Dispatch from the Edge of Recession: Job Market Moment... the Elusive Excitement

I have that sick, nervous feeling right now. I just came across a job posting for a place I desperately want to work, here in Atlanta, with an amazing mission and unbelievable combination of my passions, skills, and beliefs. And every single thing they list on the job description I can do now, and would dominate in that position. Writing for the web and published media sources, networking, working with the press and local organizations, planning and organizing in-house documents and memos, social media management,  photography for events and media, group and project work, and a boatload of other exciting things--and above all, believing in the mission of the organization. Seriously, I would rock this job and every responsibility I am given, because it's things I excel in already and have done in many capacities before, but also because it's in a field that I have dedicated two degrees to so far, and both of them fostered my concern for the mission of this organization as well--civil rights, human rights, communication along cultural and racial lines, understanding of one another. I am riddled with excitement, to put it mildly. Suddenly, I have gone from a regular night of searching job listings and imagining my near future in retail once more (and working for seven bucks an hour, woo!), to imagining something far different and much more exciting--working in a meaningful position for a purpose, putting my skills and work ethic to the test and building them further. I desperately want to pour myself into a job. And I really want it to be something I care about, though I have had to make sacrifices in this portion of my goal, because employment is more important than holding out, unemployed, for a noble goal. I am realistic if nothing else. (Hey, it might take a few years of crap to get back to the noble goal. And student loans don't pay back themselves.)

So I have been applying to various clerical jobs, submitting my resume to staffing agencies, saying I'm looking for administrative work. And the recruiters ask me what kind of work I am looking for. The honest answer is any work, at least at a rate to cover my bills. But perhaps that sounds desperate, not ideal--so I'll say admin work, sure! The job fair I went to today had many openings for health care workers, police officers and security professionals, warehouse workers, and for those seeking employment in the fast food industry. It was a depressing picture for someone with a niche degree like Heritage Preservation. Try throwing that one on a staffing recruiter. I try to emphasize my strong administrative skills in the conversation, too.

In the nine months during which I have been applying to jobs, this is only the second one to arise that is here in the city I love, which I am qualified for and which truly, makes me utterly breathless with excitement. I immediately bound ahead in my brain, to having the job, making positive improvements, wearing my beautiful skirts and blazers and representing well everyone who has helped me get to this point. I have had days where it has been impossible to imagine, to conceptualize, my future--what job would I even be doing, and where, and for whom? It is a fast downward spiral when you can't conceptualize whether you will be folding clothes or doing data entry or answering phones, or changing the world in my own small way for an employer I love.

This is only the second job to send electricity down my spine. I read the long description over and over, and each time, I am more confident that I can nail every single bullet point. I am a master of so many of these things already. And when I am on paper, the only thing people see is that I'm a recent grad with no full time work experience, even though multiple, simultaneous part-time jobs have earned me all the skills I have and use in what equals a full-time commitment of my time--and which make me exactly the person for the job. But my mind has already blown past this more realistic doubting part of my brain, because, of course, you're made for this! They'll see that!

That is what I really believed about the singular previous position that I desperately wanted and felt highly qualified for. I didn't get that job. I got an overly formal and way-late e-mail response from some lady I had never spoken to, saying they had chosen someone else. Now, in nine months of scores of job applications and submissions, I am quite used to impersonal rejections and regrets, but this one hurt. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't get it, but I also thought there was a good chance I could. The experience has made me thoroughly exhausted with employers not wanting to take a chance on a passionate, young professional. Heck, I'll work for next to nothing and I really care about the job! And I work hard to boot! And communicate well! What on earth more can you want from a candidate? Idealism? Creativity? Tech savvy? Perseverance? Amiable personality? Strong leader? Organizer? Oh, wait -- I am all those!

This is a public website, and I am fully secure in posting my thoughts publicly, because you know what? I'm a frustrated twenty-something in a tough transition, in a terrible economy, in a niche industry. And I am not going to hide that from employers, professors, parents, friends, strangers. The excitement I feel right now is very real, and I risk heartbreak and sadness all over again for what could become a missed opportunity to perform above and beyond in an excellent position for a great company. I really need to share that feeling with you, because it is the tiny little glimpse of the future -- of producing great things and of the potential I have sitting right here at my desk -- that keeps me from giving up.

Genealogy and history: love & hate

My hate story

Recently I was talking about the main duties of the student archives technician at the National Archives, and it lead me into a tangent about perceptions of archives and the public’s idea that digitization is some panacea for records management, and an easy fix.

What I didn’t get to are my other duties at work. Besides holdings maintenance projects (the ones that started the tangent on the sheer number of materials we have), I also work in the public areas, assisting the public and researchers, and complete research requests for patrons who are off-site but need help. The first of these assignments takes up half of every workday, as it is the job of the students to assist the public so that the full-time archivists can get down to doing the projects and work they are here to do. Not that their duties don’t also revolve around aiding researchers and the public, but if someone has to sit in the textual research room while a researcher is here and she must not leave the room, well, that limits the amount of other activities that she can complete while essentially on lock-down. In this case, right now, I am in the text room supervising a researcher for the Corps of Engineers, and so I cannot leave the room; it allows for time to write journals reflecting on my duties here, for instance. Sometimes, if the timing is right, we can bring a project into the text room and work on it while we’re trapped in here.

The other room is the research room, and that’s the general public area, the one where you do not need a researcher card to enter, and pretty much anyone who can get past the security guards and metal detectors is allowed in there. It means we are safe from criminals, but we are not safe from idiots and crazy people, and we are especially not safe from… genealogists. I am not the first person to write (no, complain) about genealogists as the annoying part of the duties of a student employee here at the Archives.

