Voices - Historical Perspective

Historical Perspective

Friday, February 16, 2018 - 12:14pm

Data: Big and Small

In 2018 we live by “big data.” Each of us not only uses data, but we contribute to its collection every time we log onto the web. The question that exposes the modern dilemma is “How much data are ordinary people willing to turn over to Kroger’s when they go grocery shopping?”  And the answer seems to be “As much as they want, as long as I get discount points on my gas purchases.”

Today, data drives almost every decision in business, everything from what aisle do you stock grape jelly, (with other jellies or next to the peanut butter), to what apps get promoted, to how to efficiently design public transit routes in a metropolitan region, to what social service programs get funding. We have convinced ourselves that without data, nothing is defensible.

Data has always been understood as important, though before the digital age of “Big Data” and the ascendency of powerful algorithms, data sets gathered to impact public policy came in smaller packages. That can be seen in several of the documents in the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection.

An 1806 report presented to the House of Commons by the British Inspector General of Imports and Exports records the number of British ships and their capacity to carry enslaved Africans (3.8 million) to the British West Indies between 1796 and 1803. This report was part of the larger public effort to end the British trade in enslaved African peoples, a campaign that achieved success in 1807.

But ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade did not end slavery. A reminder of that grim reality is demonstrated in an 1820 schedule of over 500 slaves living on the estate of William Law on the island of Granada. The inventory of assets available for sale to settle Law’s debts includes a listings of slaves by name, color, country of origin, age and any defining markings. This inventory stands as a stark reminder that people of African descent were considered as nothing more than property to be bred and bartered.

One of the most chilling and discouraging data documents in the entire Kinsey Collection is a broadside issued by the NAACP in the early Twentieth Century. A generation after the Civil War ended, white Americans defaulted on the promises made to the people freed from bondage. Rather than the full rights of citizenship proclaimed in the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, mainstream American gave into the mounting pressure from the re-emergent South to subjugate those one enslaved and their descendants.

Legally, this took the form of the imposition of Jim Crow Segregation that won approval from the United States Supreme Court in 1896 in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that made “separate but equal” the law of the land.

Culturally, it meant the flowering of a Southern revisionist interpretation of the Civil War as the “Lost Cause” fought for States Rights, not the perpetuation of slavery. It was this movement, in turn, that sparked the dedication of hundreds of Civil War monuments in the early decades of the new century. It is those monuments that have recently become focal points of controversy and violence. 

Another result of the abandonment of African American citizens was the unleashing of a wave of lynchings, a calculated campaign of terror designed to control American citizens of color. In the face of this terror, the NAACP began tracking the number of lynchings in 1912. The 1922 “The Shame of America” broadside declaring that 3436 people had been lynched between 1889 and 1922 was to use statistics to shock America into taking action. 

The immediate goal was to rally support for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill then before Congress. The bill did pass the House of Representatives by a two-to-one majority, but failed in the Senate. Despite continued efforts and the introduction of other bills, the United States Congress never passed an anti-lynching law. The catastrophic results of this failure are chillingly documented in the most powerful American history exhibit I have ever personally encountered. I am very proud that the Freedom Center brought “Without Sanctuary” to Cincinnati. 

Human beings cling to the idea that assemblage and presentation of facts (data) is the proper way to appeal to reason and advance human good. What is clear, however, whether in 1806, 1922 or 2018, economic, political or social self- interest of the powerful will always dismiss data, unless it is wrapped in a powerful political movement.

#28DaysofKinsey

Dan Hurley
Interim President
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
 

Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 10:26am

A Crisis That Enlightens, Informs and Inspires

Each day when I come into work at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I pass the introduction of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection, and my favorite part of the exhibit: reproductions of covers of The Crisis. 

The Crisis, which still exists today in web form, is the official publication of the NAACP.  It was founded in 1910 under the editorship of W.E.B. Du Bois.  In its over 100 years of existence, it has chronicled the life, time and struggles of African Americans and other people of color.  While fiercely “speaking truth to power” (their tagline), The Crisis has also lifted up the accomplishments of African Americans and opened the way for many African American literary greats to put their work in front of a larger audience.  Langston Hughes, for example, was published in the pages of The Crisis early in his career.

So why does this speak to me?

