"African American construction worker at site near Trenton Elevated Railroad Bridge in
Philadelphia, ca. 1918." Wikimedia Commons. Accessed September 6, 2017.
In Pennsylvania in Public Memory, Carolyn Kitch surveys the microhistories of communities affected by the closing of mines, mills, and railroads – the cultural impact of such loss and the teleologies of economic renewal woven through them. By localizing the narrative of "blue collar blight," Kitch conveys issues of class, economic loss, joblessness, and identity that resonate especially with twenty-first century politics. This historical case study of the plight of capitalism alludes to larger, global systems of outsourced labor (125) and how the political rhetoric of elites is consumed by the working class, thus magnifying the bonds of white nationalism, the entitlement to a national consciousness based in economic disparity, and an imagined community of communities.
Such narratives are inherently racialized because they become dependent upon the specter of a foreign enemy, a threat to economic security domestically. Yet, Kitch's inclusion of the narratives of economically disenfranchised people of color is tangential at best (81-4). By framing "collective narrative construction"as the framework through which people of disparate experiences ought to find "common ground," Kitch naively conveys public history as a unifying enterprise (i.e., something through which to quell the antagonisms of the white working class and the guilt of the white middle class). Had she more thoroughly juxtaposed the experiences of working-class whites and people of color, her audience would have been better able to conceive of public history as an educational enterprise – something meant to contextualize and illuminate the inequities of the past and present.
Likewise, Kitch's treatment of immigration as the "unifying theme"of economic historiographies implicitly prioritizes the "white ethnic" experience. Momentarily engaging the question of "who is 'ethnic'?" (156-7), she never discusses the rich "industrial past" of Philadelphia – a prime example of the economic disenfranchisement of Black Americans. Instead, Kitch glosses over the"industrial heritage" of Black Americans by espousing an oversimplified, two-step journey of "geographic mobility toward freedom in the north" and "economic mobility through their inclusion in certain industries."*
Meanwhile, Kitch's careful consideration of oral histories evokes questions of respect for "storytellers" who interpret their own experiences and ancestries and, thus, the value of community engagement (84). Indeed, "shared authority" has become somewhat of a buzzword in the field lately – reminding us to be wary of methodological hypocrisy. Many a paternalistic public historian has claimed to "give voice," and to bestow the aforementioned "authority" upon a community to tell its own history. Kitch engages this issue, but, again, only within the confines of white working-class narratives. There still remains a seeming resistance to apply this method of epistemic privilege to "racial" histories; the inclusion of curators, interpreters, docents and tour guides from the community whose history is being shared is only afforded to "color-blinded" narratives of class, gender, and sexuality.
Indeed, according to Denise Meringolo in Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, the "professionalization" of the public history field began in the mid-1970s as a result of economic recession (xiv-xv). The recruitment of jobless academics (and, as such, the programmatic occupation of the field by the white middle class) to serve as official or "objective" storytellers is nothing new. The American Historical Association's new initiative on"career diversity" (ironically, not about race) exemplifies this issue.
So, how do we envision the potential of new fields like digital history to support the grassroots disruption of the narratives legitimized by institutional powers and the "demographically flawed" workforces that have created and maintained them? Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen found that museums were the most trusted sources of "historical fact" in the mid-1990s, thanks to their survey (the results of which are recounted both online and in The Presence of the Past). Does that belief still hold today, in the age of "fake news," when we cling to such flawed and aged establishments with the hope that they will provide the answers? Likewise, Rosenzweig and Thelen found that over a third of people had investigated their family history in the last year. The authors view this statistic as an indication that we first ground, then experience our identities (ancestries and positionalities) as the impetuses for our change-making aspirations. Such subjectivity is, perhaps, incongruous with the sanctification of "objective" institutions like museums.
As Ian Tyrell demonstrates in Historians in Public, public historians' drive to emphasize our usefulness has, historically, lent itself to ultimately supporting the state's narrative – the powers to which we find ourselves appealing for legitimation and support (i.e., funding). Historians like Jesse Lemisch have lamented that "history [is] at the service of power" (246).
*For a great digital project that thoroughly and meaningfully tells this history, check out "Old Philadelphians and Southern Newcomers: An Experience of the Great Migration" by Tina Conway, Richard Fontanet and Brad Horstmann.