Carolina. 86 year old Isabell Leggett Lucas was born in it and lived there with 10 other family members until she was 19 years old. Be sure to watch the video linked above to see her and her family visiting the museum!

And speaking of historic homes, but in a less inspiring story: The Shaifer House just outside of Port Gibson, Mississippi was recently pillaged by criminals that were apparently after the house’s structural beams, as well as bricks. What the heck?? This site is one of the most pristine and isolated locations associated with a Civil War military campaign. It is pretty difficult to get to, as it is on an unpaved dirt road that turns into a major mud bog after heavy rains (Trust me, I know. Several years ago some friends and I did a rather stupid thing and drove down the thickly mudded road in my Honda Accord after a heavy rain, even though we had been warned by locals not to risk it. Luckily we made it there and out, but it was touch and go. Bad decision, great memory). Built in 1823, it is along the historic road that Grant’s troops took after they landed south of Vicksburg, and the site of the first rebel resistance they faced as they marched northeast toward Jackson, with a view of  swinging back west and thus taking Vicksburg from the east. It was also the site of a Union hospital after the battle. It is a lovely historic site and a real treasure that is basically untouched by the modern era, and one of those places where you can really feel like you’ve taken a time-machine. That it is difficult to reach makes it all the more of a rewarding experience to visit. The people that did this need to be strung up by their entrails. If you have any info that might lead to an arrest, please share!

Mercy Street is not dead yet. A couple of weeks ago, show creator and producer Lisa Q. Wolfinger won a prestigious Gracie Award for producing the show (the award is named after the incomparable Gracie Allen), which celebrates and honors “programming created for women, by women, and about women.” Now one of Wolfinger’s hometown news channels has done a segment on her award and Mercy Street, so check out the interesting interview here. We also learn that she is busy meeting with cable executives to try and save the show. (As I have mentioned before, I have my own plea for saving the show that will appear soon on a higher profile site than my blog, so continue to stay tuned). #SaveMercyStreet.

Oh goodness, Glenn Beck and David Barton are at it again, trying to peddle their fake history nonsense. They have started a two week program, where for $375 students can get armed with everything they need to “set their ignorant professors straight on the ‘real’ history of America.” Beck promises, “Your kids will be challenged to go and find the documents to make the cases that they’re most likely going to have to make in college with their professors. I guarantee you the professors at college will have the wrong answer.” Um, bring it. You remember Glenn Beck, right? He is the guy that was such a nutcase that he got kicked off of Fox News, and didn’t even have to sexually harass someone to get fired. (Oh wait, do you get fired for that on Fox News? Depends on your ratings, I guess).

We will be treated to yet another White House Lawn easter egg hunt on Monday, but how did this tradition get started? Smithsonian has the answer.