Not to sound snooty, but historians have a hierarchy, and genealogists are basically at the bottom, maybe even below the base marker. Family history is basically a nonstarter for most of us working here; it just doesn’t matter too much. We get a tiny thrill maybe the first time we see an ancestor’s draft card. That was the first thing I researched when I started working here, because they are commonly requested, and so I used it as a learning experience in pulling WWI draft cards. I found Perley W. Grubb, scanned his card, and refiled him with rest of the Wisconsin draftees. But where my family was positioned in history does not dictate either my feelings about history, nor the scope or basis of my research.

The problem is, most people’s families did really nothing much that would put them anywhere in the historical records. We have federal records here, and most people go their whole lives never really being really involved in federal functions. You fill out your census every ten years—that’s the main thing. Some people have military records—that’s another biggie. And if your ancestors immigrated or filed for a passport, they would also have filed federal records. But even then, in the case of immigration, they would have had to file their petition for naturalization in a federal court, and before 1907, it wasn’t required that they file them in federal court. So anyone who came to the United States in the nineteenth century could file in any level of court—county, state, federal, random Podunk local courthouse. And that’s if they naturalized at all; they might have remained nationals of their birth country.

We have research tools here for people to begin to find records their ancestors more commonly filed—vital records of birth, marriage, and death. Those are records filed with the state, and so are most often held by either the state’s historical archives or the vital records office—depending on how old they are and varying widely by state. People often get frustrated that before the twentieth century (and even in that one, in many cases) births were not recorded officially. If their great-grandfather’s birth was recorded on the inside of some Bible somewhere, I can’t help them.

It’s not to say that I wholly dismiss genealogy. I understand regular people’s need to see themselves in the past in order to make it meaningful for them. Genealogy is a significant historical experience for many people in today’s digitization-happy world. Part of public history is finding a way to make the past matter to an individual; this means including genealogy on the totem pole, for what value it does offer to a public craving connection. Historians whose focuses lie in larger themes, events, historical trends, and connections—oftentimes professional historians and scholars—don’t focus on minutiae of particular individuals unless they did do something significant or relevant to the subject of their study. Whereas genealogists go looking for a particular person to see if he might have done anything worth recording, historians find the things that were worth recording and then find out more about the people who did them. They start from different points, and work in opposite directions.

I understand though, that a large portion of the public we serve is here to do just that, to find their family. So I work in the research room, patiently helping octogenarians use the printers and computers, and try my best to let them do their own research even when it means teaching them how to move backward and forward on an internet page. (Yes, really.) We don’t do the research for them, we give them tools, indexes, direction on where to begin and what kinds of records will serve their needs best, and then we let them loose.

Once you’ve heard about Great Aunt Gertrude once, you’ve heard about her a hundred times. I cannot tell you how boring it is to hear someone rattle off names in a complicated web, as if I am going to remember or care how their whole family tree is organized. Funny anecdotes to them are a dime-a-dozen to me; but I try not to let my eyes glaze over, and always listen politely for as long as seems normal before bowing out and into my little glass room to hide (which doesn’t work so well in a glass room). Also fun: I can no longer count on two hands the number of people who’ve told me they are related to someone who came over on the Mayflower. This comment is my single biggest pet peeve of working in the research room, bar none. First of all, it’s probably not true; there are so many generations to prove unequivocally. (And there were not that many to survive, if you recall.) Secondly, it truly makes no difference to me whether your long-long-ago ancestors happened to live, even if it was in a colony that is super-famous and iconic in American history. You’d be more interesting to me if YOU have been on the Mayflower. Let’s talk about that!

The most frustrating thing about working with genealogists is when they get angry, upset, or even cry over not being able to find much about those farther back in their family tree. I had one lady in tears at 4:45 one afternoon, because an ancestor she had been researching twenty-five years was still eluding her. He was drafted from Michigan into the Union army during the Civil War, and then she knew that the family received record that he died. She was distraught that there was no record of anything in between. Ma’am, I wanted to say, what the heck else would he have filed with anyone? He was at war. Unless he wrote some diary that somehow made it back into the arms of his family after the war, which is highly, crazily doubtful, there would be nothing else. He fought in a war and he died. That corner of the tree is complete. I am sorry if that is unsatisfying. In my experience, genealogy is highly unsatisfying, because it is so unlikely that your ancestors left much of a paper trail.

We make more of a paper trail these days, but it’s technically an electronic trail. Maybe in one hundred years, my Amazon Wishlist will provide a descendent of mine with endless insight into what I was like. They will also be able to read my Twitter feed, which I do think is very interesting to ponder. I so wish I could read the Twitter feed of Young John Allen, or those sent among the members of a nineteenth century quilting group. But until some of those things become “history,” for now we have the United States census, where you can see interesting things like whether or not your ancestors spoke English and were or were not the head of the household. (Am I coming across here as scathingly sarcastic? I do hope so.)

On people, or: "I didn't want to start with an issue"

Peter Hessler, former English teacher in China and author of several books on Chinese life and people, both historical and modern, is a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and long-form journalist. In his interview in reception of his prize, he spoke on what it is to write about China and Chinese life, to him:

“There's always been a tendency to see a place like China in very political terms. I think this is partly because it’s a communist country, it’s run by the Communist Party. And from my perspective, living in China, starting especially the way that I started, as a Peace Corps volunteer, in a small community, teaching in a small college, it gave me a very different starting point. And I really wanted to write about ordinary people in China. I didn't want to start with an issue, or start with a political idea, I wanted to start with an individual, start with a community.”

