Tuesday, July 24, 2012
July 24, 2012: Jennings on Why It Matters
[Following up the weekend’s post, this week’s series will feature quotes and ideas from Francis Jennings’ The Creation of America, along with some American Studies perspectives to which I would connect them. This is the second in the series, and as always, your thoughts are very welcome!]
On the impressive and important starting points for Jennings’ career and book.
Tucked inside my grandfather’s copy of The Creation of America was Francis Jennings’ obituary, in which I discovered a couple specific facts (among many inspiring details of his life, from his World War II service to his leadership of a teacher’s union in opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee) that definitely contributed to my renewed interest in Jennings’ scholarship and perspective. For one thing, Jennings was precisely the kind of exemplary Temple University undergraduate I met during my time at that institution: born and raised in a small Pennsylvania mining town, the first member of his family to attend college, and so on. And even more impressively, he spent the decade after receiving that degree (and before returning to graduate school to obtain his PhD) teaching history in the Philadelphia public schools.
While he left that secondary school environment to enter the academic and public scholarly ones, however, he clearly didn’t leave it behind, as the opening paragraphs of his final book’s Introduction make clear:
“A long time ago when I tried to teach American history in a rough high school for slum boys, I thought to brighten the usual routine with an ‘educational’ film on the Revolution. Astonishingly, my students groaned. I had to wonder why.
There was no need to wonder long. As the ‘educational’ film’s actors strutted pompously about, they looked more like Martians than honest-to-goodness human beings. And as they declaimed about refusing to be slaves, my students’ eyes glazed over. My students were black.
I began dimly to see the error of conceiving the American Revolution as an unqualified struggle for liberty. Undeniably something of that sort had been involved, but liberty for whom and for what?”
Rarely have I found in the work of any academic scholar a clearer sense of two hugely significant stakes to the work that we American Studiers do. First, Jennings recognizes here that every historical interpretation entails not only our ideas about the past, but also a particular connection to audience—or, far too often, a disconnection from many American audiences. In this case, for example, the “Great Men” narratives of the Founding Fathers, whatever their accuracy (and Jennings agrees with me that those narratives are too simplistic by far), certainly would seem entirely disconnected from the heritages, experiences, and identities of young African American men in 20th century Philadelphia. That wouldn’t mean that a teacher shouldn’t engage with those narratives; but he or she would at least have to acknowledge these gaps forthrightly, and to likewise engage with other American histories and identities alongside them.
Second, and even more crucially, Jennings here grounds his American Studies public scholarship in an attempt to find and argue for a more genuinely communal American history—a vision of our national past and identity that can in fact include and thus speak to multiple audiences. While that vision has of course been part of a multicultural curriculum for many decades now, too often it is presented simply as a given—there have long been multiple communities in America, this argument goes, so of course we should engage with all of them. But the truth is that such engagement is much more active than that, represents a conscious choice to envision historical moments not only through the experiences of different communities, but also and even more overarchingly through the interconnections and relationships between those communities. Such a vision, after all, as Jennings acknowledges at the outset of his book, is the only one that has the potential to speak to all 21st century Americans.
Next Jennings-inpsired post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any experiences that have helped you see the stakes of your work?7/24 Memory Day nominee: Amelia Earhart, whose pioneering and inspirational life is rivaled by her mysterious and legendary final flight in our national narratives and stories.