It would be easy for an entity such as The Crisis to focus only on the negative – and rightly so.  In speaking truth to power, lifting up the crimes and wrongs done against African Americans and other people of color, the focus could rest solely on the negative without anyone lifting an eyebrow. 

But The Crisis never did that.  Yes, they told those stories and lifted up the wrongs being done against people of color, but they also held up the hopeful stories – those of education and literature and music and the accomplishments of the same people who were being held down by society at large.

The story could have been one of tragedy, but they also celebrated the hope. 
I recognize that mission.  I see it every day.

The story of the Freedom Center could have been one of tragedy, but we also celebrate the hope found within the courage, cooperation and perseverance of those who fought for freedom – and those who continue the fight today.

Even in the darkest of nights, a light does shine.  Fortunately, The Crisis and the Freedom Center continue to shine that light for all.

#28DaysofKinsey

Sherri Fillingham
Director of Development Operations
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
 

Monday, February 12, 2018 - 1:04pm

The Fate of Frances

As I continue making my way through the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection while it’s here through March 4, I come across a letter written in1854. Reading through it I’m extremely appalled and disheartened by its content. The letter details a slave master by the name of AMF Crawford selling off a seventeen year-old girl named Frances he owns to pay for a stable of horses. What’s bad (as this alone is already awful of him taking part in the institution of slavery), he’s taking her away from her family. Even worst, he’s having her hand deliver the instructed letter transferring ownership of her freedom to her new master, unbeknownst to her. All of this and he doesn’t even have any type of courage to tell her this is happening.

Reading the letter literally almost had me in tears as I couldn’t even imagine someone having to go through that – to not even know you’re delivering your freedom to another person as property, never to see your family again. This is all so this slave master can simply pay for horses. This reminds me that when you truly reflect on America’s history, it wasn’t too long ago that this was the “norm” for our society.

Seeing letters such as this one in the exhibit are truly powerful and moving to me. Experiencing this in the Kinsey Collection helps to reiterate the part of our mission of “challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps of freedom today”. It challenges and corrects misconceptions that are often portrayed about history especially pertaining to me being of African descent. Although reading the letter did put me in a bad mood for a good part of my work day, I felt better thinking that hopefully the next person who sees it will also experience similar emotions and will want to take action in seeing atrocities like this never have the chance to happen again.

#28DaysofKinsey

Will jones
Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center   

Friday, February 2, 2018 - 3:53pm

Brown vs. Board

The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection has an incredibly broad range of objects and art to take in. My favorite item in the collection is the signed decision letter for Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. This document, unanimously approved and signed by the Supreme Court Justices holds special significance for me.

This past September marked the 60-year anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Our exhibit Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu opened at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock the same weekend as this important anniversary. Several members of the Little Rock Nine attended the exhibit opening and the following day there was a ceremony in the auditorium of the high school commemorating their courageous actions 60 years prior.

 

 

Each of the surviving eight students spoke, reflecting on their experiences at Central. It was one of those rare times that you realize you are living in a moment of historic significance. Hearing those brave eight individuals speak in that auditorium was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. It may well be the most important moment I ever witness. Two months after returning home from that trip, we began the installation of the Kinsey Collection. Holding the document that allowed those nine brave students access to Little Rock Central, the gravity of the piece was not lost on me. This document is here in our gallery, an unassuming 8.5” x 11” piece of paper with five signatures that forever changed the course of American history, the lives of the Little Rock Nine and every student that followed.

#28DaysofKinsey

Jesse Kramer
Creative Director
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 4:59pm

Quiet Strength

The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection is incredibly powerful and it has been an honor to promote the exhibition with the NURFC team these past few months. The breadth and depth of content, historical and personal, highlights the untold stories of so many Americans – from photographic, literary and artistic perspectives. I believe it would be nearly impossible to walk through a personal collection of this caliber and not have one, or more, objects speak to you. I try to make a point to spend at least 10 minutes in the Skirball Gallery each day I am in the office and “get to know” a new piece of the collection and I have learned so much.

One object in particular that catches my eye each time I walk through The Kinsey Collection is a book signed to Shirley Kinsey. This book, titled Quiet Strength, was signed by Rosa Parks in 1998.
I’m a fan of signed books. I’ve been known to stand in line for extended periods of time for the opportunity to thank an author for their work and have them sign a copy of my book.

