Thursday, June 25, 2015

Interpretation and Relevancy in the Aftermath of the Charleston Attack.

Before I begin, I want to offer up a full disclaimer that I'm writing on my own time on one of my off days. 

One of the great challenges for any historic site or historian is "how do we make this relevant?" In my previous career as a high school history teacher, my students used to ask, "Why do I need to know this?" The clich√© answers about learning from the past never seemed to cut it. How is history relevant? 

A week ago, as you've no doubt heard, Dylann Roof, a twenty one year old self-avowed white supremacist walked into a historic African American church in Charleston and murdered nine people. At first, the national conversation was about guns. President Obama's initial statement on the attack emphasized how easy it is for people to get guns and the frequency of mass violence in this nation. Then the conversation shifted to Roof's motive. Was this an incident of mental health? Typically with these mass shootings people make the case that the real issue isn't guns, but mental health. But in this case, evidence began to emerge that this was a well planned out attack motivated by race and intended to instill terror in the black community. From there the topic shifted to race - why is it that when people of color go on politically motivated rampages it's thuggery or terrorism, but when a white kid does it it's a mental health issue? 

The Confederate flag flies at full staff (Wall St. Journal photo)

As the city of Charleston began to mourn, Governor Nikki Haley ordered state and national flags in South Carolina lowered to half staff - all except one. By state law, the Confederate flag that flies on the state house grounds cannot be raised or lowered without the approval of 2/3 of the legislature. So we have a situation where flags are symbolically at half staff in mourning for the victims of racial violence, but the most racially charged symbol in the city remained proudly waving at full staff. From there, the internet exploded and calls to take down Confederate flags and symbols reached a fever pitch. In less than a week the national debate shifted from gun control to mental health to race to the Confederate flag. Politicians started coming out in support of taking down the Confederate flag - even Strom Thurmond's son spoke out. Major retailers announced that they'd no longer carry Confederate flags for sale. The governor of Alabama even ordered the flags removed from the state house there. They've come a long way since George Wallace. 

Seemingly everybody has an opinion on what's going on. Many see this as an assault on their southern heritage or the relentless assault of the PC police. Still others view this as a long awaited victory and a small time towards racial justice and equality. People debate, with varying degrees of understanding, the role of race and slavery in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The things we talk about everyday in our sites - slavery, states rights, motives of Union and Confederate soldiers - are suddenly all over Facebook, Twitter, social media, dinner table conversations. You could say that the Civil War has gone "viral." One of my Facebook friends, irritated with the fevered debates posted, "I didn't realize so many of my facebook friends had attended college and studied History, specializing in Nineteenth Century American History and Reconstruction in the post-war south... So for those of you who have, speak on, for the rest of you, isn't Maury on?" I jokingly chimed in on his post, "Hey, I did!" 

And that brings me back to where I started - relevancy. (Relevancy; noun: the condition of being relevantor connected with the matter at hand) 

For years, historic sites and interpreters have struggled with this idea - How do we remain relevant? We've tried everything from social media outreach to kids camps. We've created huge campaigns or events to attract new audiences. We've long held an attitude of "If you build it they will come," with varying degrees of limited success. Suddenly, and without prompting from us, the entire nation is talking about the Civil War and its legacy. Our sites and our stories are relevant in ways that they've never been before. Why are we important has never been so clear for so many people on both sides of this debate. The sites where thousands of men fought and died are inextricably "connected with the matter at hand," whether we want them to be or not. The choice we as interpreters are confronted with is "What do we do now?" Do we continue to do the same programs as if nothing has changed? Will we still focus almost exclusively on the movements and positioning of men and material on a landscape? Will we simply describe the process by which a weapon is loaded and fired? Will we bury our heads in the sand as if nothing is happening? Will we quietly change the subject when somebody starts ranting or asking questions? Will we agree with them, or argue with them? Will we grumble in paranoia that "they" (whoever that is) will make us stop doing Confederate living history programs? The academic historian community has been out there the last week - posting blogs, giving interviews, they even got a topic trending on Twitter - #CharlestonSyllabus. Where have our historic sites and interpreters been? We don't have to take sides on the issue, but we can at least facilitate a conversation.

It may feel crass to think about what are we going to do as interpreters in our sites. Nine people are being buried this weekend. But the parks aren't closing down just because of the tragedy. We aren't canceling programs. Whether we're ready or not, Saturday is coming, and with it hundreds or thousands of people, nearly all of whom have been glued to news the last week and they're looking for answers, places to vent, places to talk, or places to escape. We can't just pretend that doesn't exist and point at red and blue lines on a map.

*Once again - the opinions expressed in this blog are mine do not reflect that of my employer or colleagues. This was written on my day off while sitting at home on my own time.  

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