I'm assuming the premise of the first question was actually meant to draw attention to my own privileges as a half white, middle-class individual – fair enough. My engagement of Black and Brown histories has always been mediated through a white institution. In an act of virtue signaling or in order to meet the quotas set out in "inclusive" strategic plans, historians and institutions create exhibits about Black and Brown people without including Black and Brown people in curation or interpretation. These exhibits use Black and Brown people's materials without full credit, nor do they identify how the subsummation of these materials into the institution's collections will benefit the communities from which they came. Therein lies the rub – the act of "legitimation" that characterizes the public history profession's newfound interest in and consumption of working-class, POC histories.
Historians collect, preserve and interpret primary source materials on behalf of their institutions because they are working on projects for non-community members, outside of community contexts. For example, even when graduate thesis projects are meant to serve community interests, students are still doing the work for a degree and for a job in the professional public history workforce after they graduate. To reiterate why I'm seemingly obsessed with insider/outsider dynamics – I've repeatedly witnessed white scholars who "specialize" in POC history get chosen for curatorial and advisory group positions over actual Black and Brown community leaders, some of whom these white scholars had interviewed for their professionally lauded projects. White savior public historians envision themselves "rescuing" or "empowering" Black and Brown people's histories. Their project leadership gets them news headlines, commendations, prestige and position. But what does it do for community members? Public history practitioners need to offer their services and resources – funds and labor – for the creation of grass-roots initiatives that take place within and for the community (given community members' interest and assent).
So, no, of course historians can never do historical work that doesn't impose their own meanings and understandings – that's why I insist objectivity is a myth. But, disenfranchised people tend to have a more holistic perspective on social and historical structures. As I previously quoted bell hooks, "Living as we did – on the edge – we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside in and from the inside out … we understood both.” Given the inevitability of human subjectivity, we need to recognize the epistemic privilege of POC.
Put another way, oral history is both an inclusive and exclusive practice. It remedies gaps in traditional historiographies that rely mostly on documentary evidence produced by the power elites. It also circumscribes communal memory. Sporadic accounts of the past, founded on old animosities or the specter of a foreign Other, are reproduced generationally – like fading carbon copies of an incomplete narrative – and compose inexact stories of exceptionalism.
But perhaps we shouldn’t take such a dim view of oral history. I once claimed oral histories are like hand-me-downs – passing through various people, traveling strange and unexpected routes. They accumulate little details, lose others; they get a bit misshapen along the way, and all the more wonderful. With the advent of recording technologies, they can be frozen in time, rather than transmuted by word of mouth. What were once quotidian anecdotes have become part of a larger-than-life mythos, a constellation of historical half-truths. Too often we question the cognizance, honesty and accuracy of our interviewees (or our narrators as Barbara Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan refer to them in The Oral History Manual). Should we not be equally skeptical of our written sources and their authors? To reference Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, let us be wary of all four stages of historical production: "the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)" (26). Perhaps history is just a macrocosmic collection of semi-fictions.
We must turn around and problematize the oral historian’s position in this exchange – their "gazing," perhaps better described as their listening, interviewing, or interpretation. As illustrated by the picture for this post, there is something simultaneously perverse and consoling about the white historian's consumption of POC narratives (or materials). We find a vested interest in the preservation of disenfranchised legacies. Or do we? Oral historians steal the words and memories of their subjects, do with them what they will, and get lauded for the work, ultimately profiting off the histories of Others. Sommer and Quinlan identify "good narrators" as those who have firsthand knowledge, who "represent all sides of an issue," "can communicate effectively," and are willing participants (49). How do interviewer biases inform these value judgements? The nonpartisan approach to history does not exist. Firsthand knowledge of an event is inherently one-sided because it comes from an individual account. Effective communication and participant willingness is dependent upon the relationship between the interviewer and the narrator. And how do language barriers play a role in selection?
Community connections are a necessity. I'm wary of white middle-class historians who tour contexts beyond their own and expect willing narrators to surrender their histories for outsider interpretation. Presumption is a common theme. In “When Subjects Don't Come Out," Sherrie Tucker asks, "Where did I get the idea that my sexuality-sensitive intersectional analysis must involve ... clearly delineated, immutable categories of sexual desire? ... While my interviewees don’t come out, they do reveal the power of a structure that conceals, shapes, and imperfectly contains sexual contents ('Don’t write about that')" (298). Historians have a vested interest in imposing their own meanings and understandings onto other people's lives. Unlike dead sources, oral histories are alive, rife with contested memory, fact, identity, interpretation and narrative construction. Respecting the human agency of self-identification and self-disclosure is paramount, regardless of structural forces – or perhaps because of them.
