Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My "Think" Piece

Over the course of the next four days, I will be attending a training called "Integrating Civil War to Civil Rights: Interpreting the March toward Freedom and Equality." Offered by the National Park Service, the course is long-distance with individuals "attending" from various parks (mostly Civil War or Civil Rights-related). We have been given some pre-course assignments. The first assignment included reading through the essay packet written by a variety of individuals. Our second assignment is "set aside some time to think about what integrating Civil War and Civil Rights interpretation means to you." The two posed questions include, "What do you think will be most challenging?" and "What is most exciting?" The back of the essay packet included some blank pages entitled, "My 'Think' Piece," a place to jot down theses ideas. I am going to use this as my place to write, instead.

First, I am glad we (an inclusive we: interpreters, National Park Service, historic sites, the public) have made the step to contextualize history in a bigger way. History is not just made up of one even after another. Events and perceptions linked in many complex ways together make up the past. The event of the Civil War officially lasted only four years, but its meaning echoed much longer than that (arguably still echoes today). The Civil War "end" at the surrender of Appomatox Court House should really be considered the beginning. The nation tore itself apart, essentially over the questions of what it meant to be America, what it meant to be an American. At the end of the war, the nation continued its journey to answer those questions. The nation still has no easy answers for those questions.

The war proved a catalyst of several major changes in these United States. The end of the war launched a shift in civil rights toward some groups. People of color would now be considered more than property. Amendments were passed, widening the range of those who could vote (although, it did not completely open voting rights for all Americans). However, even an event as significant as a war would not be enough to change everything for the positive. The American Civil War served more as a catalyst.

While I can think of many challenges in interpreting this integration, a few stand out a little more in my mind. First, defining "Civil Rights" will be a challenge. When I say "civil rights" in conversations, often the images that come to people's mind are that of freedom marches, of sit-ins, and of speeches. The Civil Rights Movement (capital C and R) is only a part of civil rights (lower case c and r). What is a civil right? Should we confine our discussion of civil rights specifically to people of color? Should we confine civil rights to just a decade in the middle of the twentieth century? Second, the violence of the American Civil War is easier to swallow for it was "war." The violence committed after the American Civil War towards many people groups is a more difficult thing to grapple with. People were beaten. People were hung. People were raped. People were verbally humiliated and accosted. These things (in the civil rights movement spanning across American history) happened often based entirely on the color of skin. These things happened for decades. While I don't think interpreters should shy away from these events, interpreting inhumanity and injustice is not an easy task. Third, our human nature automatically wants to create "good guys" and "bad guys." We want to victimize and villianize as a way to make sense of a story. An objective look at the past, considering the past "a foreign country" means we take away the labels of "good" and "bad." We should tell the story as a whole.

In the same way I think of many challenges, I can think of many ways this course, its material, and the ideas that will continue beyond the course excite me. First, the course will be a concentration of professionals who have the same interest as me. Not only will I have food for thought, but I will be able to engage others on their viewpoints and how they handle these sorts of things at their park or in their field. Second, one of my personal research interests are of the American Civil War and its meanings. Please don't throw me into the briar patch and make me take that course! Third, I am hoping to continue building my own interpreters "tool box" with ideas and skills I can use to present these ideas in my job. If interpretation is about provocation, this will be an excellent exercise in provoking thought and learning how to provoke thought.

I have been asked before (on more than one occasion and by more than one person) why do you want to study the more painful things of the past (war, violence, racism, etc)? I don't know if you can take an honest look into history without revealing some of the ugliness of human nature (some of that ugliness on vast scales). Ignoring the past only hurts us. Painting a pretty picture of the past also hinders more than helps. We remember the full story as a way of seeing where we have been, how far we have come, and what is in store for our future.

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