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Check out my latest on NOTCHES, problematizing the Euro/Americentrism of global "queer" histories.
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Who are the creators? Tyson's book is centered around the push and pull between front-line workers and management, how it informs the cultural product. But she skirts the question of the consumer, neglecting to identify the audience when it matters most. Chapter 5 begins with two attempts to interpret the history of slavery at Colonial Williamsburg – "the country's most well-known living museum" (145). Tyson describes how, in the 1960s, Black maintenance staff members covered a tape recording about "the life of a slave cook" to prevent visitors from hearing it. She interprets their reaction as "embarrassment," stemming from a supposed lack of racial consciousness, pre-Black Power. If Tyson were to interrogate the content of the tape itself, the positionality of the interpreter on that tape, and visitor demographics – in tandem with the Black staff members' discomfort – she could have more substantively analyzed the situation. Picture this: a white interpreter working at a historic colonial site in the 1960s records a script about "the life of a slave cook" for a white audience. The tape is likely paternalistic in tone; at best, it is a sanitized account of atrocity that is both romanticized and dehumanizing. Black staff members are forced to listen to this tape – a white interpreter speaking to a white audience about nameless Black bodies bustling about a kitchen in service to some long-dead white people. These Black maintenance staff members themselves likely clean up after these white interpreters, these white audience members – performing more services and emotional labor than any of the "front-line" workers Tyson writes about. Their smothering of this tape recording did not come from a place of embarrassment, but one of defiance – an obstruction of the white historical gaze, rather than "censorship."
Given my own suppositions, one can understand how easily Tyson's vague account could be misconstrued. The same is true of her discussion of Williamsburg's short-lived African American Interpretation Program (AAIP) and their controversial 1994 "Estate Sale" program. Tyson only goes so far as to locate the problem in terms of the medium of presentation (i.e., reenactment), constraining it to a supposedly universal "emotional and intellectual discomfort" (146). She pays no mind to the white onlookers at this reenactment of a slave auction. Which begs the real question, not of whether living history does justice to painful subject matter, but of why? For whom do we perform history, write history, interpret history? Indeed, assuming public history hasn't been completely overtaken by the sensationalist, money-making schemes of neoliberalism, where do the well-intended set their sights? On educating the masses? Put another way, who benefits from witnessing enslavement? Assuming living history is a medium of empathy, who here needs to be taught empathy? White people. Even comical renditions of historical reenactment speak to this dynamic. In Azie Dungey's "Ask A Slave," emotional labor, white ignorance, and the white gaze are all glaringly apparent. Meanwhile, Key and Peele's "Civil War Reenactment" intrudes upon the insularity of white people reenacting history, their erasure of POC from those narratives out of guilt and fragility. Historic interpretation – history itself – is an enterprise, portioned as mass produced experiences of nostalgia and nationalism.
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.
newfound tenderness, claiming Cheung as their own. In their understandable haste to include him in a political narrative of mainstream acculturation and queer stardom, Cheung was eulogized as an "icon (or sacred figure, shengxiang) of transgression." But amidst declarations of "pride" and "bravery," the public conveniently forgot how Cheung had subtly and ambiguously crafted the sexuality of his public persona – never "openly" declaring himself as tongzhi and only gradually "coming out" once as bisexual while publicly acknowledging his partner Daffy Tong Hok-Tak. Leung observes the erasure of the important changeabilities and nuances that ought to compose "a more enduring and intimate place in our queer memory" (88). The same is true in queer historiographies; we rush to claim famous figures as "ours" (rather proprietarily) without considering the agency of the historical actor in constructing their unique sexual scripts or even the presentisms and Euro/Americentricisms that color such depictions.
The title of Leslie Cheung's gay flick, 春光乍洩 (literally, Emergence of the Scenery of Spring), is an idiom meaning "the exposure of something intimate or indecent." (Interesting that intimacy and indecency are often equated; perhaps it is simply indecent to be publicly intimate?) Indeed, I would argue that it is these forms of personal sexual meaning-making that transcend celebrity and draw a veil between our presentations and experiences – conjuring a form of queerness that exists perpetually on a knife's edge of privacy/publicity, intimacy/indecency. Consider "sham marriages" that most LGBT Westerners decry as oppressive and unnecessarily assimilatory while they, too, allow their sexualities to be institutionalized. While gays and lesbians allow the mainstream to subsume and erode their complexity, tongzhi adapt mainstream narratives to fit their lives (without necessarily having to give up that which makes them tongzhi). Within the interactionist model, Goffman would likely label this a form of cynical impression management; the self is an act, developed to give the right impression to different audiences. It is important to remember that the origination story of tongzhi as a sexual-communal identifier begins with a film festival. There's something to be said for the symbolism embedded within that mythos – the uses of scripts and performance in our social and sexual lives.
