I, Too, Sing America: Integrating the voices of all Americans in historic preservation

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Editor’s note: This post concludes a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a part article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation. 

Harbor of Town of St. George, Bermuda, 2006. Photo by Aodhdubh at English Wikipedia. CC BY 2.5, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/.

Harbor of Town of St. George, Bermuda, 2006.
Photo by Aodhdubh at English Wikipedia.
CC BY 2.5, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/.

Historic preservation exists to tell stories of our journeys as a people and as a nation, but somehow along the way the stories of America’s African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities are erased or obscured as historians and preservationists tell the great American story. As we celebrate fifty years of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), America’s historical record overwhelmingly favors a well-to-do minority. This anniversary should be characterized by a rigorous assessment, inventory, and look back at what has been preserved and what has been ignored. The challenge is to ask: When the preservation of heritage is the vision of the privileged few, is the American public being served?

The call of those who are not the dominant voices in American memory resonates with the title of a Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too, Sing America,” a poem of people, communities, and histories left out of the nation’s collective story. It is a longing for inclusion. In this year of celebration, that historic poem challenges preservationists and historians to ensure a place for every American story because there’s damage to our national consciousness when a majority of the population is left out.

In “Emphasis on the Public,” Leondra Burchall shares how the preservation of buildings, museum exhibitions, historic writings, and academic histories can be disconnected from the way individuals and communities experience history. When the historical record reflects only the perspectives of the powerful, Burchall notes, underrepresented communities are left to admire from a distance. To close the distance and make history relevant to all, museum officials, academics, historians, and preservationists must eliminate cultural bias. Those same arbiters of history must examine their storytelling practices and make room for other voices in local, regional, and national narratives.

As a cultural activist, I have supported and advocated for efforts that reflect the inclusivity of community voices, experiences, and perspectives. My work that related to America’s civil rights legacy prompted congressional legislation to support museums and data collection that include marginalized communities. Engaging congressional leaders and state officials in conversations about America’s rich heritage, I focused on connecting diverse audiences. As an artist, literature allows me a path to partner arts and action.

Literature, poetry, and visual arts provide vibrant ways to engage audiences and experience national storytelling in new ways. Former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s collection, Native Guard, offers a meditation on America’s past and a counter to the erasure of contributions of others, as if they played no role in America’s growth as a nation. Her poetry teaches us. As survivors, we have a duty to tend to the gravestones of our fathers and mothers and those who laid down their lives in building this country. The legacy we inherit is inscribed across many monuments, such as the little school houses, businesses, front porches, casitas, inns, farms, waterways, and mountains where people labored, raised their families, shared music, and passed down stories.

The late Dr. Clement Price, in his roles as Newark (NJ) Historian, member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, mentored me as a new preservationist. We shared African American traditions that valued ancestral knowledge and participation in family acts to preserve graves, churches, and cultural stories. In that regard, we both were raised in traditions that hold sensitivity for awareness and preservation, to save places that Price called “harbors for memory and ritual.” We learned through practice from people untrained in formal preservation techniques but who honored legacies.

Price inserted a new narrative into historic preservation in his essay, “The Path to Big Mama’s House: Historic Preservation, Memory, and African American History.” He wrote of a simple bungalow, built in about the 1920s in South Carolina, a place where he reflected on the deep, meaningful, and subtle ways “the power of place and a personal interest in preserving places and memories” dear to him shaped his scholarship.

This past year, America and the world were shocked by the murder of innocent churchgoers during a Bible study meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. The incident turned our gaze to the representations and interpretations of America’s history. The Confederate flag was used as a symbol of hate, not history, in that act. This tragedy challenges us to examine our interpretations of heritage and to build deeper meaning and consciousness in understanding the past. It challenges us to remember with wholeness.

The State House, in St. George's, Bermuda, built 1620 . Photo by Aodhdubh at English Wikipedia. CC BY 2.5, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/.

The State House, in St. George’s, Bermuda, built 1620 . Photo credit:  Aodhdubh at English Wikipedia. CC BY 2.5, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/.

History lives with people and is not stagnant; therefore it is essential to look for ways to include all identities and not to prejudice history by privileging one group over another. In her work with students in Bermuda, Burchall tackled the disparities in storytelling and allowed youth to find their stories and integrate them into the past. Through a workshop called “Bringing History to Life,” youth in Bermuda’s Historic Town of St. George, a World Heritage site, used art to create interpretations of historic districts that gave them a voice in the narrative.

In addition to reinterpretations of what’s already there, there needs to be a focus on underrepresented voices in determining which places matter–and on readying the necessary filings, surveys, and documentation to make that happen. The National Trust for Historic Preservation reports that there are 15 million people across America engaged in preservation activities and 50 million people sympathetic to preservation values. Even though many of these individuals may not see themselves as preservationists, the National Trust is working to engage, educate, and give them the tools and skills to preserve the places that matter to their communities. These new advocates for historic preservation are strong partners in meeting the goals of the NHPA as they work to include the stories of marginalized communities.