To me this exemplifies the kind of approach that public historians take to topics of history that have traditionally been very idea-based, politically oriented, and top-down in nature. We can look at a country or an issue or a group of people through these high-minded mechanisms, or we can study people themselves, and how they fit into the larger historical fabric. That is a much more important goal, and ultimately more meaningful.

Hessler is a journalist, that is an important distinction; but he writes based in a historical context, referencing the past at each step, and this is also valuable. (I will fight with people who dismiss great books written by journalists.)

Looking at one individual person's perspective can lead towards a dangerous of generalizing based on not enough larger perspective, yes, but it is in knowing the balance, and in incorporating these people into history that we are best served by learning of the past. Genealogy is not real historical study, but it gets people engaged, and that is important. Someone is interested in feeling a personal connection to the past, and that cannot be ignored in our own, professional approaches to studying history.

I am always reminded of British writer and historian William Dalrymple's  fantastic skill for emphasizing the individual's experience of history, as he does in The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857which keeps the reader vividly engaged by showing us the Indian Rebellion of 1857 through the eyes of several key player on the ground. I have never read a book of history in which I felt so deeply connected to the characters of the era, and when they all begin falling at the hands of their enemies, I had a true emotional reaction to the destruction of this city and these lives. I've heard he does the same thing in one of his other works, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.  An inspiring example--though not without his critiques--of this kind of engaging historical writing.

Oral history in practice: find the people, and a project becomes real

I've started putting into practice the things that up until this point in my oral history class have only been discussed, that existed only in theory, as things we would eventually have to do. I've begun the process of cold-calling a list of strangers, to me, nothing more than a series of names and phone numbers that I found on a national organization's Atlanta chapter site. And to them, I am a stranger asking to be let into their lives, who is asking to hear their stories, often quite personal and emotional. I am asking, after all, about the process of adopting their own children. This is a very strange thing to explain in a message on an answering machine to a person you've never spoken to.

And in several cases, I've had kids answer the phone, and take the message. This is even stranger, having to summarize in a brief sentence or series of key words to a child or teenager why this random graduate student wants to talk to their mother. (Note: It's about them. Talk about awkward to explain.) "My name is Jessie, I'm a graduated student at Georgia State, and I want to talk to your mom about an oral history project I am starting, on families who've adopted children from China." Hmm, random, indeed.

The first time I dialed a number, I was so thankful it was no longer in service, because I slammed the phone down and felt my heart rate come back down from through-the-roof heights. A few deep breaths, and onto name #2 on the list. Many calls later, I am slowly but surely reaching out to some families. All in its own time, I am in no hurry, and want these families to feel they can respond to my request in time. We're all busy people.

This is, by the way, preliminary work for what will be my master's capstone project: an oral history series and podcast series, compiled and stored on a website that also allows for interaction and visitor submissions, on the stories and histories of Metro Atlanta families who have adopted daughters from China. This enormous diaspora of Chinese girls has spread far across the world, and Atlanta is just one corner of that vast space. This community, the girls and their adoptive (and biological) families, are part of an important historical event, beginning largely in the early 1990s and reaching a peak around 1999 - 2005, and waning in recent years as the process has become extremely cumbersome and slow for adoptive families. This twenty-odd-year period marks an important occurrence in China-U.S. relations that reaches directly into the homes of American families whose families have changed forever because of it; and I want to study this in that historical context, by compiling the oral histories of those living it.

To do this, I've had to muster up some courage I haven't used since my days in student journalism--when it was nothing to phone a stranger and ask them some questions.

But oral histories are by nature very intense, quite distinct from a journalistic effort. And it has been thrilling so far, to find what's at the other end of the line, when you call someone out of the blue--a total stranger--and ask them about something like the experience of adopting their own child.

Exhilaration even more enormous than calling as a journalist. No, I'm not a reporter, I'm a historian, and I want to record your oral history. Just as we have talked about in class, people immediately begin to question you ("How did you get my number?"), and question themselves, retrospect on their own life--"I haven't done anything important." But they have and that's the point of oral histories. They are a part of history.

I am awestruck all over again, every time I think of the phone call I received last night, in return to one of my messages left with a woman's daughter. She was rightfully questioning of me, but I clearly passed the test, because she became so open and willing and engaging, by the time I hung up with her my jaw was literally hanging open. I sat in shock in the driver's seat of my car.

This family has an extraordinary part in the history of Chinese adoptions, from a very early point in the larger narrative timeline. Each of their three daughters is from China, adopted in the 1990s. I have researched this process and read books and articles, and I have never heard of a family like this, ever. And they are part of the exact Metro Atlanta community that I so want to document. I absolutely cannot wait to speak with her further, and collect her story (stories, for sure).

There is a huge difference between theorizing and structuring and dreaming up a plan, a project, and executing it--and making the final product effective, interesting, helpful to participants and the larger public. Without knowing who is out there to talk to, I had no idea if this would even work. I now feel that it is not only possible, but it has the potential of being extremely fruitful. The families who have adopted from China are an extraordinarily connected and close-knit community, across the nation. I hope this small project can somehow contribute to those within that cross-national community, and inspire other initiatives. It's an important international event that deserves to be contemplated in its proper historical context. I'm so excited to bring us a step closer to doing this.

