I would like to address some questions raised about my critique of the American Revolution Reborn conference.
I’d like to begin with Tara Lyons, of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. I have two conference handouts from her entitled “Museum Introduction for Refugee Students.” Under the objectives for the program is listed: Explain how this museum might help them learn about their new home. She then turns to the task of how to achieve this objective:
The History Museum exists to tell the stories of the people who live in Buffalo. Each child and their family are now part of Buffalo’s story.
There have been refugees and immigrants settling in Buffalo for centuries . Many people in the past have struggled with the same difficulties and overcome them successfully. Students can lean about the specific history and much more from exploring our exhibits and collection.
Notice the distinction between immigrants, people who have chosen to come to America, and refugees, people who have been resettled here as part of an international agreement. I became more aware of this situation when a group of Utica teachers participated in a Mohawk Valley Teacherhostel/Historyhostel in 2011. Tara’s handouts are reflective of a “We the People” museum seeking to integrate the newcomers into the social fabric of the community by showing how Buffalo history is now their history. This is what should be done in every community at the local level and for the state and country in our school curriculums.
In contrast to this “We the People” approach, other museums are taking what might be called the “hyphen approach.” Edward Rothstein who frequently writes on museum exhibitions for the New York Times, characterizes museums as passing through three stages:
1. The imperial stage where museums emphasize the power of their country through the exhibits and collections
2. The enlightenment stage of understanding other cultures for their own sake
3. The identity stage which prioritizes a political story over historical texture or artistic excellence.
The recent debate on the Two Row Wampum agreement would be an example of the third stage. Rothstein’s concern was that museums, instead of reflecting the people of a geographical community such as a village, town, city, state, country, now reflect a specific hyphenated identity. In his talk he was discussing the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
This debate between the “We the People” museum/historical society and the “hyphen” museum/historical society has local and civic implications. The American Revolution, as the story of the birth of the United States of America, the country in which “We the People” live, provides an essential forum for the discussion of the issue. For example, consider this recent notice about an event by one New York historical organization:
Thought provoking questions about democracy and civic engagement are as relevant today as they were in 1852 when Frederick Douglass asked his audience, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” Investigate the continuing inequities in our society, consider how we might respond, and celebrate the inspiration and courage of those who work to make the promises of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ real for all.
The program included:
Guest speaker: Deidre Butler, PhD, Associate Professor and Director of Africana Studies, Union College: “This Thing Called Freedom: Voices Respond to Douglass’s Question ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’”
In this “We the People” activity today remembering an act in the 19th century commemorating an act in the 18th century, the American Revolution was renewed and reborn to include slaves. This is the exact issue the American Revolution Reborn conference I wrote about sought to address. The American Revolution already has been reborn again and again, starting with the War of 1812.
This week we also are remembering an event which occurred 50 years ago, the 1963 March on Washington. That event also sought to renew and redefine the American Revolution. Writing for the New York Times (8/29/63), James Reston illustrated the historical renewal of the American Revolution in King’s address that combined phrases, symbols, and cadences from the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Lincoln, and the Bible. Reston payed particular attention to King’s invocation of the principles of the Founding Fathers to rebuke the inequalities and hypocrisies of modern American life. In other words, King used the language of America’s founders and heroes to criticize American for not living up to its ideals.
This is the message I tried to communicate to Mike Zuckerman about the American Revolution Reborn conference. To criticize the country you love for its shortcomings is not the act of a traitor but a patriot. We have an obligation to live up to our ideals. The word for those who call upon Americans to do so is “prophet” not “traitor.”
Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln were agents of change with links to what had happened four-score and seven years or more ago. The American Revolution was reborn. Lincoln challenged us to be the last best hope of humanity; King challenged us to recognize the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” needed to be an opportunity extended to all America’s citizens. King like Lincoln is far from being a hero in many parts of the country.
The journey needs to continue.
Every time a “We the People” museum like the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society teaches that Buffalo’s history belongs to all its residents, the journey continues.
Every time a historical society of a community headquartered in a colonial home tells the community’s story beyond the 17th and 18th centuries up to the present, the journey continues.
Every time an historical organization seeks to renew the story of the American Revolution, the journey continues.
Every time a school curriculum teaches that America is not frozen in time but an ongoing adventure to live up to its ideals in a constantly changing world, the journey continues.