Seeing this book has made me ask myself – how long would you stand in line for Rosa Parks’ signature? How could you possibly begin to say thank you and honor her life’s work, her journey? I think the only answer is another question: How could you leave a line leading you to Rosa Parks?

#28DaysofKinsey

Jamie Glavic
AVP of Marketing & Communications
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Thursday, January 25, 2018 - 5:19pm

28 Days of The Kinsey Collection

In honor of Black History Month we want to recognize the many contributions and triumphs African Americans made to America throughout history. What better way to show this than to highlight the pieces of the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection? 

 

Married for over forty years, activist couple Bernard and Shirley Kinsey have built a world-renowned exhibition that challenge and redefine African American identity and representation in history and arts. What began as a third grade project for their son Khalil – turned in to one of the largest privately owned collections of African American art, artifacts and manuscripts in the country. Spanning over 400 years, their collection feature works from Zora Neale Hurston, Romare Bearden, and Elizabeth Catlett – to name a few. Guests can even find pieces that have local ties to the city of Cincinnati such as the “Autumn Landscape” by Robert S. Duncanson, who spent the majority of his professional career in the Queen City. 

This is the second time the exhibit has made its way here to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It was originally the second location the collection appeared when it began traveling in 2006. Since then, it has been displayed at the California African American Museum, The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Epcot Center at Disney World and The Hong Kong University Museum and Gallery to name a few, and has won many prestigious awards including the President’s National Award for Museum and Library Services. 

Throughout February our staff, volunteers and docents will highlight pieces of the collection as well as give you first-person accounts of their experiences in the gallery. See the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection, presented by Macy’s, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center before it closes on Saturday, March 3. #MyNURFC #KinseyatNURFC

Will Jones
Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

 

 

Friday, January 12, 2018 - 12:00pm

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This weekend through Monday, January 15, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will begin honoring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his many contributions through a series of programs and activities. We encourage you take part in celebrating with us as we’re sure to have something you’ll enjoy.

Gallery Talk: Have We Achieved MLK’s Dream will feature a discussion with Pastor K.Z. Smith of Corinthian Baptist Church on Saturday, January 13, at 1:30 p.m. The Gallery Talk Series provides visitors with the opportunity to engage with museum staff and community leaders to discuss social injustice, freedom and equality. The series is included in general admission and open to the public.

The 2018 King Legacy Awards Breakfast will be Monday, January 15, with doors opening at 7:30 a.m. and breakfast beginning at 8:00 a.m. The breakfast honors the participants of the King Legacy Youth Leadership Program. The King Legacy Youth Program provides leadership opportunities for graduates of the Freedom Center’s Youth Docent Program and scholarship funds upon completion of the program. The keynote speaker is The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati Artistic Director of Education and Outreach, Deondra Kamau Means.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will open to the public from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with free general admission to the museum’s permanent exhibitions and programming for the day. Special programming and initiatives will include the Hoxworth Cincinnati Blood Drive; Bead for Life bracelet sale in conjunction with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s Modern Day Slavery initiatives; membership opportunities for the chance to win prizes, and a community concerts throughout the day beginning at 11:00 a.m.

We hope your participation in this annual day of service will inspire you to continue the ongoing fight in fulfilling Dr. King’s dream. #MyNURFC

Will Jones

Public Relation & Social Media Coordinator

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Friday, October 6, 2017 - 4:19pm

A Recap of Gallery Talk Series: Confederate Flag Heritage vs. Hate

“I know what that flag means,” said a visitor in the crowd at the second of our gallery talk series, The Confederate Flag: Heritage vs. Hate that occurred Saturday, September 30th, 2017.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect with leading this gallery talk. Though I don’t refer to myself as a scholar of the Confederate flag, I have dedicated a majority of my master’s studies to the subject. In graduate school I took on the project of discussing the Confederate flag in public memory, turning it into my capstone thesis. Having given presentations over the debate about the Confederate flag before, I was confident in my knowledge of the subject. However, with the debate about Confederate imagery heating up in the media, I was unsure what type of reaction I would receive from this discussion.

