Weekly readings: finding a home for difficult pasts

Historical leapfrog is among the themes of this week’s readings. Writing history—whether it’s academic scholarship, family stories, interpretation or preservation of historic sites—involves making choices. You can’t keep everything when crafting a narrative.

Architectural censorship, as explored in an exhibition by Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu, is not merely a matter of aesthetics, but a means to displace undesirable populations in increasingly gentrified urban landscapes. It can also function, particularly in the context of interpreted sites, as a means of erasing particular eras and populations.

Because of the focus upon a particular time period, many Lowell stories go untold. The labor narrative of the Yankee mill girls is ignored in favor of the labor narrative of later nineteenth-century immigrants; more recent immigrant communities sit uncertainly and uncelebrated in a narrative of ongoing progress and assimilation; contemporary issues of globalization, and potentially uncomfortable discussions about visitors’ participation, are referenced obliquely, if at all.

The title of the book edited by James Oliver and Lois E. Horton is Slavery and Public History: race is often too painful and complicated a discussion to have, so talking about slavery can be a more palatable surrogate. Or not so palatable, given the conflicted and conflicting reactions of African Americans, attempts to frame the Confederacy as benignly racist states righters, and institutional unease about legal, financial, and public relations backlash. It’s hard enough to talk about slavery as an actual historical subject*; trying to talk around race by talking about slavery makes for a rather muddled conversation.

You can’t keep everything. You can’t talk about everything. But when there are obvious and persistent gaps in the things you choose to keep and talk about, then there’s a problem.

* Melish’s discussion of academics’ disagreement about the significance of the slave trade in John Brown’s life is a good example.