Monday, July 24, 2017
July 24, 2017: Talks and Events: Facing History and Ourselves
[On Tuesday July 25th, I’ll be talking to the Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society on the topic of “Remembering the Salem Witch Trials: The Limits and Possibilities of Public History.” So this week I wanted to highlight five recent talks and events I’ve given or been part of—please share your own experiences in comments!]
On two unexpected results of connecting to a wonderful organization.
Earlier this spring, I had the chance to record a podcast for Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO), as part of their new series “What Makes Democracy Work?” FHAO’s global home office is in Brookline, Massachusetts, making them very much part of my local community; but the organization’s lesson plans, resources, and workshops for teachers and educators have achieved nationwide (and even worldwide) recognition and effects (leading FHAO to open ten global offices), making them a truly influential part of our 21st century conversations about history, education, and civic engagement. FHAO is perhaps best known for their truly groundbreaking and crucial work with Holocaust histories and education—it’s my understanding that History and Social Studies educators (especially at the middle school level, but really at every level) have long struggled with how to teach that vital but incredibly dark and complex moment, and that FHAO’s resources and support have fundamentally shifted those conversations for the better. But their American history materials and resources are just as important and inspiring, and I found two unexpected results of connecting my work to theirs (a connection that will continue at one of their courses this summer).
For one thing, the connection helped (well, forced, but in a helpful way) me to think about the histories and stories I was highlighting in entirely new ways. I have been writing and thinking about Quock Walker for many years, usually in this space, but for whatever reason had not connected him at any length to Elizabeth “Bett” Freeman, his fellow Massachusetts slave and the other who (like Walker) used the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution and America’s Revolutionary ideals to argue successfully for freedom and push Massachusetts toward the abolition of slavery. The time requirements for the FHAO podcast—as well as just my own recognition that the one story I had tended to focus on was linked to other stories, and I needed to do my due diligence and investigate and analyze them more cohesively—provided precisely the incentive I needed to think more about Freeman and her story, and then to build an analysis that considered both the two stories individually and (especially) how I wanted to connect them to an argument about these figures making the law and our democracy work for them. Now that connection between Walker and Freeman forms a central part of a chapter of my book in progress, Exclusion & Inclusion: The Battle to Define America. AmericanStudier synchronities for the win!
The other result of my connection to FHAO that I want to highlight is much more preliminary, but also more broadly relevant. In many of their different units and resources, FHAO uses the concepts of bystanders and upstanders—of those who stand by while events like the Holocaust or bullying or other oppressions take place, versus those who stand up and say or do something (with saying just as key as doing, in this frame) about the oppression. While I didn’t bring those terms into my FHAO podcast, it’s fair to say that they could apply—that figures like Theodore Sedgwick, the young Massachusetts lawyer who took on Freeman’s case, or Seth and John Caldwell, the brothers who employed the runaway Walker on their farm and helped him fight his court cases, could be described as upstanders to slavery and its oppressions. But the area to which I’ve really begun connecting those terms since my FHAO link is my own evolving interest in public scholarly writing and work. That is, we’re in the midst of a historical moment that far too fully echoes both some of the worst in history and actions like bullying, and like many of us I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do with the time that has been given me. While of course public scholarly writing is far from the only possible (nor necessarily the most productive) such response, I believe it can be seen as a form of upstanding, and as such an important intervention in these dark times.
Next event recap tomorrow,