How Do We Remember History?

History is something often thought to be over and dead. It is romanticized, it is whitewashed and it is remembered only through rose colored glasses. However, it is the responsibility of historians to preserve the whole of history. It is their responsibility to preserve not only the memories of the founders of this country, but the lives and struggles of all of those that have lived here. An idealized, patriotist historical interpretation does injustice not only to the reality of marginalized groups, but perpetuates class and racial inequalities to this day. Perhaps one of the biggest injustices committed by historians is addressed by Mike Wallace in his book Mickey Mouse History. He acknowledges that history must be interpreted, and by the nature of this it is subject to editing. It is, however, the intentional editing out of marginalized groups that creates an unrepresentative interpretation of reality and perpetuates “class dominance”. This same injustice is seen being defended by the Curator of the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home. After visiting the historic site, Dr. Larry Cebula wrote a letter the the Curator of the museum informing on the historical inaccuracies of the tour and the almost complete exclusion of the history of the slaves that lived on the property. The Curator responded to the letter and defended of the tour’s lack of historical diversity. The disagreement between these historians is summed up well in a question asked in an Inlander article about one of the founders of Spokane, Wa.: “Is removing a name an act of healing, or an act of forgetting?”

Wallace talks about the history of heritage museums and the kinds of ideals that they represented. The two big examples that he gave in his book were the Greenfield Village built by Henry Ford, and Colonial Williamsburg, built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Both of these museum towns were built by wealthy beneficiaries and pioneers in the capitalist system, but called back to very different ideas. Ford’s Greenfield Village celebrated the everyman; It idealized the past while still looking forward to the future. Rockefeller’s Colonial Williamsburg, however, was a monument to the elite. Both towns on the surface seemed to represent a different, encompassing view of history; yet like many similar museums, excluded all traces of slavery from their interpretations. Wallace points out that nearly half the population of the 18th century Williamsburg were black slaves. It wasn’t until well into the 1970’s that Colonial Williamsburg included the history of black slaves living alongside white residents. At that time, however, they still failed to represent the reality of the relationship between blacks and whites.

The exclusion of the reality of slavery is not just a problem of the 1970’s. To this day historians are excluding and selectively interpreting slavery. The Curator of the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home thinly defends slavery’s exclusion from the home’s tour in her response to Dr. Cebula. The Curator starts off with several inflammatory remarks on slavery and then includes an unprofessional aside about ancient Greek slavery practices. The Curator then concludes her defence by saying that it is for the sake of the school children that tour the house. She claims that she has witnessed black school children teased during trips to the museum. She asks then that Dr. Cebula refrain from “bringing into the 21st century all this negativism”.

The question from the Inlander should be asked again: “Is removing a name an act of healing, or an act of forgetting?” Does removing slavery from public history make history more accessible? Is it unwarranted and unwanted negativity when we should be fostering healing and acceptance? No, it absolutely is not. Removing slavery from memory does only to polish the tarnished names of history’s elite. Removing slavery from memory does injustice to the marginalized and erases the struggles that black men and women have faced throughout the entirety of this county’s history. Ignoring slavery and promoting elitist idealism perpetuates class and racial inequalities. It is the utmost responsibility of historians preserve and interpret history for what it was. Not to romanticize or to whitewash.

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4 thoughts on “How Do We Remember History?

  1. Hi Alex,
    I completely agree. I love how well you tied in the question from the Inlander article with our other reading. I think that forgetting and healing are not always the same thing; undercurrents of past hurts can be felt for generations, and ignoring the issue and refusing to talk about it doesn’t fix anything. Excluding controversial topics, especially something that was as widespread and prevalent as slavery, from our discussion of history completley diminishes the potential power that discussion could have on our present and future. We need to confront the reality of our past to move forward.
    Katie

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  2. Wow, I really loved this post and how you focused around the question of healing or forgetting. We definitely need to do our job about informing others about the true history of the past, we can’t lie about what happened or simply exclude what we disagree with. However, I agreed with the curator when it came to trying to keep the school children from teasing each other about their ancestry, although I don’t think omitting slavery was the best solution. Instead she should have tried to educate the children better about the issue of slavery and maybe also throw in a lesson about bullying. Education in all forms, I suppose, is based on trial and error and we can only hope that the curator changes her mind about what the museum should and should not teach in the near future. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your post and can’t wait to read more in the future! -Lauren K.

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    • Alex
      I thought this was a good post. It is very focused and, I think, well articulated. A point of interest for me was when you said, “It is, however, the intentional editing out of marginalized groups that creates an unrepresentative interpretation of reality and perpetuates “class dominance”.” This is undeniably true, especially in instances such as the Baron Von Munchausen Historic House case of intentionally ignoring the topic of slavery. However, I feel this sort of thing is often unintentional. That is not to excuse it, but I feel there are not necessarily always clear cut villains who intentionally choose to leave out whole groups of people in their presentation of history. Often, people are either just misinformed or they only want to think about the things that they relate to.

      Anyway, just some things I’ve been thinking about. Great post!
      – Jonathan

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      • I really love your emphasis on injustice to marginalized groups when someone edits them out of a book or story. They are an essential part to any culture. The quote about clover about is it an “act of healing or forgetting?” provides a controversial topic. That is because the statue can be interpreted many different ways. An analogy Dr. Conlin at EWU had during a lecture was that people will think up anything to support the confederate flag. He gave a long list of examples. Keep up the good work. -Bradley Nicholas Tripp

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