MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

July 26, 2017: Talks and Events: The Stowe Prize



[On Tuesday July 25th, I’ll be talking to the Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society on the topic of “Remembering the Salem Witch Trials: The Limits and Possibilities of Public History.” So this week I wanted to highlight five recent talks and events I’ve given or been part of—please share your own experiences in comments!]
On two of the many inspirations I took from Bryan Stevenson’s Hartford remarks.
In early June, I had the great good fortune to attend the 2017 Stowe Prize gala and dinner, where the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center’s semiannual Prize for Writing for Social Justice was presented to Bryan Stevenson for his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. (I’m not sure there could be a more pitch-perfect trifecta of writers, public scholars, and activists than the last three Stowe Prize recipients: Stevenson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Michelle Alexander.) The entire event was one of the most inspiring evenings I’ve ever spent, from the location (in a tent erected between the Stowe Center and the Mark Twain House, in Hartford’s historic Nook Farm area) to every single person with whom I had the chance to chat (such as Emily Waniewski, formerly a Stowe Center staff member who is now the Programming Director for Hartford Performs; or Katherine Kane, the Stowe Center’s tireless Executive Director). But most inspiring of all were Stevenson’s remarks, first in an interview session and then at the dinner itself, and I wanted to highlight here two standout ideas from his comments.
Stevenson spoke at length about two of the topics that are nearest and dearest to my heart: how much Americans do not remember our histories, particularly our darkest ones; and the vital need to counter that trend, collectively and comprehensively. Those two threads are the central subjects of my latest book, about which I had the chance to chat briefly with Stevenson at a reception prior to dinner. But Stevenson engaged more overtly with a side to these topics I hadn’t considered as fully: the accusation that focusing on such dark histories means “blaming” certain Americans for the horrors and oppressions of our past. His answer to that charge was the most clear and powerful I’ve ever heard: he argued that the goal here is not to blame anyone, but rather to liberate everyone. That is, we’re all limited by both these histories and (especially) our inability to remember and grapple with them; and thus if we can truly do those latter things, we will all be freed to move forward into a more unified and hopeful future as a result. I’ve certainly tried to argue for that optimistic, forward-looking goal of these historical engagements, but Stevenson’s emphasis on liberation was a new frame for me, and a hugely compelling and inspiring one. I look forward to incorporating it into my own future!
If that idea of Stevenson’s represented a new angle on a topic I’ve long considered, the other one I want to highlight here was more genuinely new to me. Stevenson was asked in the Q&A portion about whether he supports reparations for African Americans; he said that he does, but his argument for how that controversial idea could be enacted was one I hadn’t quite heard made in this way before. I won’t be able to do full justice to his ideas here, but the short version (which I hope I’m getting right) is that he supports a community building form of reparations, one that would apportion money to cities and communities (such as our host Hartford) and use it to build and strengthen civic resources such as the public schools, housing and neighborhoods, health care and social services, and so on. I grappled in this post with the idea of communal reparations in the form of educational and commemorative projects (which in that case had fallen frustratingly short of the promised support), and in this one with whether and how such ideas might be applied to African American reparations. But I’ll admit that I hadn’t really considered this other option for communal reparations, one that likewise goes beyond payments to individuals but considers a different and more immediate way of supporting and funding community initiatives. As with everything Stevenson said at this wonderful event, this idea gives me a lot to think about, and hope for.
Next event recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Events or experiences you’d highlight? I’d love to hear about them!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

July 25, 2017: Talks and Events: The Gardner Museum



[On Tuesday July 25th, I’ll be talking to the Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society on the topic of “Remembering the Salem Witch Trials: The Limits and Possibilities of Public History.” So this week I wanted to highlight five recent talks and events I’ve given or been part of—please share your own experiences in comments!]
On two reasons to visit—and celebrate—a wonderful local museum.
On June 1st, I had the chance to talk about “Exclusion and Inclusion in American History and Culture” at the Gardner Museum in Gardner, Massachusetts. (Not to be confused with Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.) My talk was pretty similar to the one I gave on the same topics in February at the Monadnock Inn (although it has continued to evolve as I’ve moved into work on the book manuscript, of course), and so I would say many of the same things about the talk that I did in that hyperlinked post. As always, audience questions and thoughts helped me continue to develop and push my ideas, one reason why every talk I’ve ever given has been at least as meaningful for me as (I hope) it has been for the audience. But another reason is that with every talk I’ve ever given I have had the chance to connect with and learn about a new setting and space, and this time was no exception: I had never been inside the Gardner Musem before, and learned a lot about what makes this local museum an exemplary historical site.
I would contend that every town in America has local histories that are both worth exploring in their own right and have a great deal to tell us about American history more broadly; perhaps I’m biased, having lived most of my life in either Virginia or Massachusetts (the two states that most consistently fight for the title of “The Birthplace of America”), but I would bet that the same could be said of towns in any and every state. While local libraries and historical societies can certainly help us remember those histories, no institutions or organizations are better able to do so than local museums, and the Gardner Museum is a great case in point. Gardner is known as the “Chair City of the World” due to its extensive history of furniture manufacturing, and the museum does a wonderful job representing and engaging with the many histories and contexts for that defining attribute. But local museums should also challenge and extend our sense of a town and community, and the Gardner Museum does that on a number of levels, from a small but compelling Civil War collection to a fascinating new exhibit on the many different immigrant communities that have arrived in and helped constitute the town over the centuries. I’ve taught just down the road from Gardner for a dozen years, but I learned far more about the community in my brief time in the museum than I had in all those years at Fitchburg State.
Even the best museums can’t afford to stay static or complacent in our 21st century moment, however. Having had the chance to talk at length with Gardner Museum Coordinator (and talented artist) Marion Knoll before and after my lecture, I can attest that she and the museum are working hard to evolve in technological, digital, and interactive ways. The museum has recently added a compelling UniGuide audio tour to its collections, offering visitors a chance to experience and engage with all of the museum’s items and exhibits, and the histories and stories behind them, far more fully. Marion is also in the process of securing a couple of iPads for the museum, which would both allow all visitors to utilize the audio tour (even if they don’t have smartphones) and will make the addition of other digital and multimedia resources and options possible as well. Balancing the digital and virtual with the material and personal is never easy for any institution, but Marion and the Gardner Museum are working to do so thoughtfully, one more reason to celebrate and support this great museum.
Next event recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Events or experiences you’d highlight? I’d love to hear about them!

