On October 26, the Unfinished: America at 250 virtual engagement series held its second program, “Questioning Our Storied Past.” This captivating conversation explored how national narratives are built and conveyed to the public. Moderated by Professor Philip J. Deloria of Harvard University, the distinguished panel comprised of author and professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Elon Cook Lee, Director of Interpretation and Education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Nathaniel Sheidley, the first President and CEO of Revolutionary Spaces.
Katie Woods of the National Parks of Boston opened the event with a compelling question originally posed by author Clint Smith in his book How the Word is Passed: “What does it take for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life?” This question remained the driving force behind the conversation throughout the night.
Phil Deloria kickstarted the discussion by referencing a handful of master narratives, or founding myths, that have shaped our understanding of United States history, such as the founding fathers’ crafting of American democracy and the immigrant narrative. He argued that these founding myths are so powerful that they have obscured and erased other important perspectives and stories. As he said, “they paper over other histories.”
The upcoming 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence gives us the opportunity to reevaluate these narratives and think about ways to tell more complicated and inclusive stories about this country’s founding.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz spoke more about the myth that the United States is a nation of immigrants. She argued that the idea that “everyone who ever came from this continent came from somewhere else” erases Native history. She also described how settler colonialism, or “the clearing of [Native] people,” is often glossed over when we talk about the founding of the United States. The “exclusion of non-Western Europeans” set the standard for how we view immigration today.
Elon Cook Lee, whose work focuses on education at historic sites, described another form of erasure from a public history perspective. She explained how sites that focus on the histories of enslavement have developed their interpretation over the past few decades. Many plantation sites previously taught the history of slavery in ways that downplayed violence or trivialized enslaved people. But some sites, such as James Madison’s Montpelier, actively collaborate with descendants of slavery. They have created a blueprint on how to approach these topics in ways that create more honest conversations.
While Elon is excited about the changes that are gradually happening, she conceded that it is often a slow process: “I believe change-making is a lot like watching the ocean at the beach. You have a big wave that comes through, pushes something hard and necessary, and then it gets drawn back.”
Nathaniel Sheidley of Revolutionary Spaces talked about how the preservation of specific historic sites influences the master narratives we are taught. The sites at his organization, the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House, survived due to a selective process. As he stated, they “were chosen because they could be part of the canon that sustained those founding myths.”
Nat suggests the way to combat against the subjective nature of historical preservation is to “widen the aperture” and expand on the stories that we tell at those sites. For instance, the Old South Meeting House, best known as the place where meetings for the Boston Tea Party occurred, also served as a place of worship for Phyllis Wheatley Peters, the first published African American poet. Including her relationship to the space in their interpretation helps visitors see the many stories and struggles that occurred at the site. “We’re really thinking about how [we can] elevate those stories with the human dimension with power so that our visitors can connect to them, so that they can see the complexity,” he explained.
Roxanne agreed that it is necessary to include expanded and honest perspectives when teaching U.S. history, even if it includes the bad. “What I find with young people today is that they feel liberated by this truth because we’ve been lied to so much about this history and confused by it,” she said.
In response to a few insightful questions from audience members, Elon spoke of the power of including primary source documents in public programs to generate discussions with visitors. “You don’t really have to tell people what to think, you can just present them with the evidence, and a lot of times, people start recognizing what a fuller history we have.”
Nathaniel concurred, “we are at our best not when we’re telling people what they should think about the past, but when we’re extending an invitation to them to participate with us in making meaning from that past.”
This notion paralleled well with a statement Katie Woods mentioned at the beginning of the program: “It is our mutual responsibility to learn, to listen, to confront, to acknowledge, and to move forward with a fuller, more honest understanding of this nation’s founding.”
The evening ended with a moving rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” arranged by Berklee College of Music student Amanda Bradshaw. Known as the Black national anthem, the powerful hymn has been sung for generations, often during times of protest. As Amanda mentioned, playing this performance at the event provided the opportunity for “a whole new audience… to be reminded of how powerful and special the song was” and remains to be. It also reaffirmed the importance of showing “the history of America through the eyes of people not as heard through history textbooks,” because only then can we continue to shape our unfinished national narrative.
Contributed by: Danielle Rose, Public History Intern, Student Conservation Association/National Parks of Boston