Telling stories without paper: human voices and created objects

Without realizing it earlier, this semester I am in two courses that I have been extremely excited to take, and that both deal with forms of historical evidence that are neither paper nor text. The Document is the historian's love, her bread and butter, that which is often the basis of entire projects, which turn into the articles, tomes, textbooks, and popular history books that everyone else reads. In public history classes, though, it is a simple truth that the regular person goes to museums not to read lots of label text and long passages that, though their stories may be astonishing, do involve more words. No, they most often go to see the things that make history come to life for them. Artifacts, small and large, can often be so powerful, say so much with no words. And this is where my classes are taking me. The emphasis in Material Culture is obvious: the objects, created or altered somehow by man, that offer insight into customs, social patterns, lifestyles, foodways, and larger culture of the people of our past.

So too do I find this in Oral History, the other aforementioned class, where our discussions, readings, and projects revolve around the spoken word, in a historical context, and using a proper methodology that puts it far beyond casual conversation. In conducting oral histories, we are formally and methodically documenting the past, in ways that effect immensely both the narrator (the subject) and the interviewer (me).

I find both of these mediums so powerful. I conducted two oral histories earlier this year, after a one-class-period crash course in one of my other classes, and while they were on two very different topics, I discovered the many nuances that oral historians have been raving about since the 1960s; one of the most significant to me was the unexpected paths the interview can take, and also the candidness of my narrators. By asking very simple questions and then shutting my damn mouth, it was astonishing what stories they would tell me, without my ever having to ask them something provocative or controversial. Not that the primary goal is provocative information, not at all. But, for example, I was interviewing a couple in the late forties who have a young daughter they adopted from Guatemala, and there were a lot of delicate and sensitive subjects I wanted to broach with them, like whether or not they would someday tell her about her half-siblings that they knew she had back in Guatemala, or whether they would help her in finding her biological roots, if she ever wanted to know more about them. These were things I didn't think I would have the guts to ask. But I never needed to: the family was so welcoming and so willing to explore their complicated emotions on those subjects, via other more basic questions I had asked within the larger subject of their family and their relationship to Guatemala right now. I know this won't always be the case, and this is a topic I am continuing to work with, but it was an extraordinary first dive into the process, and into the revelations of what oral histories are, and what they do for larger historical projects you are producing.

And material culture, whose roots can be found across disciplines--archeology, folklore, sociology, history--has been enchanting academics in these fields for far longer than I have been alive to ponder its worth. I am not a natural at gleaning information and historical clues from innate objects the way I have been able to do with documents, even though, at their core, neither one is more or less equipped than the other to tell a story about the person who created it. Documents are not purveyors of truth any more than a three-dimensional object that lacks a description or context of any kind. Just because something has words on it, a handwritten letter, say, does not mean we can understand it any better upon finding it than we would a shard of porcelain. My goal this semester is to begin to better navigate and interpret our material past, in more nuanced ways than I have ever known or cared to explore.

Museum staffs, and so, museum exhibits, have as their goal the interpretation of the past, in a way that makes people look at their own lives and relate the past to them, to where they live, to those around them. This can be done very well with historical documents, presented in a cohesive manner, that tell a wonderful story. But, as soon as you add the human voice, and the objects created by men and women in that same story, you have brought the exhibit to life. You have succeeded in a more successful, effective way, in relating the story to your audience, and they will leave remembering it more clearly, and hopefully in a way that connects them to the past, to its utter humanity and enormity.

Henry Glassie, in his book Material Culture, describes our relationship to things in our everyday life, and inspires us to think about them in more significant ways, as pieces that connect us to the larger humanity of the world. After all, if it as not us personally, someone created every single thing in our lives. That is a powerful thought. I leave you with the passion of his words, so inspiring and clearly telling, as he has spent his life studying the Things of People.

Among the new things, the most important, I believe, is the collection: the assembly of gifts, souvenirs, and commodities into a home--the domestic environment in contradistinction to the house. The collection represents a victory over disorder in industrial times, when the flood of goods threatens to sweep us to madness in a rising tide of irrelevant trash, just as the house of stone represented a victory over disorder in the days when people lived close to nature, when the lean wolves came down from the heath and the night winds wailed. But we should not be confused. Today, while we create things out of things made by other people, all across the globe, people in no way less real or alive are going up into the woods and down to the riverside. They are chopping out chunks of nature and fashioning artifacts that display their spirit and serve the serious needs of their neighbors.

Place: "writing from a place, from a community, from a location in the world"

Part of the profession of writing and studying history demands an indifference to place. One reason for this is the slim chance of finding an academic position in the exact city where you might want it, so we want to be assured that any location is surely a great place to do our jobs. But the other, more significant, aspect of our profession is that we almost always start with something that happened and then look around at the place where it occurred. The location, the city, the larger community, is the secondary thing that we consider, after the initial social or political bit caught our interest.

Local and public history is almost exactly the opposite. For the people living in their home, in their city or town, in their region, they begin with a place they care about and ask what happened there, in that spot that they claim, maybe even identify with.

It might be the disassociation, the impersonal way that we take history and dissect it, interpret it, and polish it up into a book filled with delicious complication and some big words, that sometimes causes our own alienation from everyday people, who consume a wholly different kind of history. While the doctoral works sit in the university library for other noble scholars to ponder and converse over, citizens of my city are consuming history through television documentaries and films, theme parks, mass market historical fiction, facts and tidbits on Snapple caps, and maybe (hopefully!) a museum every now and then. Part of why I find public history so important a field is that we see how both of these types of history are important, and, as Michael Frisch said in his book with the same title, we have a "shared authority." The conversation about history is not only taking place in the university, nor should it. We are not allowed to shake our heads, smiling sadly, at the interpretations of Hollywood movies or History Channel specials if we are not willing to take the discussion to the table, equally set, to have a talk about the complexities and contentions in our past.

