I’ve been thinking a lot lately about interpreting uncomfortable history. It’s something I’m engaging with in my dissertation, and it’s something that seems to be popping up a lot.
FBI poster of missing civil rights workers
On Wednesday night, I made the trek up to Nashville to see a documentary, Freedom Summer, being shown as part of the Nashville Film Festival. As you might have guessed from the title, the film focuses on the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project of 1964, during which hundreds of college students from around the country poured into Mississippi under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to assist and encourage black Mississippians in attempting to register to vote. The registration effort led to the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative integrated delegation of Mississippians who unsuccessfully attempted to replace the all-white official delegation. Freedom Summer gained national attention when three civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) disappeared while investigating a church burning in Neshoba County. Their bodies were later found buried 12 feet beneath an earthen dam. The story was dramatized for the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.*
Thursday night, I went up to Nashville again for a curator-led tour and roundtable discussion of the Tennessee State Museum’s new exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation.** The exhibit, which was two years in the making, is a close study of life and relationships on a 13,000-acre Robertson County tobacco plantation. It’s a great (and free) exhibit, and if you find yourself in Nashville before August 31, you should make a point of visiting. The event was organized by the Inter-museum Council of Nashville, so attendees included museum professionals, historians, and people in related fields, and we had a great conversation about the evolution of the exhibit and some of the challenges of interpreting the painful past. The Wessyngton Plantation story is unique in that nearly all of the plantation’s records from the antebellum period survive, including farm records that detail the involvement of the plantation mistress in both industry and punishment of slaves. The exhibit also features a math workbook that belonged to one of the Washington men, which includes word problems that talk about dividing workloads among overseers and slaves, showing how the institution of slavery shaped every aspect of the antebellum plantation world.
The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via tnmuseum.org)
At the same time that these conversations were taking place, a friend sent me a link to this great video describing what’s going on in the Central African Republic. I love the vlogbrothers, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should remedy that maybe right now. Anyway, aside from the content, what really grabbed me about the video was the point John makes about how as Americans, we’re very attached to good vs. evil in our narratives, and that this is something that we both deliberately and subconsciously project onto our history. I also came across a good piece on History@Work (NCPH’s blog) about finding a balance between the need to tell a story that won’t put visitors off without backing away from hard truths.
The thread that pulled these various moments/experiences together for me was that tension between the need to be good historians who confront the truth in all its ugliness and good storytellers who can engage and entertain visitors. Sometimes we do this well, and other times we do it less well. For me, the success of the Wessyngton Plantation exhibit in presenting the lives of the enslaved people is that alongside accounts of punishments and a display case with neck shackles is the story of individuals who created their own lives and families within bondage. The exhibit does not fetishize the violence and brutality of slavery, nor does it try to paint a picture of happy slaves under a “good” master. It simply describes what was and leaves it to the visitor to make what he or she will of it.
I had more mixed feelings about Freedom Summer. While it was an excellent documentary, I found myself a little frustrated by the ending, which on the one hand connected rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the rise of black separatism (yes!), but then on the other hand tied it to the success of the Voting Rights Act. Now, I agree that the Freedom Summer Project had an important impact on that legislation, but the connection with the material presented in the film felt like an afterthought–a need to tie a bow and put a “happily ever after” on a story that frankly didn’t need one. So much of the film focused on how the experience of Freedom Summer changed the way both the civil rights workers and the black Mississippians thought about themselves that tacking that connection on at the end felt awkward in an otherwise beautifully made film. The film would have been stronger overall if the creators had simply let the work speak for itself and left viewers to decide for themselves whether the ending was happy or not.
Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.
I think that sometimes as public historians we can fall victim to that desire to create a neat, tidy narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and in particular, we want to end on an optimistic note. There’s nothing wrong with at impulse, and a huge part of our job is presenting content in accessible ways that encourage people to think critically. While I don’t have any great magic trick for solving that problem, I think it’s worth looking at pop culture for ideas. I think we’re at a really good moment in pop culture for engaging with complicated stories that go beyond the epic good vs. evil grand narrative of say, Lord of the Rings.*** There are popular shows with much more complicated stories that engage in much more complex narratives, shows like Mad Men where the characters do terrible things to each other and themselves and yet we still care about them, or Game of Thrones where good guys die, bad guys live, and it’s hard to find a hero(ine). While I’m not suggesting we pattern the history we present after these programs (both of those shows have serious issues with representations of people of color, for one thing, and we have enough trouble with that already), they point to a willingness of the public, or at least parts of it, to be entertained by and engaged with complicated stories and multidimensional characters. If people can (and do) follow along and be fascinated by complex characters like Don Draper and Varys, surely they can do the same for figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
The way we think about and understand the past has a tremendous impact on how we think about and understand the present. Is emancipation a happy ending for enslaved people? Does the civil rights movement have a happy ending? Does it have an ending at all?
*Mississippi Burning is a problematic film in a lot of ways, not least of which is the passivity that characterizes all of its African American characters and the heroic role it assigns the FBI.
**Much of the research for this exhibit is based on the work of John F. Baker, Jr., who has published a book on the topic. Full disclosure: I have purchased the book, but not yet read it.
***I love LOTR, please don’t send me hate mail.