The SAA defines access as either the ability or permission to locate (and retrieve) information; accessioning is defined as either transferring or taking custody of that information. What does it mean to both act upon archival materials – to acquire, control, circulate, and interpret their content – and have those actions curbed? In what instances is this circumscription a means of empowerment? How do we negotiate taboos and the politics of (moralized) discomfort in the archival space with respect to atrocity, and the words and images that capture (and/or objectify) its violence? This week, these issues were apparent in three projects from which I consumed archival materials: (1) MIT’s Visualizing Cultures website, (2) HSP’s “One Manly Soul” display, and (3) Ava DuVernay’s 13TH documentary.
Violent imagery and rhetoric (past and present) pervade American society. In 2006, the MIT Visualizing Cultures controversy centered on Japanese war propaganda from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Many picture labels objectified the caricatured, mutilated bodies of Chinese men by alluding to the beautiful aesthetics of war and Japanese portraiture. Some protestors focused on the flippant textual engagement of the creators and/or the circulation of the imagery used for promotion of the site. Images independent of text are not generally “unbiased;” they are decontextualized. In the archive, metadata itself is subjective. These decontextualized images of atrocity are evocative and we must be self-conscious of our own (objectifying) gazes. Meanwhile, other protestors took issue with the preservation and (re)publication of the propaganda itself. However, the censoring one’s own history is often disempowering. Historical atrocity should not be viewed as evidence of humiliation or failure (i.e., internalized victim-blaming), but be woven into an identifiable history from which a one can derive meaning and the impetus for change and self-advocacy.
Chinese student protestors were accused of bias (“militant nationalism”), but the site’s creators themselves were two male professors: one white and one Japanese. Where were the Chinese voices in this project? In Jing Wang and Winnie Won Yin Wong’s introduction to Positions‘ unpacking of this controversy, they ask “Who holds a privileged viewpoint over the images, texts, or even the history of a tribe or a nation—experts or natives?” (6). What irks me about this question is that it treats “the expert” and “the native” as mutually exclusive. What the question really does is normalize the (white male) historiographical gaze, its abstractions and armchair theories, and its seemingly omniscient outsider “objectivity.” What is ideal – what ought to be the “privileged” (read: prioritized) perspective in the construction of historical narratives – is the voices of Others. What is more productive than studying, engaging with, structuring, and circulating one’s own history? It is neither irrational upheaval, nor the clamoring of pathos-driven plebeians. Only Others know how to perform and demand historiographic restorations and reparations. Historians are often the “middlemen;” word and image pass through the hands of their original creators and archivists before they reach historians and the general public. Historians may fancy themselves the retrievers and interpreters, but archivists and "natives" (and native archivists) are really the first filters through which materials pass – creating, weeding and processing information before everyone else.
Meanwhile, HSP’s upcoming “One Manly Soul” display features pamphlets and political cartoons created by white men that feature racist imagery and rhetoric about the 1763 Conestoga Massacre (the brutal murder of 21 Susquehannock men, women, and children). Absolutely no American Indian (let alone Susquehannock) people were involved in the compilation and interpretation of these materials, and respected scholars within this field are white people (mostly men). Is my (lone) presence on this project as a person of color (albeit Asian, not American Indian) some sort of consolation, pseudo-validation, and/or tokenization? Conversely, the recently released documentary 13TH (which explores the Thirteenth Amendment, mass incarceration, and racism in the United States) was directed by Ava DuVernay, a Black woman, and its “talking heads” are majority Black scholars. In a moment of metanarrative, the film (which features images of racial violence and oppression, both past and present) discusses the role of visual culture in shaping liberation movements: “[We] are extensions of this kind of oppression, we don’t need to see pictures to understand what’s going on. [It’s really there to] speak to the masses who have been ignoring this…” Shock value became a powerful tool with the advent of photography; seminal images like the scarred back of Gordon (an enslaved man) and Emmett Till’s open casket are ingrained in the American historical imagination. Must we objectify ourselves, our histories and traumas, in order to validate our humanity? With the advent of social media – when Black people can live broadcast their own murders and only enact conversation, not justice – how will archivists access(ion) our atrocity?