I am always interested in hearing about the frontline experiences of folks that work as public historians, and I have yet to find a better blog from one of them than that of Nick Sacco. As many of you probably know, the term “slave” has come into disfavor lately, as many argue that it takes away the basic humanity of the peculiar institution’s victims. Using the adjective “enslaved” when discussing these individuals restores their humanity and more accurately conveys that slave status was something forced upon them, not something that was inherit to their humanity. While still using “slave” from time-to-time for the sake of avoiding repetitiveness, I’ve tried to use “enslaved” more frequently in my writing and lectures than in the past, because I believe the argument for its use is very valid. Today on his blog, Nick discusses his use of the word while on the job at a public history site. Most people seem to be welcoming of it (or just keep their dissent to themselves), but he has gotten some blow-back from the type of folks that are prone to yelling about “political correctness” whenever efforts are made to make our history more honest/culturally diverse. As a former park ranger, I know these people well, and as Nick so accurately puts it, their protestations are usually the product of “personal sensitivity, anger, and defensiveness,” which is all the more ironic because those are the very things for which they criticize the “PC crowd.” These are the same people that recently got mad about the decision to put Harriet Tubman on our currency, and yelled about Michele Obama’s daring to mention that the White House was built by slaves. We often hear these folks complain about how people are too sensitive these days and need to stop being offended by everything. Yet, if they are offended by inclusive language and more honest and culturally diverse history, one has to wonder who the overly-sensitive people truly are.
As if I were not already excited enough about the soon-to-open African American History Museum in DC: the cafeteria at the new Smithsonian will be a delicious learning experience of its own, highlighting the role that African Americans have played in the development of American cuisine. Time reports that the cafeteria “is divided geographically, with stations carrying cuisine from the agricultural south, the Creole coast, the northern states and the western range. Each station’s entrées speak to the particular flavors of the region, from the Caribbean-style pepperpot and oyster pan roast to fried catfish po’boy and shrimp and grits.” Oh man, get out of my way.
And speaking of the new museum: The Washington Post has a really good essay from Ken Burns today in which he argues that the new African American history museum “belongs to all of us.” In making his point, he nicely digs a bit into the history of jazz and of baseball, concluding “that we must recognize that the greatest accomplishments of a people have a direct correlation to the life experiences of many, many others.”
I missed this one a few days ago: We’re History has a piece by PhD student Michael McLean in which he defends the Broadway musical Hamilton from the attacks it has received from a few notable historians. I’m a fan of our first treasury secretary, so I’m prone to seeing the author’s point of view, but I think he makes a good case, especially when pointing out that despite its historical inaccuracies and glossings, the musical confronts slavery in a much more honest way than previous pop cultural depictions of the revolution. (McClean also earns my affinity when he blasts that mess of a film, Mel Gibson’s The Patriot).
And speaking of pop culture: My buddy Christian McWhirter is back on his game over on Civil War Pop, as he dissects the classic James Stewart film, Shenandoah. The movie feels a bit dated now, but, as McWhirter points out, when it came out in 1965 in was actually pretty progressive for its time (in a few different ways). I’ve never been a big fan of the movie, but it is a lot better than other Civil War films prior to Glory, (and many of them after!), if for no other reason than that it acknowledged the Confederacy’s true cause and portrayed black Union soldiers. Oh no! American conservative icon Jimmy Stewart was hashing out leftist “politically correct” propaganda in 1965! Imagine that.