And we can talk about community histories together. This is an exciting idea to me, because I am a bit of a product of that American placelessness problem (although I don't see it as a "problem"); I did not have deep connections with particular cities, communities, or regions on a historical level until the last few years, when, either adulthood or my upper division history courses or both dropped me into a strange reality: I cared about where I lived. I don't mean that I never cared about a place, what I mean is deeper, on a historical level: I care about what happened in that place before I got there. That is a significant difference, and it changes your approach.

A majority of the courses I took to earn my bachelor's degree were on world history. I know a lot about Chinese history and politics, India and South Asia and their politics, West Africa, Central Asia, even a bit (though only a bit) about Europe. But not being from any of those places, there is only so much I can ever hope to know about them, and I may never understand them fully. That leaves me knowing not very much about the larger world, but even less about my own history. I learned a lesson, I grounded myself and thought headily about how much I need to learn about my own complicated past (and how it relates to all the other ones I've studied, which fold back into each other in beautiful important ways.) Wouldn't you know, the American history and public history courses I did take had some of the most profound impact on me, and my career path.

The deeper I get into history though, I need to have my areas of expertise, of core interest, the parts of history whose facts I know, like the professors who sometimes amaze me with thee breadth of their knowledge. (I rest more easily when I remind myself that they've had a lot longer to learn all these things.) I don't officially have my list yet. I don't know what I want to study, maybe because there are so many things I would like to study.

Usually I'll ramble off something about the immigrant experience in America, as that is an area I am extremely interested in. Regular readers will know I have an ongoing fascination with the notion of nationality and identity, and what happens when you are too many of those things, and what point in the spectrum garners you a hyphenated identity. It has been interesting recently, for example, to read of the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, the strict Chinese mother (living in the U.S.) who has raised her children markedly unlike the American counterparts around her. But in China nowadays, Chua's is an old guard of parents, a generation past. To Chinese people, the controversy is surrounding an American mom; she is an American mom to them. So who is she? What is she? That is just juicy, good stuff. So, that is one area I really do hope I get to work in. There are so many stories from so many countries that become part of our American history as soon as they enter our country. Some have been here a long time, others, not so long. They're all important stories.

Anyway, this week I read historian David Glassberg's Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life and it was brimming with quotable and thought-provoking observations and experiences in the minds and matters of the public and their past, and what it means. His concluding remarks were both a revelation in combining emotion and a study of the past, and in reveling in connectivity and separation at once, a challenge and aspiration for historians to tackle today. But he also spoke right to newcomers to the field, and reassured me that I have talents and ideas to bring to the world yet, and I'll figure out what they are before long.

The distancing from life, the quest for perspective that historians learn in graduate school as the core of the historical enterprise must be balanced by a recognition of our personal needs for the past. Our own experiences, our own families, our own communities, can be the source of historical insights, not because we assume that everyone is like us, but because we can establish who we are only by writing from a place, from a community, from a location in the world.

So what will I tell my students wanting to become historians? Certainly to learn the history of the profession, and the skills necessary to earn a living doing history, whether through teaching or any number of other pursuits. But also to find a place from which to write, and to cultivate a humanity within yourself that allows you to connect with others in that place. To help the residents of your community to see the value of the ordinary places where they live. To help your neighbors to expand their time perspective beyond a generation or two. And perhaps most difficult, given the tendency Americans have to make histories that exclude others from their life-stories and neighborhoods, to help your fellow citizens to expand their social perspectives beyond their immediate families, so that they discover in their quest for a history and place that they can call their own, that they are part of a larger society and environment.

I have been sitting on an idea for my own historical and creative endeavor that I can hopefully turn into my larger capstone project for my master's degree (that class will be next spring). And I can tell you that reading this passage makes me want to jump out of my seat and go start it right now. So many good discussions to have out there... so much amazing history, wrapped up in people's lives and surrounding them every day. Since the day I decided I wanted to be a journalist, in high school, I've had the urge and the need to share stories that illustrate the grandness of human drama, and to show people the larger perspectives and how they fit in. That urge is at the center of everything I've been doing since then, although it has taken many positive twists and turns from that title "journalism." It's really writing. Telling stories. That's what I do, have done, will do.

The city and the country

The semester has shifted into full swing, even though I have yet to attend a class. I've been doing so much reading though, and already have so many dog-eared pages and underlined sentences and bracketed paragraphs, I can tell it's going to be a theme here for awhile: the public and history, the relationship, the interaction, the communication challenges, the chasm between public memory and historical awareness and the world of academic scholarship. Readings for two of my classes have overlapped to a freakish degree, meaning I have read literally dozens of articles and chapters in the last week and every single one has been on this subject: the public and history, and public historians.

I do love when class readings overlap with similar themes, authors, and topics, as it creates an even deeper dialogue for my own thinking on whatever it is I'm focused on. It almost always surprises me too, when it happens, because it has often been in seemingly unrelated classes. These aren't as surprising. One is Museum Studies, the other is Intro to Public History.

There are so many juicy subjects that I have been pondering this week, most of which I don't have time to develop into larger posts, and quite honestly, my extended writings on some of these things might rehash or drive into the ground the words and arguments the historians have already composed. But because some of it is so juicy, so thought-provoking to me, I have to share, if for nothing else than to have some of these tidbits in one place.

So here:

This quotation is from William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, from the prologue, in which he dissects his childhood notions of the city as compared to the country, and how those contain such specific constructs in our minds. His thoughts absolutely resonated with me, with some of my own childhood perceptions, and with those moments of revelation when you discover something so stunningly simple that still took you years to figure out.

