A moving travelog from Johnny Diamond on BBC Radio 4 – Broadcasting House, 29/12/2013 explored the dwindling but active Jewish communities of the Mississippi Delta. Once numbering in the hundreds, their numbers declined as children, having served in the war, stayed away. New lives were built in the cities, the younger generation often joined by their parents.
Only 9 Jews are now left in Greenwood, the remaining members afraid ‘not to gather’: the community ceasing to exist feels a real and immediate possibility. In Vicksburg, Stan Klein talks of his concern about the on-going care of the cemetery: ‘we’re planning for the future of our congregation, when we can no longer physically be here to do it ourselves. We’re nearing the end and we know it’.
The roving rabbi serving these communities sees his role as ‘to help them navigate what will be very difficult realities in a way that honours that history and ensures their continued legacy’. In essence, he’s helping them manage their decline. But might there also in such efforts be a role for the public historian, capturing oral histories, gathering and cataloguing important items such as photographs and diaries, documenting the history of spaces such as the cemetery and synagogue to inform future preservation and respond to future interest?
If so, how do historians find and build the kind of connections to make this happen? Not that such endeavours are unproblematic. They raise many issues, such as authority over and ownership of the past, the tension between the interests and agendas of community members and historians, what is done with the ‘products’ of the collaboration. These are, however, all issues with which public history is fundamentally concerned and public history projects are tackling them on a routine basis. We also need to think about how we train our students, not just with the skills required but perhaps also with a certain activist mindset to want to take on the challenges involved?
Anyway, I commend the programme to you (it starts at 23′) and would be interested to hear people’s views on it, and on the issues it raises for public history.
One of my teammates in the university football team had a wooden sign on her door: ‘Mathematics Department’. She was training as a teacher after her maths degree and had been given the sign after a school clearout. It was of the era of flip-top desks with inkwells and a fine thing in its own right. But it also captured my imagination – I’ve always hankered after a history one since then. I guess we all love a label. We like to badge ourselves, thereby both defining for ourselves and declaring to others aspects of our identity we deem important – which club we support, which political party or band we prefer… The idea of taking sides in the antagonisms of celebrity life is one of the more recent examples – Marina Hyde recently gave a sharp critique of the inclination to ‘self-herd’ in this way after David Cameron professed his allegiance to ‘Team Nigella‘.
Badges can also have a more sinister side, of course. They can be applied to people to define them as different – inferior, suspect, a legitimate target. The patches, hats and other distinguishing items and marks that Jews were required by law to wear at times in medieval European states predated the Nazi yellow star by centuries. In the concentration camps of the Third Reich, extensive systems of insignia defined inmates by their initial ‘crimes’, such as political prisoners, homosexuals and asocials, and also by aggravating factors: a ‘repeat offender’, a flight risk, Jewishness…
Badges can also turn others’ discriminatory labelling into statements of defiance. The ‘March on Washington’ button badges on sale in the bookstore near the Martin Luther King, Jnr memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC don’t just serve as marks of homage or respect. They also make a statement about the present day and the as yet incomplete fulfilment of equality of opportunity. Such badges are also a kind of visual shorthand for a collection of political ideas (not necessarily clearly defined or coherently assembled, or even historically consistent) and invite the viewer to associate the wearer with them (badges on sale at public history sites would make for a very interesting research project – maybe it’s already been done). We can ‘badge’ ourselves in many different ways too; when Barack Obama took his second oath of office on bibles used by King and by Abraham Lincoln, those books played a similar symbolic role.
As an aside, an excellent session at the American Historical Association conference explored significant shifts in the design process of the MLK memorial, including the omission of King’s own strident references to race from one of the quotations etched into the inscription wall that encloses the statue of King as the ‘rock of hope’. A pen was to be in King’s hand as he looked across the water to the Jefferson memorial, pointing to the ‘promissory note’ that the architects of the republic had written ‘to which every American was to fall heir’: a note on which America had defaulted insofar as her citizens of color are concerned’. A rolled-up scroll is all that survived of this plan.
A badge to show a certain defiance, as well as pride, is evident in the display of service flags in American windows to show sons on active military duty. They emerged in the First World War and were then widely adopted and subject to standardisation and codification – although a blue star for each son (or, now, daughter) in service and a gold star for those who had died have emerged as common practice. The flags have become symbols around which communities can build: Blue Star Mothers and American Gold Star Mothers interestingly accord a special status to the grief and the subsequent activism of mothers (and a proposed monument will give that status material form).
The badges that announce our disciplinary affiliations are, of course, of a different order. The specialisation that many disciplines underwent in the second half of the twentieth century proliferated sub-fields, and new ones continue to emerge. We can now be rather specific about our academic identities, should we so wish. The question is why we would wish to do so – why do we like to label ourselves – and others – within academe? A certain anxiety could be one reason. The outgoing AHA President, Kenneth Pomeranz, noted in his recent annual conference lecture, that historians didn’t come to be unified by methodology, as did certain social sciences. Many historians’ skills are to be found in other fields, albeit not in history’s distinctive combination nor field of application. Does that mean that we feel the need for badges more than others? If so, does it matter?
I don’t know the answer to either question. I guess badges are fine if we use them mindfully. We need to be aware of how they help – in helping to create a community of enquiry, for example – as well as how they might hinder us. This concern seems particularly relevant for public history, which can all too easily become the place ‘over there’ where stuff can be placed so it doesn’t interfere with core business: community engagement, student employability, research impact and questions of ‘relevance’. We need to ask what the price we may pay for public history being identified as a specialism. The case for a more integrative agenda with ‘academic’ history is, it seems to me, a persuasive one. I wonder what such a badge for history would look like?