MyAmericanFuture

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

January 30-31, 2016: January 2016 Recap



[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
January 4: DisneyStudying: Spaceship Earth: A series inspired by my first DisneyWorld visit kicks off with what stood out most to me and to my boys on Disney’s most interesting ride.
January 5: DisneyStudying: Tom Sawyer Island: The series continues with the history, appeal, and limits of Disney’s most unique space.
January 6: DisneyStudying: The Carousel of Progress: An attraction that highlights the best and worst of Disney’s visions of America, as the series rolls on.
January 7: DisneyStudying: Splash Mountain: What’s present and absent in a playful water ride and its complex cultural contexts.
January 8: DisneyStudying: Small Worlds: The series concludes with three sides to globalization captured in Disney’s parks.
January 9-10: Canobie and Theme Park Histories: A special weekend post, tracing three stages in the history of American theme parks through one New Hampshire site.
January 11: Spring 2016 Previews: Ethnic American Literature: A Spring semester series kicks off with the four pairs of authors and works we’re reading in my Ethnic Lit course.
January 12: Spring 2016 Previews: English Studies Capstone: The series continues with the five books through which my English Capstone course frames its different goals.
January 13: Spring 2016 Previews: Major American Authors of the 20th Century: The seven authors and texts I’ve chosen for my lit seminar, as the series rolls on.
January 14: Spring 2016 Previews: American Literature I: Pairings of familiar and unfamiliar authors and works in each of my survey’s four time periods.
January 15: Spring 2016 Previews: A New ALFA Course and a Request: The series concludes with a request for input in my adult learning course—which has just begun but could still use your input!
January 16-17: NeMLA 2016 Preview: A special post on a few of the many things to which I’m looking forward at March’s Northeast MLA convention in Hartford.
January 18: The Real King: My annual MLK Day post kicks off a series on Civil Rights leaders.
January 19: King’s Colleagues: Yuri Kochiyama: The series continues with the inspiring Civil Rights figure whose life pushed way past binaries and boundaries.
January 20: King’s Colleagues: Coretta Scott King: Why and how we should better remember King’s partner in life and activism, as the series rolls on.
January 21: King’s Colleagues: Bayard Rustin: The Civil Rights leader who illustrates the possibilities and challenges of intersectionality.
January 22: King’s Colleagues: John Lewis: The series concludes with three moments that reflect the presence and role of a living legend.
January 23-24: 21st Century Civil Rights: A special weekend addendum on five 21st century Civil Rights issues and debates!
January 25: Colonial Williamsburg: Propaganda and Magic: A Williamsburg series kicks off with the political realities and magical effects of a historic site.
January 26: Colonial Williamsburg: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum: The series continues with three telling exhibits and items from Williamsburg’s folk art museum.
January 27: Colonial Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot: What’s absent from Williamsburg’s historic film and what it can still offer viewers, as the series rolls on.
January 28: Colonial Williamsburg: The Magazine and the Public Gaol: The compelling interpretations and important elisions at my boys’ favorite sites.
January 29: Colonial Williamsburg: The Governor’s Palace Maze: The series concludes with the problems and pleasures of Williamsburg’s most fun attraction.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics or themes you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, January 29, 2016