Never having lived in a great city, I had no idea how little I understood it, but my continuing instinct was to mistrust and dislike it. Loving the rural landscape--and later, as I discovered the West, loving still wilder land as well--I felt quite certain that I could never call the city home. Like many who came to adult consciousness during the environmentalist awakening of the late sixties, I wished to live close to "nature." If asked to choose between city and country, I'd have felt no hesitation about my answer. More important, I'd have thought it perfectly reasonable--perfectly natural--to pose the choice in just these stark terms. Chicago represented all that was most unnautral about human life. Crowded and artificial, it was a cancer on an otherwise beautiful landscape.

One of the pleasures of childhood and adolescence is that one can experience emotions of this sort without worrying too much about their possible contradictions. These feelings came easily--my love of nature and the pastoral countryside, my dislike for the city, and beneath them, the romanticism which had schooled me in such perceptions. It took me a long time to realize that I had learned them from a venerable tradition in American and European culture, and an even longer time to suspect that they were distorting my sense of city and country alike. I can't pinpoint when it happened, but I gradually began to sense that my own life (including my affection for things natural) was not so free of the city and its institutions as I had once believed.

Reflecting on the various expeditions I made between my parents' Madison home and assorted rural retreats around Wisconsin, I became troubled by what seemed a paradox in my easy use of the word "natural." The more I learned the history of my home state, the more I realized that the human hand lay nearly as heavily on rural Wisconsin as on Chicago. By what peculiar twist of perception, I wondered, had I managed to see  the plowed fields and second-growth forests of southern Wisconsin--a landscape of former prairies now long vanished--as somehow more "natural" than the streets, buildings, and parks of Chicago? All represented drastic human alterations of earlier landscapes. Why had I seen some human changes as "natural"--the farm, the woodlot, the agricultural countryside--but not the other changes that had made "nature" into "city"? How could one human community be "natural" and another not?

Through the Disney lens

Atlanta got about five inches of snow last night, and in a city with very little equipment for clearing the roads and a populace that doesn't often drive in snow, it means the entire city pretty much took a snow day. The free day allowed me time to finish up some projects around the apartment, and to read a few chapters ahead in one of the few books I already have for the semester (others are delayed with the UPS trucks).

Disney World as a part of popular culture and the most visited tourist destination on the planet is an interesting place to me, and has been for its classic characters long before I had interest in its history or in the way it subsequently tells history. (There was a brief period in high school when I really wanted to go into the animation film industry, as a writer. Then I realized I did not like to draw at all and art school was far too expensive.) But the farther I delve into history and its relationship to the public, the more significant a case study it becomes, as a place where people encounter historical interpretation that they consume as a commodity, and as a form of entertainment. While history should not be boring, it should also be handled with care whenever it nears the entertainment minefield, and that treacherous area where regular citizen meets interpretive history meets patriotic sentiments ends up defining much of the field. Wrap all this up inside a theme park, and it only gets juicier.

Mike Wallace's Mickey Mouse History: And Other Essays on American Memory earns its title from the chapter on Walt Disney's and, later, Disney Enterprises, Inc.'s interpretation and execution of the historical narrative, in "Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World." Walt Disney's approach to the history that appears in the Magic Kingdom echoed the historical interpretations of the consensus-inspired 1950s, but translated into a theme park, took an extreme step further for the sake it tidying up the past for visitors. Says Wallace, his "approach to the past was... not to reproduce it, but to improve it." The excuse, that it's only a theme park, not a museum, hides below the fact that many may never know the difference. People who take in the past via a Disney presentation file this away in their brain as part of history and as a bit of knowledge to recall later, promulgating  misinformation, and making it harder for people to accept more accurate histories when they are confronted with them.

The park presents pseudo-menaces, like the "natives" you encounter on your ride along the Congo River, and then reassuringly reminds visitors of Main Street's triumph over things that challenge it. ("Main Street" literally being that core street at the front of the Magic Kingdom park, and figuratively representing civilized and clean America.) Each part of the park--Frontierland, Adventureland, Liberty Square, and others--also contribute to the eraser of "depressions, strikes on the railroads, warfare in the minefields, squalor in the immigrant communities, lynching, imperial wars, and the emergence of mass protests by populists and socialists" in the same era that Main Street and the surrounding parks aim to represent.

EPCOT has an array of complications all its own in terms of historic interpretation, being--as it has long been--backed by corporate sponsors who at their best explore the challenges and triumphs of a world that is ever marching forward and improving technologically, and at its worst, ignoring the fact that man's technology has not always had positive impacts on the progression of mankind. (And it would, of course, never be the corporation's fault; they would instead be the ones seeking to find solutions to problems). Each pavilion stands as a tribute to technology and the future, as a permanent World's Fair. Then across the waters lies the World Showcase, where countries' marketable goods are for sale and each destination has been designed to demonstrate the distinct features of its culture.

As Wallace points out, "all historical interpretations [done by Disney Enterprises] are necessarily selective in their facts, but [in EPCOT] the silences are more profoundly distorting. Consider, for example, that in all EPCOT's depictions of the past as a continuous expansion of man's possibilities through technology, there is not a word about war. Nothing about the critical impetus it provided through ages to scientific development, nor about the phenomenal destruction such "development" wrought."

