Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Walk a Mile: The Requirement of Reflecting and Observing

"I know the American people. They are an impulsive people, impatient of delay, clamorous for change, and often look for results out of all proportion to the means employed in attaining them."

This might sound like something you would hear somebody say today, especially in light of how technology has changed expectations and interactions with people. Instant! We expect instant. We expect now. This quote might lead you to believe that I am citing a commentator on a news program or an editorial page of a newspaper, especially considering this year of elections. 

Would it surprise you, then, to learn that these words were spoken in 1864 by one Mr. Frederick Douglass in a speech he made? Do you hear how his words still ring true nearly 150 years later? 

Reflecting on the "Slave for a Day" event that I wrote about yesterday, I wondered about social media's role in how the event would be received. People could instantaneously retweet a link and post a less-than-140-character thought and go about their day. I almost expected more conversation regarding the event in other venues, news sources, blogs, etc. I wonder if the Twitter allowed for thoughts to generate collectively while simultaneously granting a mechanism for steam to be released before it was built up (and exploded)? It also provided a way for park managers, public historians, and other interested individuals to see how the public reacted to the announcement. I found a few blogs or other digital publications on it. This article comments that "we'll all laugh about this some day," (the website is called "Mommyish" and seems to be directed towards those with children, though the article itself contains a video with explicit language).  This article serves more as a news piece, including a list of reader comments. This post pushes the information to another level, encouraging readers to read some primary source material found in the WPA slave narratives. 

The park website reflects some changes in
the program's announcement.
I said I would be interested in how the park responded, even silently wondering if they would cancel the program. I am glad they didn't outright cancel the program, rather, they have changed the name (and tone) of the event to "Walk a Mile, a Minute in their Footsteps." Word choice (and punctuation choice) has made a difference in the type of program presented. I wish I could go and experience the program for myself; I wish everybody who made a comment about the event (or even had a thought!) could have at least the opportunity to see the program for themselves before evaluating the content. We are a very quick generation to assess and pass judgement, sometimes not providing much time for analysis. "[I]mplusive... impatient... clamorous for change..."

Slavery is a painful aspect of American history and it will not go away. Even if we ignore it, slavery will still stand as a part of American history (and does not go away!). Our nation at its establishment started as an experiment in freedom. Our nation's forced bondage of people from Africa in these United States served as a mockery of that freedom. Our nation tore itself apart as a means to define this experiment in freedom. Our nation has tripped on itself countless times in the process of this experiment in freedom. Indeed, our nation still struggles with this experiment in freedom. 

If the goal of interpretation is to provoke thought, staff at Hampton National Historical Site have already done that. Buds of thought sparked by the event posting revealed themselves very specifically through social media (some sprouting even further with the encouragement for others to continue reading). This isn't over! We still have more to think about, to read, to experience, and to discuss. This program will not be the last to stir up thoughts, engage hearts, provoke minds... and I see that as a good thing.

I'll close with Mr. Douglass

"We know and consider that a nation is not born in a day. We know that large bodies move slowly—and often seem to move thus when, could we perceive their actual velocity, we should be astonished at its greatness. A great battle lost or won is easily described, understood and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it."

*Click here to read Frederick Douglass's full speech "The Mission of War." 

**As a reminder, these thoughts are completely my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

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