 

Birdseye view of plan for Emancipation Park, Houston, TX. Provided courtesy of OST/Almeda Corridors Redevelopment Authority-TRIZ #7

Birdseye view of plan for Emancipation Park, Houston, TX. Provided courtesy of OST/Almeda Corridors Redevelopment Authority-TRIZ #7

In Houston, Texas, community and business leaders are partnering with government to rebuild Emancipation Park, which has been a place for gathering and celebrating the hopes of freedom and social justice since 1872. Efforts like this are alive in communities across the nation, where individuals are collecting stories and asking that they be part of the national memory through park sites, monuments, and the preservation of buildings and places of social change.

The Smithsonian Institution introduced the public to an expanded story of the American experience with its National Museum of the American Indian. A museum of African American history and culture is nearing completion on the Mall in Washington, DC. A monument to America’s civil rights journey is reflected in a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Congress acted on legislation for a commission on the creation of a women’s history museum. The National Park Service is actively researching and funding the story of American history, as heard through the cultural voices of Latinos, women, and other underrepresented groups. President Barack Obama and Congress should continue to encourage inclusion of all voices in America’s history–even though the places and artifacts of some populations may be fragile or dissipating.

Importantly, as historic preservationists reflect on the legacy of the 50-year-old NHPA, it is essential that the future of cultural and resource preservation be an inclusive movement with programming, skills training, and education for underrepresented voices. Traditional preservation organizations, their leadership, and those who grant dollars to support preservation programming must reflect the public they serve. To avoid what Burchall calls gazing from a distance, preservationists and historians must be rigorous in discovering talent and providing training among diverse populations. While funding for such initiatives may face challenges, it is imperative that preservationists, academic programs, and cultural organizations direct resources towards these efforts.

Historic preservation can only fully represent America’s legacy, diversity, and the evolving spirit of the NHPA if the places that harbor memory and ritual and the people who tell the preservation story include all who sing “America.”

~Darlene Taylor is managing director of cultural heritage and community development at The Waterman Steele Group. An MFA candidate at Stonecoast, she writes historical fiction to revive the stories of people silenced by history. She is the recipient of fiction fellowships at A Room of Her Own, Kimbilio, and Callaloo and a former museum studies fellow at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. A graduate of American University, she is a cultural activist engaged in preserving legacy and culture through storytelling.

10 comments
  1. Fred MacVaugh says:

    Many thanks for this powerful reminder of the values story brings to our public histories. Writing as a National Park Service curator with an MFA in poetry, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for us in the NPS to have in our ranks those who can marry storytelling and scholarship. This uncommon combination of skills helps us reach our many publics and strengthens their commitment(s) to stewardship in all its forms. Thanks again!

  2. Thanl you very much for this article, Darlene Taylor. I agree with you about the absolute urgency of preserving all of our complex cultures. I write fiction in order to contribute to a literature of American history that is not limited to one race’s, class’s, or gender’s narratives. Visiting historical sites is a vital part of my research into how ordinary, but delightfully unique individuals contribute to understanding history.

  3. darlene says:

    Fred, Thank you for your comment. It’s wonderful to meet another cultural advocate who is also a creative writer. The NPS has a critical role in creating those narratives of America’s story and historic sites that connect with audiences.

  4. darlene says:

    Breena, Thank you for sharing your words and joining the ranks of cultural preservationists with storytelling that uncovers the stories of voices that are little known in history.

  5. Darlene, this is a powerful call to consciousness for us all as writers, artists, educators, and citizens. Your reminder about the “legacy we inherit is inscribed across many monuments, such as the little school houses, businesses, front porches, casitas, inns, farms, waterways, and mountains where people labored, raised their families, shared music, and passed down stories.” comes at a crucial time in our nation’s history. We all need to be part of the preservation movement.

    1. darlene says:

      Tisha,

      Thank you. During this time of celebration of the NHPA, I’m excited about the opportunity for traditional preservationists and new preservationists. Check out the National Park Services’ website and please do get involved in preserving cultural resources.

      Darlene

  6. Deborah Heard says:

    These are excellent reminders — and important encouragement — for all of us to remember, preserve, protect and promote. As you said: “As survivors, we have a duty to tend to the gravestones of our fathers and mothers and those who laid down their lives in building this country.” Thank you.

    1. darlene says:

      Deborah, Thank you for your comments and your advocacy.

  7. Cassandra Lane says:

    Darlene, what a great column on the importance of integrating all of America’s voices into our preservation efforts. As a daughter of the South, I am fascinated by all I did NOT learn in school, by what was left out of the historical “documents” we studied. I agree that “museum officials, academics, historians, and preservationists must eliminate cultural bias”– so, too, must those who spend so much time with our youngest ones: teachers. Even in preschool, teachers can find creative ways to introduce all children to America’s varied history. Thank you, Darlene, for the work you do serving as a cultural activist and presevationist. Truly, you are educating us all through your work, your art and your urgings for us to do our part.

  8. darlene says:

    Cassandra, Thank you for your comments and your interest. When my parents taught us to tend the graves of the old church grounds where family members rest, we learned duty and respect and our heritage. Those were wise and heart-filled lessons.

    Everyone has a story – and there is no “One Story.” To learn more about preserving cultural resources and training, contact your local preservation organization and historical society.

    America is rich with stories.

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