Two other things struck me about the interpretation of the past that we find all around us in a Disney park. First, it presents history as unidirectional, that in fact there was no point that the trajectory could have taken another path. "There were never any forks on the path of Progress," he writes, "never any sharp political struggles over which way to go." The other fault in the clean, unoffensive, and vacation-ready historic package is that it makes the past into a "pleasantly nostalgic memory, now so completely transcended by the modern corporate order as to be irrelevant to contemporary life." We can consume the stories so long as they entertain us, and move on to the next thing. "This diminishes our capacity to make sense of our world through understanding how it came to be," says Wallace.

When the only versions of history people encounter are commodities--theme parks, but also docudramas, Hollywood movies, and even historic fiction--I fear it becomes the norm for them, deepening the chasm between people and their pasts and their understanding of the world. This seems to be OK for people when they can draw intelligent conclusions and have a grounded base of knowledge, but it can by no means be ignored as an insignificant influence on a people's vision of their history, in the midst of a thousand museums that don't draw nearly as many visitors.

For me it is something to ponder on a personal level as well, because, while I can dig through the cleanliness and disregard the stereotypes in the narratives, I highly doubt that is the mental lens that everyone else brings with them to Disney World. And on the other hand, I love the magic of Disney World. Far beyond the history that entrenches it, there is the imagination, the dazzling effects and the ability it has to transport you into another world--not to mention, back a little bit into your childhood. It is a place I will surely take my children someday, although what I do with the historic interpretations and how I explain them might be a little different than the approach others take.

Decatur Street, 2009: Lessons in Atlanta's 1906 race riot

For the first half of my history senior seminar class, we had assigned readings--articles from the Georgia Historical Quarterly--that we discussed for their knowledge and arguments but also for their technical structure and research methods. Because the ultimate goal of the course is our own senior theses, we were using these as models for what our own research would become. The length, breadth, and coverage of journal articles like this is the aim for my own project, which I'm currently tackling with success so far (overwhelming at times, but I'm handling it well). I'll explain a little more about my thesis in another post, sometime soon.  

Two of the very first articles we read were about the Atlanta race riot of 1906. (Specifically, Harvey K. Newman and Glenda Crunk, “Religious Leaders in the Aftermath of Atlanta’s 1906 Race Riot,” GHQ 92, no. 4 [Winter 2008]: 460-85; Gregory Mixon, “‘Good Negro--Bad Negro’: The Dynamics of Race and Class in Atlanta During the Era of the 1906 Riot,” GHQ 81, no. 3 [Fall 1997]: 593-621.) This event in Atlanta history had been largely brushed under the rug since it occurred, so in 2006, for the centennial anniversary of the riot, efforts were made to bring this event into public light. The class readings were my first exposure to the event, in fact, and my interest was especially sparked by trying to visualize the Atlanta in which such a violent event took place. More than the social tensions, the gubernatorial smearing, and the yellow journalism, I was also interested in the physical Atlanta; where on Decatur Street were the saloons that were targeted, where did the mobs head, which buildings are still around, and where were these spots in relation to modern-day cityscape?

 

As it turns out, there is a walking tour that answers those questions. The tour is lead by Cliff Kuhn, associate professor of history at Georgia State, and began as part of the riot's centennial events. Due to its popularity, the tour is still going, meeting at Woodruff Park at Five Points on the second Sunday of each month. I didn't have to work this past Sunday, and so headed downtown with my boyfriend Ben to see and learn about Decatur Street and the surrounding spots.

 

When the riot broke out on a Saturday night in September, it did not come as a shock to most people. For several weeks, newspapers had been reporting alleged cases of assault by black men upon white women, and tensions were coming to a head. A heavily publicized gubernatorial race between Hoke Smith and Clark Howell had the men pitted against each other over who was better, ultimately, at disenfranchising African Americans. Behind these things were the growing pains of turn-of-the-century Atlanta, as it had become a multicultural city including immigrants and women working in the new industrial factories. Change was not easy for rural Georgians who came to Atlanta and found unfamiliar faces and behavior. Part of that behavior was the lifestyle available down on Decatur Street, where Eastern European Jewish immigrants (among some others) owned saloons where men could gallivant and drink and perhaps other unholy things-- much to the dismay of Prohibitionists and rural Southerners who saw this as a dark spot on their city. Within these saloons, the intermingling of various classes and races was itself a huge threat to the way things had been. A particularly reported lynching had also fueled animosity throughout communities in Atlanta. In the days just before the riot began on September 22, newspapers were practically egging white men on, towards a response to the perceived danger posed by black men in the city.

 

The building where Alonzo Herndon's barbershop was once housedWith the atmosphere as tense as it was, Atlantan Alonzo Herndon (Atlanta's first black millionaire) decided to have the employees of his barber shop head home early. Herndon was not alone in that, and those African Americans who made it home before the violence began were lucky; violence was aimed that night--and in the days after--upon any man or woman who happened to be on the streets. Violence continued for three days after the first night. The riot intensified the social tension between blacks and whites, and actually created a split of middle- and upper-class African Americans from the lower-class, who they had to set apart as a saloon-going violent group who would have to be dealt with. This was seen as necessary in order to maintain the social and economic success that had so far been earned by Atlanta's urban black community.

 

The violent riot, which drew anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 men to the streets on that Saturday night, brought large tremors to the social situation of Atlanta, and its main response as a city was to blow on past it. Newspapers claimed the riot was mostly caused by low-class rabble-rousing white men, never mind the reports they had been printing just days earlier. On a larger scale, the city sort of entrenched itself even deeper into segregation, seeing it as the best way to deal with the friction that had brought this event in the first place. Reverberations of this outburst, although brushed away quickly for most of the public, affected many witnesses for the remainder of their lives; this includes W.E.B. du Bois, Elizabeth McDuffie (who later worked for President Franklin Roosevelt), and newspaper publisher Max Barber.

