A little American history on a Saturday in DC
Posted on March 5, 2011
We are in DC for the American Council of Education (ACE) annual conference. Our trustee, Clayton Christensen, is one of the featured speakers and a lot of the discussion these next three days will be around the high stakes changes in federal and state support for needy students, the economic context and implications for all institutions, and changes in the regulatory environment. These are momentous times for high education, full of anxiety and opportunity.
With some free time this afternoon, Pat and I paid a visit to the Museum of American History, one of my favorite of the Smithsonian museums. Old Glory, the one that inspired The Star Spangled Banner, has been restored and is now displayed in a low light gallery and has the aura of a religious icon. The first ladies’ gowns are still on display. You can see the ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Apollo Ono’s speed skates, the original Kermit the Frog, the Aerchie and Edith’s chairs from the set of All in the Family.
As part of the exhibit on the American presidency, there was a board set up where kids could write responses to the question: What advice would you offer President Lincoln on his first day? Some of our favorite responses:
Switch chairs at the theater.
Don’t tell Mr’s Lincoln she looks fat in that dress. P.S. nice beard.
Ban handguns. Trust me — it’s a good idea.
Pass a law prohibiting the creation of an AP Exam in American History.
American students may be slipping further behind in every global educational index, but they remain funny.
A special exhibition on African American history, from a private collection, was pretty amazing. In one really touching moment, I watched an African American father, hand on his young son’s shoulder, read an actual letter from a slave owner. In it, he explained that the girl carrying the letter did not know she was being sold to the letter’s recipient and separated from her whole family because the letter writer feared the scene such a parting would cause. Imagine for a moment the obscenity of the act.
Then imagine this dad explaining the letter to his son — trying to make sense of the cruelty that remains an unresolved part of our collective heritage. It must be complicated to be Black in America today, where we have a Black president and young Black men are still eight more times likely to be in prison than their white counterparts. On the other hand, there is in the museum inspiration to be found in the original Greensboro lunch counter where the Greensboro Four stood up for their rights. And in the time line next to the exhibit, where the list of important events in the fight for racial equality and ends with “Barak Obama elected President.”
The museum always raises interesting questions for me about how history is created, how the prevailing narrative comes to be. For example, in an exhibit on WWII there is a small part on the use of the Atomic Bomb and an eyewitness paragraph on the horrors of what was a civilian massacre, but it does not report the number of people actually killed (for the record, somewhere around 70,000 in the explosion and another 70,000 or so in the days after in Hiroshima alone). It quite rightly points out that the bombing forced the Japanese surrender and probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but glossed over the choice of civilian targets and the death toll. The historical narratives now offered by new scholarly approaches — feminist, Marxist, post-structuralist, queer theory, and more — are problematizing our understanding of the past in what I think are important and useful ways. Must make museum curating hellishly difficult.
Anyway, I never leave this museum without feeling pride in this country’s history — complex as it may be — and reassured about our ability to move forward even in times as troubling as these. If you think about the exhibits we saw today, almost every one was about struggle (okay, maybe not Kermit and Dorothy’s slippers) and hope. Whether about slaves, immigrants, westward expansion, the industrial revolution and rise of unions (ironic given the headlines), America in war, or even our great inventions, this is a country built on struggle and hope and some great confidence that tomorrow can be better. I hope we can hold onto that last one, even if it makes us irrational at times, because I think it is in the end the quality that distinguishes the American character (and what is a good blog post without one hopelessly sweeping generalization?).