History, memory, and stuff

It’s been well over a decade since I’ve had to take a historiography course and several years since I’ve had to study and read about bias in public history. One book that I know I’ve read for the public history portion of a museum class was Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays by Mike Wallace. Another book, which I have not read is A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston by Stephanie E. Yuhl, and from the reviews it seems to tell of a ‘history’ story shaped by a particular social group via selective building preservation and appropriating aspects of the African-American story that did not undermine their own. Both point to how history has been used and as Wallace asserts, abused. Wallace provides an example of President Ronald Reagan’s style of storytelling that supported whatever conservative point he was trying to make. One example was the story of immigrants’ coming to America, the land of opportunity, and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. This image glossed over the discrimination, poverty and other things faced by those immigrants, Wallace points out. A jewel from Yuhl’s book:

“Similarly, Charleston’s heritage trade was an ideological construct that enabled a small group of elite whites to perpetrate their selective historical memories and peddle them to eager tourists in a highly consumable form.”

Bringing this down to the local level, Shaw has a story, which in it’s most basic form is fine. That story being, black people lived here, black notables lived within the borders we know as Shaw, Dunbar was a the top African American high school in the country, and U Street was only second to Harlem. Okay, maybe some other cities may argue that last point, whatever. One of the problems in it’s retelling, and these can be considered really minuscule problems, the Jewish/Italian/general immigrant story seem less real in the face of this popular story. Another small problem I see, is some unnecessary straw grabbing, such as claiming notables who lived in other neighborhoods, like LeDroit Park. And maybe a more important problem is selective memory and the sin of omission, that retells the popular story by picking and choosing the nicest parts, ignoring the huge social problem that made the area a target for urban renewal. The popular story doesn’t tell where the black middle class went after the golden age, it doesn’t explain why there are so many social services here and why the area became ripe for gentrification and street crime. It doesn’t tell the long sad tale of housing, vacancy, slum lords, and programs that fell a little short due to cronyism and inflation. It does tell the story of the riots, the hint that there was something amiss. Messy history with still lingering sore points isn’t exactly highly consumable for the tourist crowd.

2 thoughts on “History, memory, and stuff”

  1. When was the end of the golden age and why did it crumble? would Shaw documents tell the story?

    It’s not “popular” or “light” tourism, but think of the many black Americans who travel to the slave ports of west Africa to view the historic sites.

  2. End of golden age? Round the post-war period off the top of my head.
    Documents, primary materials tell a lot. But a lot of public history is regurgitated for the masses and depends on the biases, likes, dislikes and talents of the storyteller.
    The West Africa thing, probably was made popular by the Alex Haley book Roots. There is some controversy I remember about a slave port struggling with the idea of presenting the port as a ruin or dolling it up to make the slave history more in your face. I gather the history is more palatable because of the starkness of the place the visitor can make it as deep or shallow as he/she can take.

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