Reflections on Interpreting Slavery and Freedom

One of the main problems public historians encounter when interpreting slavery and freedom with and in the public is a collision with collective memory and/or group identity. Presently the national collective memory and group identity around both slavery and freedom is conventionally categorized and at times idolized, and does not provide a multi-directional  narrative sharing stories and  connections between various groups, locations or situations. Freedom in particular provides a cornerstone in American collective identity, and slavery, a painful history narrative, acts as a barrier, establishing group identity between the “us” and “them” for both racial and regional groups. When public historians present interpretations or attempt to expand upon collective memory by providing an increased narrative, they often encounter confusion, closed-mindedness and on occasion, anger at the obscuring of public understandings.

Numerous historical locations across the United States, have experienced success with the public presenting narratives on slavery and freedom, but segregate them to specific, “appropriate” locations or times on the tour or on a separate tour such Monticello’s Mulberry Row in Virginia and The President’s House site in Philadelphia. This seems like a compromise, it provides public historians the ability to tell the story while respecting the conventionally categorized collective identity. At Monticello in particular, it allows the story of Thomas Jefferson, as a slave owner, owning about 200 slaves in a typical year, not to overshadow that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.

Monticello reflected Photographer: Matt KozlowskiMonticello reflected Photographer: Matt Kozlowski

At The President’s House, the tour, is isolated from that of the Liberty Bell, and explores the implications of liberty evolving at the birth of the nation. This allows the National Park Service to discuss the role of slavery while still maintaining a separation from the ideals of liberty and freedom discussed within Liberty Bell Center. While this process is successful, it is only successful at reinforcing popular collective memory and group identities in the public.

“Reopening a House That’s Still Divided” image by Sabina Louise Pierce for The New York Times

Both of these sites act as strong cornerstones in the American National identity and this separation almost protects the idolized understandings of freedom, while simultaneously reinforcing the barriers between the “us” and “them.” The narratives lack a multi-directional  approach, and do not incorporate the histories and memories of “others,” together in the same context. Instead, the interpretations of slavery and freedom at each location remain separate narratives; “us” and “them,” black and white, no grey.

To find true success with these topics, I feel we as public historians must build multi-directional  interpretations, combining shared histories, stories and memories from various groups to build a rounded interpretation. Additionally, I feel we can increase public receptiveness by presenting interpretations as narrative tales, connecting characters and plots into the overarching themes of slavery and freedom. Stories are far more engaging than traditional chronological sequencing that occurs at most historic sites and in historic narratives. Furthermore, taking advantage of the digital age and instant information era, public historians can utilize the web to their advantage, providing shorter narratives at a time, and physically linking the connections to different people, locations or places. While some of this is already occurring on history websites and blogs, I feel we have the ability to improve the narrative, inspiring our audience and building connections utilizing the multi-directional  approach. Not only incorporating the stories of “us” and “them,” and black and white, to make grey but also painting a narrative rainbow building connections between slavery, freedom and 21st century concerns such as genocide, global racism and LGBTQ equality.

Source: Reflections on Interpreting Slavery and Freedom

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