Not only was the crowd on Saturday receptive to what I was saying, they were engaging and vocal on their experiences with the Confederate flag. This was crucial for me because above all else, I wanted to spark a meaningful dialogue with visitors about the flag. What I hoped to gain from this gallery talk was to help people understand why there is a debate about the Confederate flag and the many interpretations associated with this one symbol. What I walked away with was encouragement that regardless how tough the conversation may be, people are ready to have these discussions about current issues we are facing in America today.

Although it may be uncomfortable, I urge you to push yourself to have a dialogue with others about issues that you feel need to be discussed.

    Katie Bramell Researcher National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - 2:57pm

The Fight for the Hopper Gibbons House

In the summer of 2007 an article in The New York Times informed me that the only home of a White abolitionist in Manhattan in New York City that survived the 1863 Draft Riots was in the process of being altered beyond recognition.  The home, a townhouse located at 339 W. 29th St., is now owned by Tony Mamounas whose company was adding a fifth-floor penthouse to the four-story Hopper Gibbons house.  The Hopper Gibbons house is a 19th century rowhouse, a part of contiguous brick buildings that witnessed the Draft Riots, and was a victim of Irish arsonists who broke down the door at 339 W. 29th St., setting the house on fire gutting the interior.

The Hopper Gibbons house is an important physical element of the American Civil War that survived the July 1863 New York City Draft Riots, and is the only remaining building that was attacked because the then-owners were sheltering Blacks fleeing enslavement and was the site of meetings between Black and White abolition leaders.

The 1863 Draft Riots in New York City began as a violent protest by members of the Irish community against the implementation of the draft during the Civil war incited by Democrats who felt they were being drafted into a war that would free enslaved Black people who would then compete with them for jobs.  The Irish were also angry because middle and upper-class White New Yorkers were able to pay substitutes to take their places in the Union Army.  The anger vetted against the Black community in New York City was a violent replay of that of 1712 when enslaved Black New Yorkers were executed to suppress a slave revolt.  Starting July 13, 1863, the homes of Blacks were firebombed and the Negro orphanage that housed more than 200 children was burned.  Before the battle ended more than 200 people thought to be abolitionists were targeted, and many of their homes were burned.  The home of the Hopper Gibbons family who were abolitionists was singled out by the arsonists and on the second night of the riot (July 14, 1863) the Hopper Gibbons home was torched.  The occupants would not go through the front door to the outside in fear of being assaulted, or worse, killed.

James Sloan Gibbons and his daughter, Lucy Gibbons Morse, were in the house when the inferno began.  Abigail Hopper Gibbons was in the South with a Union Army regiment serving as a volunteer nurse.  Mr. Gibbons had developed an alternate plan of escape with the help of neighbors whose homes were attached to 3339 W. 29th St., and while the arsonists, the bad guys and the bullies stood on the street waiting to pounce on the abolitionists, James Gibbons, his daughter Lucy and others trapped in the melee, climbed up ladders through scuttles which opened on the roof, scampered across rooftop to another scuttle, climbed down another ladder into a hallway, and by exiting through the rear of the building Mr. Gibbons and his daughter escaped harm.

Fern Luskin, a professor of Art and Architecture, and Julie Finch, an actress, jointly worked to oppose the addition to the Hopper Gibbons house, and during their 10-year effort, they would attract a coalition that was multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, including people of a wide spread of incomes.  I called Fern Luskin, and began a 10-year process of exchanging emails, phone calls, site visits to 29th Street and consultation.  We were able to suggest that the neighborhood based organization that Fern Luskin and Julie Finch led develop working relationships with the African American community, and they secured the support of Jacob Morris of the Harlem Society.  In a July 2, 2012 Wall Street Journal article Mr. Morris identified 20 major Black historic sites that included the slave market at Wall Street, the site of the Colored Orphanage that burned in the Draft Riots, and the location of the home of David Ruggles, the Black abolitionist who sheltered Fredrick Douglas after he escaped enslavement in Baltimore.  