The work of Kent Monkman, a Canadian Kree artist, is set to be featured in the PAFA exhibition. Excited to learn about a fellow QPOC, I looked him up and came across History is Painted by the Victors (image above) – described as "a satirical queer-culture reversal of the European fetishization of the indigenous people." Amid the vast landscape, Miss Chief (Monkman's alter ego) paints, surrounded by naked, young white men, thus subverting the white colonial gaze. As I've previously discussed, the white colonial gaze is rather meta; it extends beyond the content of our primary source materials, be they art and/or written documents. The white colonial gaze defines both past and present narrative construction. As such, critical engagement with the (art) historian's positionality is paramount.
Some advice for white museum workers (courtesy of Brilliant Idea Studio):
I'd also ask that we stop using phrases like "given the current political climate," "at this critical moment," or "these troubled times." Oftentimes, white project leaders aspiring to promote inclusivity and critical dialogue (i.e., "difficult," "challenging," or "uncomfortable" conversations) contextualize their work in the present day by holding up the straw man of the Trump Administration and Neo-Nazi marches. White supremacy and racism have existed in perpetuity – they are foundational, institutional issues. The rise in their visibility for white people has been predicated on blatant public displays and biased media coverage. But we can't base our call to action in the so-called exceptionalism of the present moment. These issues are symptomatic of larger injustices of which POC have long been trying to convince white people. Now that white liberals-cum-saviors have come to their own "independent" conclusions, they are lauded for doing the same work with more resources and institutional support. POC have devoted significant amounts of emotional and intellectual labor to working on the same projects, but continue to go unacknowledged or be penalized. From exhibits about cultural genocide and gentrification, to the prison-industrial complex and HIV/AIDS in the Black gay community, time and time again I've seen white project leaders get credit for work that should, at the very least, have been collaborative – or was, but for which community members of color received no acknowledgement. (I'm thinking of how Grossi's "Funeral for a Home" article from last week mentioned Pastor Harry Moore, Sr. once, in passing, as the eulogizer; he was, in fact, largely responsible for connecting the white project leaders with their community contacts and promoting the project in the community.) We need to prioritize POC leadership, give due credit, be respectful, and work with and for people – such that the institution and its resources are offered as the medium and the tools for community-led interpretation.
How do narratives centered around white atrocity and accountability have the potential to negate indigenous agency? In “Storming the Teocalli—Again," William Truettner asks, "If we exchange righteous Spaniards conquering cruel Aztecs for cruel Spaniards murdering innocent Aztecs for profit, are we really better of?" (71). Interpreters must stop engaging moral dualities. The culpability of perpetrators is not predicated on the “innocence” of the victims. Atrocity exists within itself and shouldn’t have to be "proven." Basing our historical moral judgements/condemnations on the sanctification of the victims just makes locating the complex immoralities of colonization more difficult. How can we infuse these nuances into our narratives without equivocating?
Edward T. Linenthal identifies how victimhood is woven into narratives meant to bolster national identity and/or condemn a foreign other in “Anatomy of a Controversy." An early panel script for what would become the Smithsonian's controversial 1995 Enola Gay exhibit described how "The slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese in Nanking in 1937 shocked the world. Atrocities by Japanese troops included brutal mistreatment of civilians ... and biological experiments on human victims" (29). While such proclamations are true, we must emphasize who is conveying these facts. If this text appeared in a Japanese exhibit, curated by Japanese museum workers, the tone might be read as remorseful and self-critical. Given this text was likely penned by a white American curator, it reads more as a condemnation intended to promote American righteousness. How is victimhood (of a third party or of the self) objectifying? Think of how Americans frequently trot out the Nanjing massacre as an example of Japanese atrocity. Meanwhile, for Chinese people (my family included), it is the painful, central narrative of World War II.
David Lubin's "Labyrinths of Meaning" chapter from Picturing a Nation serves to illustrate how the canvas is a medium through which painters-cum-storytellers negotiate social and political conflict. Lubin describes the ways white male artists used white and indigenous women's bodies to forge collective self-conception – both personal and national identities (33-5). Exploring the mutability of the imagery's meanings helps us destabilize accepted identity constructs like white masculinity and nationalism. But how can we contextualize symbolism that inevitably carries different connotations for our present-day audiences? Lubin claims "Ariadne can be viewed as an updating of The Able Doctor," a 1774 political cartoon that was actually a part of the display I curated at the Historical Society. In contrast with Liberty Triumphant or the Downfall of Oppression, a political cartoon from the same year, and An Indian Squaw King Wampum Spies, circa 1764, I had hoped to interrogate white men's imagery of (dis)empowered American Indian women. How do we responsibly address the objectification of indigenous peoples in art? What will PAFA do to affirm indigenous perspectives in this project? Are there people of color involved in interpretation and curation, or will they be limited to "consultancy?"
