Why Should the Historical Record Be Fuller?

I’m reading “Ken Burns’s Civil War: Historians Respond,” a collection of essays critiquing the famous 1990 documentary on the most important war in American history. Today I came across Leon Litwack’s essay in the book that struck me. It reminded me of a post I wrote recently about historical memory and why archivists need think creatively about what sources we collect and preserve to make sure the past and all its participants are well documented.

I’ve copied an excerpt from the essay below. Its well-written and thoughtful, but its from the perspective of a historian and doesn’t address the role that archivists, librarians, and curators also play in shaping history. If the record isn’t collected and preserved in the first place, then its going to be a lot harder for Litwack’s historians and filmmakers to do justice to that history.

Archivists must be part of this conversation too.

And when we collect the records that contain the neglected parts of history, its our responsibility to tell people what we have make sure they can get to the information they actually need.

Tuskeegee Reading room
Library Reading Room, Tuskegee Institute, c. 1902. Library of Congress

I feel like a lot of archivists are really jealous of our power of appraisal and that we can decide what stays in the archive. Some of my colleagues would bristle at the thought of historians telling us what we should collect. And I understand- archives don’t exist just for historians (they aren’t even the majority of our patrons anyways) and we can’t collect based on what historians want today. But I think we need to take their input very seriously and use it to shape our collecting criteria.

What kinds of sources do historians want? When we don’t have what they want, what do historians use to tell a story instead? We have to look beyond particular subjects and think more broadly about record types and the ways that important information gets stored in non-traditional ways, just look at how Litwack describes the explosion of understanding that resulted when historians actually paid attention to a few “non-traditional” record types in the 1960s.

Read up:

Over the past century, the power of historians and filmmakers to influence the public, to reflect and shape attitudes and popular prejudices, has been amply demonstrated, often with tragic consequences. Rummaging through the past, filmmakers did not simply reinforce prevailing racial, ethnic, and patriotic biases; they helped to create and perpetuate them. The motion picture fixed in the minds of millions of Americans the image of black men and women as a race of buffoons and half-wits, sometimes amusing, sometimes threatening, almost always less than human. Historians, for their part, succeeded in mis-educating several generations of Americans. What dominated their perceptions (and distortions) of the past were the views of exceptional people who left the most easily accessible records, the kind of people who possessed the income, leisure, and literacy that permitted them to record their thoughts in journals, diaries, autobiographies, and letters. Historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote of Thomas Jefferson, “The leisure that made possible his great writings on human liberty was supported by the labors of three generations of slaves.” The history of working-class men and women, rural and urban, white and black, was thought to be impossible to retrieve because historians relied upon and felt most comfortable with the kinds of records and documents ordinary people have not usually kept.

The way history is interpreted, taught, and portrayed on the screen does have consequences. African Americans, in particular, have seen the cinema and historical scholarship used frequently and effectively to reinforce and perpetuate racial stereotypes that underscored their inferiority and justified their repression.For years, filmmakers provided audiences a view of slavery that acted out the version propagated in one of the leading textbooks of American history, co-authored by two eminent historians, Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard University and Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University. “As for Sambo,” they insisted, “there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its ‘peculiar institution.’ The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy…. Although brought to America by force, the incurably optimistic Negro soon became attached to the country, and devoted to his ‘white folks.'”

The way in which Reconstruction- that unique and complex period of bi-racial democratic government in the South- came to be written, screened, and believed would exert and retain an even more powerful hold on Americans, helping to shape and reinforce white southern (and northern) responses to any challenge to racial segregation or to any proposal to readmit blacks as voters. The dehumanizing images and stereotypes conveyed in textbooks and in films such as The Birth of a Nation (the depraved black politician, the grinning Sambo, and the black racist), would be deeply imprinted on the white mind, and they continue to resonate to this day.

And here’s where it gets really good:

Over the past three decades, however, the writing and teaching of American history experienced profound, far-reaching changes. The sheer diversity of historical focus opened up new ways of conceptualizing the past and reflected a far greater sensitivity to the complexities and varieties of cultural documentation. Historians came to understand that most men and women, although spending their lives in relative obscurity and never sharing the fruits of affluence or enjoying power, nevertheless have found ways to relate their experiences and to communicate their feelings about matters of daily and far-reaching concern to them.

Working-class people have never been inarticulate. The neglect of their lives by historians revealed not so much an absence of sources as a failure of historical imagination and commitment. But that neglect has been redressed in recent decades, as historians learned to appreciate enormous possibilities they had seldom considered: the value of music, art, dance, humor, folklore, oral remembrances, photography, and film as cultural records and interpretative documents, the various ways in which these sources illuminate, often with a frightening honesty, the range and depth of the human experience and document the innermost thoughts and preoccupations of Americans. “How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” Robert Palmer asks in Deep Blues. “The thought of generations,” he answers, “the history of every human being who’s ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain.”

By expanding the range of cultural documentation, historians were able to being to historical consciousness people ordinarily left outside the framework of the American experience. The new sources gave voice to previously marginalized men and women and transformed profoundly how we define this nation. What has always seemed to most Americans distinctive about their heritage is freedom. That is what sets the United States off from much of the world, and to listen to most presidents, that explains the uniqueness of this nation. But that is to read American history without the presence of African Americans, to define them out of American identity, to exclude a people who enjoyed neither liberty, nor impartial government, nor the equal protection of the law. Once you incorporate the African American into American history, as historian Nathan Huggins pointedly observed, you might be forced to reinterpret the American in such a way that freedom is not the word that defines it. You might have to change the terms in which you think and talk about American history and American life.

The recent work of historians has, in fact, altered the ways in which we think, talk, and write about the past. American history will never be the same again. Voices and dialogues long stifled, the experiences of peoples once marginalized or ignored are now being heard and integrated into the study of history. Filmmakers, however, have not kept pace with these changes. With some important exceptions (Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, for example), they have yet to incorporate into their work many of the new voices, perspectives, and cultural experiences. The history portrayed on the screen, both in Hollywood and documentary films, all too often betrays an ignorance of or indifference to recent historical advances. Filmmakers may be innovative in the techniques they employ but the history imparted is by and large traditional, conventional history. And it is usually safe, risk-free, inoffensive, upbeat, reassuring, comforting, optimistic history, more often than not an exercise in self-congratulation and a celebration of consensus.

When archives are doing a good job collecting records, its also their responsibility to make sure that they aren’t neglected by historians and other researchers. The stakes are too high, we’ve got to work with historians, filmmakers, teachers, journalists, genealogists, community groups, and anyone else who’s involved in remembering and telling any history.

If archives had collected better in the past and made this available to the research community, how would knowledge of our past be different today? What impact would this have on us all? How can archivists do a better job creating appraisal criteria for historical materials?

Carnegie lib reading room
Adult reading room, Carnegie library of Homestead, Munhall, Pennyslvania, c. 1900. Library of Congress.

One thought on “Why Should the Historical Record Be Fuller?

Add yours

  1. An excellent, provocative rendering of the gaps largely ignored by American historians -and by default, educators.

    Sadly, too often, history is written by the few and then distributed for the many to digest … almost always, without a complete composition. As such, much of American thought is built on an incomplete context. Indeed, that incompleteness manifests itself in the too often bigoted, racist, sexist behaviors and policies that -to this day- continue to breathe life into a mythical narrative,

    Liked by 1 person

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