Monday, July 24, 2017

July 24, 2017: Talks and Events: Facing History and Ourselves



[On Tuesday July 25th, I’ll be talking to the Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society on the topic of “Remembering the Salem Witch Trials: The Limits and Possibilities of Public History.” So this week I wanted to highlight five recent talks and events I’ve given or been part of—please share your own experiences in comments!]
On two unexpected results of connecting to a wonderful organization.
Earlier this spring, I had the chance to record a podcast for Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO), as part of their new series “What Makes Democracy Work?” FHAO’s global home office is in Brookline, Massachusetts, making them very much part of my local community; but the organization’s lesson plans, resources, and workshops for teachers and educators have achieved nationwide (and even worldwide) recognition and effects (leading FHAO to open ten global offices), making them a truly influential part of our 21st century conversations about history, education, and civic engagement. FHAO is perhaps best known for their truly groundbreaking and crucial work with Holocaust histories and education—it’s my understanding that History and Social Studies educators (especially at the middle school level, but really at every level) have long struggled with how to teach that vital but incredibly dark and complex moment, and that FHAO’s resources and support have fundamentally shifted those conversations for the better. But their American history materials and resources are just as important and inspiring, and I found two unexpected results of connecting my work to theirs (a connection that will continue at one of their courses this summer).
For one thing, the connection helped (well, forced, but in a helpful way) me to think about the histories and stories I was highlighting in entirely new ways. I have been writing and thinking about Quock Walker for many years, usually in this space, but for whatever reason had not connected him at any length to Elizabeth “Bett” Freeman, his fellow Massachusetts slave and the other who (like Walker) used the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution and America’s Revolutionary ideals to argue successfully for freedom and push Massachusetts toward the abolition of slavery. The time requirements for the FHAO podcast—as well as just my own recognition that the one story I had tended to focus on was linked to other stories, and I needed to do my due diligence and investigate and analyze them more cohesively—provided precisely the incentive I needed to think more about Freeman and her story, and then to build an analysis that considered both the two stories individually and (especially) how I wanted to connect them to an argument about these figures making the law and our democracy work for them. Now that connection between Walker and Freeman forms a central part of a chapter of my book in progress, Exclusion & Inclusion: The Battle to Define America. AmericanStudier synchronities for the win!
The other result of my connection to FHAO that I want to highlight is much more preliminary, but also more broadly relevant. In many of their different units and resources, FHAO uses the concepts of bystanders and upstanders—of those who stand by while events like the Holocaust or bullying or other oppressions take place, versus those who stand up and say or do something (with saying just as key as doing, in this frame) about the oppression. While I didn’t bring those terms into my FHAO podcast, it’s fair to say that they could apply—that figures like Theodore Sedgwick, the young Massachusetts lawyer who took on Freeman’s case, or Seth and John Caldwell, the brothers who employed the runaway Walker on their farm and helped him fight his court cases, could be described as upstanders to slavery and its oppressions. But the area to which I’ve really begun connecting those terms since my FHAO link is my own evolving interest in public scholarly writing and work. That is, we’re in the midst of a historical moment that far too fully echoes both some of the worst in history and actions like bullying, and like many of us I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do with the time that has been given me. While of course public scholarly writing is far from the only possible (nor necessarily the most productive) such response, I believe it can be seen as a form of upstanding, and as such an important intervention in these dark times.
Next event recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Events or experiences you’d highlight? I’d love to hear about them!

PPS. My FHAO podcast also inspired me to write about Freeman and Walker for the Washington Post's wonderful new Made by History blog!