We were able to connect Ms. Luskin with what would become on the community’s most important allies, the Bronx Lab School’s Underground Railroad Bicycle Club, a group of students who visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2008.  At our suggestion, and with the cooperation of the administration of the Bronx Lab School who allowed Rachel Appel to accompany the students to a hearing of the Board of Standards and Appeals in Lower Manhattan.  At 10:00 a.m. November 20, 2012, it had been raining since the night before.  It was “wet dog weather” when a multi-racial parade of soaked students from the Bronx Lab School dismounted outside the building where the Board of Standards and Appeals would meet.  At 10:00 a.m., the wet sock caps, bandanas, scarves and poplin jackets had been removed.  Sport jackets, blazers and notebooks were extracted from backpacks, and the scholar members of the Bronx Lab School, under the watchful supportive gaze of their teacher, Rachel Apple, went to work.  The youthful students reminded the Board members and taught many in the audience of the ugly history of the Draft Riots, and the noble humanitarianism of the Hopper Gibbons family.  They noted that the family not only sheltered Black people in flight from slavery, they hosted Black abolition leaders in their home, meeting with them as peers.  From 339 W. 29th Street, a life mission dedicated to human rights would continue, directed toward serving women prisoners.  The young people reminded those at the hearing that the Hopper gibbons house was a node of humanitarian behavior and actions on the part of a small group of New Yorkers at a time when New York was considering leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy.

Mr. Mamounas, the owner/developer of 339 W. 29th St., would use every method available to him to use continuances and appealing to every possible venue, while at the same time proceeding with construction work on the building.  Weeks, months, years would pass.  New hearings would be scheduled.  Fern Luskin, Julie Finch and the neighborhood would scrape together funds to hire Jack Lester, an attorney who specializes in Community Law.  Mr. Lester successfully represented residents of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village against Black Rock Realty for illegally raising rents.

May 18, 2017 the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings of New York City ruled in favor of the neighbors of the Hopper Gibbons house who want it returned to its historic height.  The voices, the petitions of ordinary people and their children were heard.  There will be no celebration however, until the fifth floor of 339 W. 29th Street is removed, and the spirits of the Hopper Gibbons home are free to run unimpeded.

 

Carl B. Westmoreland

Historian

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 1:38pm

Trump and History: Ignorance and Denial

Ever since Donald Trump became President I have believed his greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance - of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Andrew Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, or move history however he wishes well into the future. Leadership does matter in crises.  It truly mattered that Abraham Lincoln was President in 1861 and not Stephen Douglas or John C. Breckinridge.  It truly mattered that Franklin Roosevelt won the election of 1932 and at least had a new plan to help the country fight its way out of the Great Depression. It truly mattered that John Kennedy and a small group around him were determined to act short of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Those three Presidents and the advisors around them were students of history in their own ways.  Presidents adrift without historical knowledge are dangerous.

Trump’s claims that Andrew Jackson somehow through his anger and toughness would have made a deal to prevent secession and war in 1860-61 is simply 5th grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the President of the United States!  Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention.  It is possible to reflect on what might or might not have been done at some juncture in America’s road to disunion and war from the mid-1840s to the 1860s (during all of which time Jackson was dead), but Trump has no knowledge or perspective from which to do so it would appear.  As for historical analogies and understanding, our President seems incapable of even getting something wrong in reasonable or interesting ways.

Trump's "learning" of American history must have stopped a long time ago. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. Perhaps his grasp of American history rather reflects his essential personality, which seems to be some combination of utter self-absorption, a lack of empathy, and a need to believe in or rely upon hyper individualism. President Trump does seem to possess an instinct for the feelings, fears, resentments, and base level aspirations of many Americans who are displeased at best with the country and the kind of society that has developed over the past decades, especially since the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. He further has an instinct for how and why so many white Americans were uncomfortable or downright furious that a black man could be elected President. The “birther” effort that he led stoked a kind of 21st century racism that appeals to a vast audience of suburban and rural America that takes its information and its values from Fox News and its many media allies. And we must give him credit for capturing the political sentiments of the displaced and the neglected in our globalized economy and in our identity-obsessed culture. They do need a voice. To pull that off as a celebrity billionaire may say more about the culture and social values we have all participated in forging more than it says about him. 

