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Friday, December 17, 2010

December 17, 2010: The Propaganda of History

One of my very favorite things when I was a kid was attending Civil War reenactments with my Dad. I didn’t get to that many, probably half a dozen or so, but each time it was a truly magical experience, like entering directly into a historical world. Part of that effect was my status as a bona fide Civil War buff—I can’t count the number of hours I spent thumbing through the beautiful pages of Bruce Catton’s Illustrated History of the Civil War, most of them spent staring at the gorgeous painted recreations of key battle sites and maps—but a bigger part, I’d say, was the sense that these were people trying to make history come alive again, to inhabit it and help us do so as well, at least for a space. As I’ve gotten older, I haven’t moved away from that perspective—I think most reenactors love history and do have that as a central goal—so much as added a more uncomfortable but important second perspective: that in many cases, the overwhelmingly (if not entirely) white participants in the reenactments were also embodying a very specific post-Civil War narrative, one that sought to reunify white soldiers from both sides through emphases on their shared valor and heroism and, concurrently and crucially, deemphases on the racial and social causes of the war (the first bit of Birth of a Nation is a great example of that narrative).
That combination of genuine and impressive historical interest and more contemporary and unsettling purposes also, if much more subtly, drove the multi-decade creation of one of America’s most successful historical landmarks, Colonial Williamsburg. The historical recreation of this center of political and social life in both colonial-era and Revolutionary Virginia began in the 1920s and 1930s, and was, I believe, most definitely driven by a desire to connect Americans and tourists from all over the world more fully back to this crucial early American site and community; the project’s motto was and remains, “The future may learn from the past,” and in many ways the site has done a great job bringing that past into the American present in very engaging and successful ways. Certainly for many decades the inclusion of African Americans, either as participants or as tourists, was painfully slight and segregated, but over the last few decades Colonial Williamsburg, like most such historical landmarks, has begun to do a much better job balancing its portrayals of the different communities and experiences that existed within its boundaries, and of the best and worst of late 1700s Virginia and America that it comprised.
Yet the most significant push to build up and expand Colonial Williamsburg took place not in the 20s and 30s, but in the 1960s and 70s, and in analyzing that moment the historical purpose must be balanced with a much more contemporary and political one. The driving force behind the renewed efforts was the Rockefeller family; the oil magnate John D. had been a central part of the 20s efforts, and so even in that era it would be possible to consider more political goals for the project, but the work of Winthrop Rockefeller and his family in this Cold War era was much more overtly politically motivated. Perhaps the Rockefellers chief interest in the decades after World War II was in highlighting and exporting America’s greatest identities, in communicating to the world (in direct opposition, to be sure, to the USSR’s international presence and images of itself) the ideal versions of our national past and stories and selves. They did so for example through public art exhibits and museums that traveled the world, highlighting some of the masters (among them Jackson Pollock and Norman Rockwell) working in America in these years. But they did so as well through historical endeavors like Williamsburg, and the recreations there of the ideals (and in the 1960s and 70s it was still very much the ideals on which Williamsburg focused) of the Revolution and Founding.
Du Bois entitles the last chapter of his groundbreaking Black Reconstruction in America (1936) “The Propaganda of History”; he focuses there on the dominant (and almost entirely false) historical narrative of Reconstruction that had developed in the prior three decades or so, but his ideas could easily be extended to any moments in which historical narratives are wedded to contemporary political purposes. But just as such links can perhaps never be entirely absent, even in the most well-intentioned efforts, so too is the more genuine attempt to revivify and connect us to our history still a part of these endeavors. We can and need to try our best to recognize the political side, lest the propaganda blind us, but we can still feel that magic of history coming alive before us. More tomorrow, on the Caribbean French literary and social theorist whose ideas resonate hugely with the American experience.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      An official but very thorough and readable version of John D. Rockefeller’s role:
2)      Full text of Du Bois’s chapter:

PPS [from 12/23/10]. And one more follow-up link, on contemporary reenactments and their relationship to our history:

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