January 29, 2016: Colonial Williamsburg: The Governor’s Palace Maze



[As part of our annual Virginia trip last summer, the boys and I—and AmericanStudier madre—visited Colonial Williamsburg for the first time. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some different histories and elements that are part of that complex and compelling historic site. Add your thoughts, on Williamsburg or other historic sites, in comments!]
On the disconnect and the connections fostered in Williamsburg’s most playful space.
I visited Colonial Williamsburg at least a few times in the course of my Virginia childhood, and I’m not ashamed—well, maybe slightly ashamed, but I’m working through it with the help of a good AmericanStudiesTherapist and some scholarly perspectives on the importance of childhood play—to admit that what I remember best from those visits is the hedge maze located behind the Governor’s Palace. There was something about wandering among those tall hedges that was both fun and disconcerting, part familiar childish enjoyment and part immersion in a different world than my own, and when I began planning this trip to Colonial Williamsburg with my own kids, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to the maze as well (although our annual fall visit to a local corn maze means that the disconcerting side of a hedge maze wouldn’t be quite as pronounced for them).
The maze was one of the first things we did upon arrival, and corn maze notwithstanding the boys did indeed have a blast; but I have to admit that as an adult AmericanStudier I recognized a disconnect in the space I had never noticed before. The Governor’s Palace literally and figuratively towers over the rest of Colonial Williamsburg, a building that is so different from the rest of the town in size, in architectural and artistic grandeur, and in the expanse of its grounds that it purposefully leaves no doubt about the power dynamic between a royal governor and a community of colonial citizens. That dynamic extended, of course, to the families and guests of the governors compared to those of the rest of the town; while the hedge maze is now accessible to any Colonial Williamsburg visitors, that is, it would be more accurate to the site’s history to reserve its use to only those who buy tickets to tour the Governor’s Palace. Childhood play, like every other aspect of life in Colonial Williamsburg (and, frustratingly but unquestionably, 21st century America), differed widely across the town’s and period’s class and social divisions.
I didn’t talk about any of that with my boys as they ran through the hedge maze, though. For one thing, how much of a Debbie Downer would I have to be to do that?! Even AmericanStudiers have to just have Dad fun with their kids sometimes, as my AmericanStudiesTherapist is quick to remind me. But for another thing, there’s an important historical side to their enjoyment of the maze (and mine as a kid): it connects them to those young Williamsburgers who ran through the maze three hundred years ago, reminding us of some of the essential childhood connections that endure across historical (as well as social and cultural) differences. Kids aren’t immune to the kinds of broader issues I referenced in the last paragraph, but neither are they entirely defined or limited by them—and indeed, remembering the ways in which kids can exist outside of, and thus perhaps transcend, those historical and social issues is a vital way to argue for things like early childhood education and similar policies and programs in the present. Far from being a shameful escape from history’s realities, then, a run through Colonial Williamburg’s Governor’s Palace Maze links us to an alternative and vital part of our collective pasts and identities.
January Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

January 28, 2016: Colonial Williamsburg: The Magazine and the Public Gaol



[As part of our annual Virginia trip last summer, the boys and I—and AmericanStudier madre—visited Colonial Williamsburg for the first time. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some different histories and elements that are part of that complex and compelling historic site. Add your thoughts, on Williamsburg or other historic sites, in comments!]
On the compelling interpretations, and important absence, at my boys’ two favorite sites.
Colonial Williamsburg has a striking number of historic sites and spaces spread out over its 173 acres, most of which feature on-site costumed interpreters (ones not limited, in their conversations with visitors, to the knowledge and perspectives of the historical moment they’re portraying, like those at Plimoth Plantation are, but nonetheless seeking in both their physical appearance and actions and their voices and words to recreate the late 18th century). Which sites are open and which feature interpreters varies from day to day and season to season, making the site especially worth return visits to explore different sides of its many streets and sections. On our late August 2015 visit, as you might expect, my then 9 and 8 year old sons were particularly drawn to two such sites and interpretations: the Magazine, which recreates the arsenal at which the controversial and crucial 1775 Gunpowder Incident occurred; and the Public Goal, which portrays the early 18th century prison built shortly after Williamsburg became the colony’s capital in 1699.
These two sites, and the interpreters we encountered at each, were especially good at presenting the material culture side to their histories in compelling depth. The interpreter at the Magazine used its collection of historic flintlocks and muskets, swords and pikes, cannons and shot, and other artifacts of war to discuss multiple historical periods: not only the Revolution and its military histories, but also the French & Indian War and even Bacon’s Rebellion, linking each conflict and era to the different weaponry involved in a way that certainly kept my sons’ interest throughout. At the Gaol we listened to two complementary interpreters: a woman outside the building who highlighted the cases of a number of differnet prominent 18th century prisoners; and a man inside who guided us through the spaces provided for both the prisonkeeper and his family and those reserved for the building’s less fortunate inhabitants. Both of these Gaol interpreters made sustained and excellent use of the building’s and site’s architecture to help frame for us its identity and roles, its evolution across the 18th century, and how this dark side of Colonial Williamsburg would have been experienced by all the town’s residents.
Yet in truth, at neither of these sites did these otherwise compelling interpreters quite engage with the darkest sides to the histories represented therein. More than any other spaces at Colonial Williamsburg, that is, the Magazine and Gaol depended for their existence on definitions of us and them—and indeed, I would argue that in creating and sustaining visions of threatening others (those whom the town would need the Magazine’s weapons in order to defend itself and those outside of the town’s laws and in need of remanding to the Gaol, respectively), these two sites went a long way toward creating a communal identity for the burgeoning Williamsburg populace. I know that a full engagement with such historical and sociological questions would be likely impossible for costumed interpreters to provide in their few minutes of performance; but at the same time, the thoroughgoing focus on material culture at these sites meant that they elided almost entirely these complementary issues of community and identity. While achieving a balance between these different topics is much easier said than done, I’d argue it’s a very worthwhile goal for any 21st century historic site.
Last Williamsburg post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?