 

Henry Grady Memorial, Atlanta, Ga.There is no way to easily explain the riot or its effects afterward, and that is not my intent here; you can read more on that on your own time. My own experience seeing the downtown spots was worth the parking fee and the overzealous homeless street preachers; Herndon's barbershop is still intact, on Peachtree Street, and is now a clothing store. The Henry Grady memorial monument down Marietta Street was constructed after his death in the 1890s, and during the riots at least three men were dragged to the foot of it to their own deaths. The Atlanta newspaperman had coined the term "New South," and had believed in the South's potential while still being a white supremacist. Professor Kuhn, the tour guide, said he interprets the laying of these men at Grady's feet as a sort of cry of these southern men: "Here's your 'New South,'" Henry." The economic opportunities and other promised changes had not yet come.

 

It has taken me three years studying world history to arrive at the doorstep of my own region, and to appreciate its history. It has, more incredibly, taken me eleven years to learn that Georgia history is more colorful and unbelievable than I ever knew. I've got to spend some time getting to know my history.

Museum studies and the Tuskegee Airmen

This fall I am part of a team that is curating an exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen for KSU's Museum of History and Holocaust Education. The exhibit will be on display Nov. 17 - February, and then will begin to travel to schools for possibly the next ten years. That's a project that turns into our own small legacy within Kennesaw State. I am quite excited about this huge assignment. Below will be, at the end, the journal entries I write each week regarding my thoughts on class discussion, readings, and project development. The brief entries will chronicle each week of the class and the exhibit progress, until its opening on Nov. 17. By that date, I will be more knowledgeable about public history and capable of working on historical projects to benefit the community. And you're invited to the opening.

Week 2:

The more I read about putting together exhibits, the more excited I am to be part of a team that is putting one together. Having never really dug into the field of public history before, I am excited to see the impact public historians can impress on the community in which they work. It it such a subtle art. It is trying to teach people something without them realizing it, really; and it is making the information user-friendly and painstakingly clear. What an exciting challenge.

I have also been met with two separate and equally exciting reactions when I mention this class assignment. The first is, "Who are the Tuskegee Airmen?" This offers the obvious satisfaction of being able to explain, and then invite the friend/coworker/classmate/parent to visit the exhibit when it opens. The other reaction has been, "What a great topic! I know a guy who knows one of them..." While this second one has obviously been less often, I was still able to learn about those several people who were very knowledgeable about the Airmen and learn a little about their perception of and thoughts about them. One of my coworkers in particular knew an Airmen that had lived next door to him in Alabama several years ago, and offered his phone number for a chat. Potential conversation, respectfully declined but with a open invitation should I want to speak with him later. Overall, my discussion with people has given me the inspiration to really make this an exhibit people can take with them when they leave, in the form of a powerful, lasting memory.

I have also been giving the titles some thought, and am looking forward to seeing where everyone else has wound up after mulling over last week's brainstorming session. We made some great progress, and my notes were full of thought-provoking panel topics. Looking forward to developing our plan further on Tuesday.

The "Revisiting the Past: History Museums in the U.S." has been lingering in my mind since I read it several days ago. I did not know very much about Ford's propulsion of his own version of historic preservation, or the formation of Greenfield Village. Neither did I know anything about Rockefeller, Jr.'s role restoring Colonial Williamsburg, VA. The details about their roles in preserving U.S. history (and both the positives and negatives of their projects) were quite fascinating.

I have spent some time studying revisionist historians' role in changing the face of and perspectives regarding American history; I have also studied the movement towards pluralistic, social history that bloomed in the 1960s-70s. But I had never considered those movements to revise historic traditions and perceptions in the context of the MUSEUM-- that proved the most enlightening element of the article. It seems simple to me now, and obvious that the museum world would have to be adjusted as women, African Americans, Native Americans and others were writing a more dynamic American history. But prior to this I had not made that connection. The museum's role is an important element of the story of American history (and its recent revisions), so I found this article very worthwhile.

I found it surprising that prior to the founding, mid-nineteenth century, of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, there was not a large  or well-orchestrated effort to obtain or maintain historic sites and houses. The women who had organized before that were somewhat successful, but I suppose it is taken for granted, in today's world of UNESCO sites and national parks, that spots of intrinsic value have not always been valued as they are now.

The article was well-worth the read, as I have made several connections to other historical trends I've studied; it has also remained in my brain, where I continue to ponder the main points. To me, that is the mark of a strong piece of writing.

On a different note, I have been looking into the photos for my exhibit panels, and have found several that may work for the introduction. I am very interested to visit Tuskegee during our upcoming field trip, particularly now that I am part of the team that is working on the "Why Tuskegee" panel. The history of that area, Booker T. Washington, and the field and institution will all come to life, I feel, when I can see them myself and have the place in my mind. Looking forward to it.

Newseum was a curiosity, to say the least. I am not sure what to make of it, and can certainly see the reason behind the controversy (both the topic being covered and the investors who funded it). Nevertheless, it seems a bit inevitable, albeit sad, that visitors today are lured to flashy, technology-driven exhibits and museums. The average citizen might prefer it to quiet, reading-based, reflective museums. It is a real issue facing the museum world today, and technology will probably never be able to be entirely left out of museums as an element in telling the stories of history. The trick will be making it just as thought-provoking. Well-made videos can do this-- I know I have seen several excellent ones while visiting exhibits and museums in the past.