Monday, October 19, 2009

Life Is Not Black & White.

SLAVES LIVED ON THE grounds now occupied by the Liberty Bell pavilion and other national park space between Market and Chestnut streets.

Should that fact be integrated into the stories told inside the pavilion and other area historic sites? Of course! Would the sin of slavery ruin the narrative symbolism of the Liberty Bell? Who cares?

History is written by the victors
, for certain, but does history have to be full of winners and losers? Can't we simply throw out ideas and let people interpret them on their own? Do historians have to be such control freaks? Does the National Park Service have to sell America as the land of heroes all the time?

I understand that slavery in America is a touchy subject. While I found Horton and Horton, the editors of Slavery and Public History, to be a bit condescending, I see their point. Appreciating how slavery shaped the country is relevant, something that deserves to be known. But the recognition of that past can be awkward. We've ignored it for so long.

How should museums and historians handle slavery?

Here's my advice: Deal with it.

We weren't always angels? I'm shocked! Shocked, I tell you. Whatever. Add it to the script and move on. Own your past, I say, for better or worse.

Perhaps I feel removed from the controversy since the majority of my family couldn't have been involved in America's dirty past. Half my family was in Japan (that's my grandfather with friends in the image at left), and a quarter were in Ireland. That leaves a little Pennsylvania Dutch (those are my great grandparents below) but that part of my family has generally been poor, rural folks (my father actually had an outhouse when he was a child).

I found some of the controversies in the book to be rather empty. The Library of Congress shows images of plantation life? An Abraham Lincoln statue in Richmond? Brown University was funded by the slave trade? Get over it already.

I just don't get it. I'm not saying everyone needs to go all David Letterman or anything, but why not have the conversation about slavery? It doesn't mean that it has to change you. But maybe it will?

Debate the evidence. Don't deny it's existence.

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