Friday, April 24, 2015

Shifting the Narrative

Yesterday, I bumped into a long-time, long-distance buddy of mine at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. It was serendipity, to say the least; he lives in Maryland and I only found myself at the archives because a school group was late, so I had a little bit of free time. During our short chat, he reminded me that sometimes the most harmful kind of censorship is self-censorship. Honesty moment: sometimes I don't want to share things on here because I am afraid of sharing my own weaknesses or sounding basic or feeling inadequate. I like to think that this is "my space" and I can say what I want, but sometimes, I don't. So with his words in mind, I modified this post that I wrote last week and will share it today:

The National Council on Public History had its annual meeting in Nashville last week (was that just last week??). In many ways, I had been preparing for the conference for nearly a year; the tour company I co-manage sponsored the meeting and had a variety of tours available for attendees. So technically, I was working the conference, though I tried to fit in as much attending as I could. The limited amount of time I had in sessions provoked a variety of thoughts; I have several pages of scrawling ideas to sort through in the near future. I think I had an NCPH hangover; all of those ideas hung in my head like a fog and I am just now feeling enough clarity to pick up the projects I had set aside for the conference.

 However, even amongst the waves upon waves of ideas, questions, and engagement, it was the question of a 10 year old boy that got me a'thinkin:

Student groups are my heart; I love the engagement, intrigue, and insight of these young minds.

During the conference, our regularly-scheduled tours went in addition to the to the conference tours. We had one group of nearly 90 fourth graders out to explore the history of downtown Nashville by taking a hike through it. The students as a group were great- well behaved, high-energy, willing to participate. At one point, right after I finished talking about the suffrage movement in Nashville leading up to the year 1920, I opened up for questions. The students had good questions (many asked "why" and "why did that happen" and that warmed my humanities heart... keep asking, kids!). One boy raised his hand and asked "I don't want to seem rude, but back then didn't people of different skin get treated differently? Did that mean black women were allowed to vote, or just white women?"

Do you know, I have given this tour hundreds of times to a variety of audiences and never has anybody asked me that? I answered to boy as honestly as I could. Yes, they did but there were still people at that time who tried to restrict their access to votes.  In fact, prior to the 19th amendment taking affect, there were meetings by white women in Nashville who expressed their own concern if the women of color also got the vote.

That boy's question has been churning in me ever since. As I tell stories of the past, I still gravitate toward a narrative that focuses on the white experience as the "core" and weave other people groups and stories throughout. I use the word "enslaved" when I am talking about "enslaved." I make sure to talk about immigrants, and immigrant contributions, (an easy thing to do when talking about various labor forces in Nashville history). I even use the interpretive tool of suggesting what would life be like in "their shoes" (referring to a variety of folk of a variety of ages, colors, and genders, not just major white characters). I remind visitors that people were here before the white settlement, that civilizations were here before whites even had an eye on this land. I am always asking myself "how can I do better?" and I am constantly reassessing how a story can be told to better convey the richness of the past. When I tell a story about the suffrage movement and one city's contributions, I have to remember that not everybody had the same experience.

That hit me especially hard when the next student group I worked with was a diverse high school group from Georgia. During the tour, the only thing I could think about what the diversity of theoretical pasts. Depending on the era I was talking about, each student would have had a totally different experience. It was jolting for me as a story teller.

Now, before you go and say, "duh, Elizabeth, everybody knows that," I want to be honest.

I have been dealing with a lot of "do-over" ideas the past few weeks, including how to best share an inclusive story. The concept of how we do history is more of a reflection of our generation is something I "learned" in school but that I am continually re-understanding, re-absorbing. The idea that white people aren't the only people is something I learned way back in second grade (my generation is the one who grew up with boxes of crayons produced by Crayola that included only shades of skin tone as a means of encouraging diversity). How do we shift that commonly-told narrative? When the lens has been set one way for so long, how do we readjust the focal point? When do we stop celebrating various groups in their assigned "History Month(s)" and start incorporating them consistently into the core?

The complexity of history challenges, confounds, and surprises. I have a sneaking suspicion that that is never going to change.

And before you ask, I am working on my own shifts in how I share history. It is a process.

*As with all my writings on this blog, I write this on my own time. These thoughts are my own and do not represent any of the companies or organizations of which I affiliate.

**I see hope in the future if those are the types of questions that fourth graders ask.

***I am still pretty stoked about that serendipitous meeting yesterday. Of all the days and all the people! Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. M!