Thursday, July 5, 2012
July 5, 2012: Newton’s Histories, Part 4
[If you live in the Boston area, you could do a lot worse, this 4th of July week or for any summer daytrip, than visiting Newton’s Jackson Homestead and Museum. For this week’s blog series I’ll be highlighting some of the many interesting stories and exhibits included in that small but compelling space.]
On the first of two far-too-unknown, unique, and compelling Massachusetts stories highlighted at the Museum.
Since the third and final chapter of my recently completed book highlights a couple of interconnected American stories that should be far better known than they are—not to spoil the surprise, but let’s just say that this isn’t the first time I’ve written about these stories; although of course in the book I can and do go into much greater depth—I’ve been thinking quite a bit of late about that particular public scholarly question: why do certain American stories become prominent (or at least remembered at all), while other, equally inspiring and interesting ones do not? And, even more saliently, what can those of us who do remember the latter kind do to help them gain more awareness and attention, more of a presence in our national histories?
The answer, of course, is likely to be not any one thing but a multitude of them, the variety of different methods and media through which any story can and must be disseminated in our 21st century world. One relatively traditional but still highly effective such method is through the inclusion of these stories in a Museum exhibition, bringing them directly to public audiences and at the same time (if the exhibition does its job) connecting them to other relevant stories and histories, to the many contexts and questions that a thorough and successful exhibition can highlight. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the Jackson Homestead and Museum’s “Confronting Our Legacy” exhibition is most definitely thorough and successful, and it does indeed do a great job telling some forgotten, important, and compelling American stories; in today and tomorrow’s posts I’ll highlight two, one (today’s) that I had forgotten and one (tomorrow’s) that I hadn’t known about at all.
The story I had forgotten is that of Henry “Box” Brown. Brown escaped from slavery at the age of thirty-three, settled for a time in Massachusetts, and published a Narrative of his life and escape shortly thereafter; but what makes him truly memorable, what gave him his nickname, and what serves as such a perfect metaphor for the lengths to which slaves would go for the chance at freedom, is the manner of Brown’s escape: sealing himself in a small (3 feet long and 2 feet wide!) wooden box and having it shipped to Philadelphia. The Museum’s exhibition has recreated Brown’s box in its exact dimensions, so visitors can climb inside and imagine themselves making that journey, uncomfortable and in pain and likely uncertain and terrified, yet at the same time moving with every jostling foot that much closer to the possibility of freedom. It’s a great way to bring Brown’s story to life, to carry forward the legacy of his metaphor and his narrative but to bring them home to 21st century audiences. And it definitely ensured that I won’t forget Box Brown again!
Second of these stories, and the last of the Museum posts, tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any stories we should better remember, and/or any successful efforts at remembering them that you’d highlight?7/5 Memory Day nominee: P.T. Barnum, whose most famous achievements and ideas tended to reflect some of America’s darker and nastier sides, but who nonetheless revolutionized American leisure and entertainment in a variety of ways.