Trump has political instinct but little in the way of political knowledge of either institutions or history. Why does this matter? Well, if a President makes history, which he can and does on any given day, he should know some history.  He must be able to think in time, to think by analogy, precedent, and comparison.  He needs perspective in order to find wisdom.  Decisions ought never be made in a vacuum. A President certainly needs to think anew about old problems, but how can any holder of that office consider Middle East peace, or relations with a nuclear or non-nuclear Iran, or the immediate threat of the bizarre North Korean regime, or the social collapse of Venezuela, or the possible dismantling of the European Union, or the increasing rise of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist authoritarianism if he is adrift in history, believing only that great problems are solved by great strong men?  President Trump’s uses of the past – nonsensical throw away lines about the revelation that Lincoln was a Republican, or that Frederick Douglass had been “doing an amazing job,” and now that no one bothers to think about “why was there the Civil War” are not merely matters of temperament. They are dangerous examples of ignorance in high places. And we must not let this kind of presidential mis-use and denial of history become normalized or merely the object of humor.  Satire is our only tool sometimes, but good satire has always been a very serious weapon at the end of the day.  Jackson was too important in American history to be so loosely and ignorantly invoked by the President. For students of the Civil War era, we might even conclude, contra Trump, that had Jackson lived to the time of the Civil War, not only would he have not prevented the conflict, his fellow Tennessean, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious cavalry leader, might have been out of a job.

The historical profession might consider petitioning the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for an educational sabbatical.  If he must be President for three and a half more years, we need him to be able to make sense when he speaks of the past.  Sometimes CEOs or university presidents need a break from the daily grind.  The President’s staff could choose a few historians to go to the retreat and the American Historical Association could choose a few more.  A crash course in reading, or perhaps just in watching documentary films, about the history of American foreign policy as well as the history of slavery and race relations in particular could be the core of the curriculum.  Some biographies, a good history of women and gender, a genuine tutorial on the Civil Rights era, and even a serious digestion of good works on the Gilded Age and the New Deal legacies might be required.  And finally, a primer on Constitutional history would be essential too, and might make that second month necessary.  This alone could garner the United States again some confidence and respect around the world.   And, one further thing, no tweeting on educational leave.  There will be a test at the end of the term.

We are all creatures of both our experience and our education broadly defined. But to resist learning and expertise, to reject or simply appropriate a past as nothing but a tool for manipulating the present is at best contempt for knowledge. Perhaps President Trump will be the gift that keeps on giving to historians, the source of open invitations to try to help the public that is listening to learn more about America as we endlessly fight over its future paths. But a President without a sense of history is a dangerous thing. We need to keep watch on the White House and its denizen lest his pronouncements make history deniers as lethal as climate change deniers.

As in personal memory, so also in the collective memory that historians assemble, resist, narrate and interpret, the past is that thing we cannot live without, but also sometimes the thing that is hard to live with.  “History,” Robert Penn Warren once warned, though, in a single line of a poem, “is the thing you cannot resign from.” Like Warren, one of my other favorite writers, James Baldwin, never stopped probing the nature of the past, the irresistible if at times debilitating hold that history and memory can have on any thoughtful person’s consciousness. “History,” said Baldwin in a 1965 essay, “is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” For Baldwin, the non-fiction voice of the civil rights movement, if Americans ever really began to learn and face their past with slavery and racism, they would be entering into “a dialogue with that terrifying deity… called history.” Most Americans will prefer never to see history as a terrifying deity, wishing instead for a past that inspires, that makes them feel part of a triumphal story, that places them in a narrative in which they can find comfort. But history can be both pleasurable and perilous, terrifying and uplifting.

Baldwin left a stunning definition of what it means to have a sense of history. In an interview with Studs Terkel in 1961, Baldwin repeatedly claimed that Americans were “badly educated” and did not know their history.  Terkel stopped Baldwin and asked : “what is a sense of history?” After a pause, Baldwin delivered a poignant reply: “You read something that you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened a hundred years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a great liberation for the struggling, suffering person who always thinks that he is alone.” Having a sense of history is knowing that whatever happens to us or to our world, we are not alone. It has in some form happened before. The problem we may have with President Trump is that he does not know what he does not know. He seems to like to go it alone, sui generis, a tough and angry Andrew Jackson ready to slay dragons in his reality show presidency. Our problem is presidential historical ignorance, power imagined and wielded without bearings or perspective. Presidents can be and feel very alone with ultimate decisions. But they are not without historical consciousness and knowledge, unless they choose to be. For Presidents, history should be part of their daily bread, nutrition to sustain the weary, the basic equipment of their trade.

David W. Blight
Yale University

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