Friday, July 6, 2012
July 6, 2012: Newton’s Histories, Part 5
[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 second of two far-too-unknown, unique, and compelling Massachusetts stories highlighted at the Museum.
As I wrote in yesterday’s post, one of the most significant and worthwhile goals for any public American Studies scholar is to help bring to more national attention and prominence those interesting and inspiring American stories that we do not collectively remember as well as we should. While obviously I have some particular stories in mind in making that case, I need to make one thing very clear: every one of us who is interested in and passionat about American history has our own knowledge of and perspective on such stories, and thus at the same time every one of us has a great deal to learn from each other. That might seem like false modesty, but I have very specific and salient proof that it’s not: perhaps the most compelling American story highlighted in the Museum’s “Confronting Our Legacy” exhibition is one that I had never heard of until I visited the exhibition.
The man at the center of that story is Captain Jonathan Walker. The Massachusetts Historical Society page at that link does a great job of summarizing Walker’s amazing life, from his youthful experiences as a Cape Cod sailor to his conversion to abolitionism, his ill-fated but hugely impressive attempt to sail with a crew of seven escaped slaves to freedom in the West Indies, his branding as a “S[lave] S[tealer]” as punishment for that “crime,” and his subsequent long life as an abolitionist orator, activist, and icon. The whole story, and most especially that daring voyage of escape and the branding that both punished it and yet came to symbolize Walker’s courage, seems tailor-made for Hollywood, and indeed—my own lack of knowledge notwithstanding—Walker and his hand were in his own lifetime remembered in multiple cultural forms: with a monument in his adopted hometown of Muskegon, Michigan; in the poem “The Branded Hand” (1846) by John Greenleaf Whittier; and in the 1853 daguerreotype of his hand featured in the MHS’s collections.
Yet I didn’t know Walker’s story at all, and while I’m sure lots of American Studiers do, I can’t help but come back to the questions I posed yesterday: why is this amazing American story not better remembered, and what can we do about that? The Jackson Homestead and Museum is doing its part; with this blog post, I’m trying to do mine. Each of those efforts remains local in one way or another, though: local to those fortunate enough to visit the Museum in the first place; local to those who find their way to my blog in the second. So when it comes to the next steps, to bringing a story like Walker’s to more national prominence, the questions remain—and all I can say is that it’ll depend, in this 21st century moment, on lots of us, highlighting and sharing a story like this broadly, widely, and consistently. So tell somebody about Jonathan Walker today, won’t you? And share a too-unknown American story of your own with me!
Next post this weekend,
PS. You know what to do!7/6 Memory Day nominee: Sylvester Stallone—perhaps the most debatable of all my nominees, but a man who created or helped create, in Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, two of the most iconic American cultural figures of the last half-century.