In "The Battle over 'The West as America,'" Alan Wallach criticizes the 1991 exhibit for its heavy-handed discussion of colonial legacies. While I recognize the role of respectability politics in nudging our audiences towards cognizance of inequity, I'd urge a more explicit recognition of who our conceived audience is. In other words, for whose benefit do we avoid confrontational language? Wallach describes how the exhibit "adopted a self-righteous tone ... that could only inspire in the visitor powerful twinges of guilt – or as often happened angry rebellion" (109). Wallach speaks of white guilt and rebellion, when we might instead focus on POC grief, healing, and empowerment. We must recognize that institutions cater to white fragility with their resistance to using explicit language and more direct approaches to content. Likewise, we must recognize that the author of the label text was likely a white person, envisioning themselves speaking to ("educating") other white people. In "Reflections on the History Wars," Ken Yellis quotes consultant Randi Korn: "African American visitors [found] comfort in the thought that others will now know what they have known for years" (337). Therein lies the crux of the issue; museums are inherently white institutions, catering to white audiences, and occasionally telling POC stories. As Yellis concludes, museums hold the power of interpretation, and the least they could do is attempt more "self-reflexiveness" (345).
To be fair, Hurley discusses the issue of subjective history in broader terms earlier on, such that he places the onus on any homogeneous locality wherein "history often becomes a template for the inscription of ethnic and racial achievement" (157). This contested coalescence of institutionalized fact and communal fiction connects well to Carolyn Kitch's Pennsylvania in Public Memory, such that "public commentary on the past [gives] residents the opportunity to communicate contemporary values" (99). While recognizing Hurley's admirable agenda – to advocate for "projects that contribute to economic revitalization through historical preservation and social stabilization" (xiii) – I maintain that we need to be more critical of the public historian's positionality. In other words, regardless of intention, there is an inherent paternalism attached to "professional" public historians entering communities of color to empower and incite socioeconomic transformation. We must problematize the figure of the white middle-class practitioner – no amount of diplomacy will account for a bias that is not explicitly acknowledged.
Patrick Grossi is more self-conscious of this issue in his article "Plan or Be Planned For," about the Funeral for a Home project – "There is something deeply presumptuous about a group of young white professionals inserting themselves into a black neighborhood that has experienced both untimely funerals and demolitions over the years, and asking them to participate in a spectacle that incorporates elements of both" (19). This brief concession leads into some allusions about gentrification, as well as the history of Mantua. Yet the project itself is described as "a model for collaborative programming ... [inviting] practitioners to think seriously about the racial dynamics and efforts toward engagement present in their work" (14). Therein lies the contention. Oftentimes, too much emphasis is placed on the edification of white practitioners and audiences rather than on the support of communities of color. Both white project leaders and white spectators tend to take up too much space on projects. The photos of the over four hundred attendees (24) and of the post-service meal (26) make me wonder – for whom was this project created?
Pastor Harry Moore, Sr. asked a similar question of Funeral's project leaders in the beginning: "What is your goal here? What made you guys want to do this?" This is a question every public historian should ask themselves – especially white project leaders inserting themselves into the histories of POC. This detailed description of the planning process written by Sue Bell Yank (an arts commentator and one of the Funeral book authors) contrasts with Grossi's narrative. While Yank highlights frictions, uncertainties, and hiccups in the planning process, Grossi's published article is much more opaque – emphasizing what practitioners can learn from the project's premise rather than its flaws. The project leaders' vagueness about objectives and outcomes, as well as their inexperience with local dynamics made community members wary. One must set aside one's own goals out of deference for the community, while also not forcing the community to strain for narrative or intention. Yank commends the project leaders for what she perceives to be a successful balancing act: "they have allowed a culture to which they do not belong to collaboratively determine the contextual framework and realize a large part of the content of the event, while simultaneously seizing certain aesthetic opportunities when they arise."
In The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden describes how institutions and agencies "are challenged daily to become accountable to the diverse urban public" (7). Indeed, "outreach" as a concept proceeds from the white institution's historical failure to include community members of color as both interpreters and target audience members. "Inreach" similarly proceeds from the white institution's tokenization of its limited or nonexistent pool of POC staff and/or its occupation and gentrification of communities of color (both physically and epistemically). As such, she stresses the necessity of project leaders to "work for the community ... rather than trying to control grand plans and strategies from the top down" (77). So-called professional public historians must learn humility, and offer our services to disenfranchised populations without demanding conformity to our narratives. It is not community members' collective responsibility to commit the time and labor to support our creative visions, or be treated as props to legitimize class projects. Public history must be transported out of the white middle-class professional world. But for now, institutions ought to offer up resources and forums as tools and sites to enact communal historiographic reparation.