Editor’s Corner: Authenticity and Advocacy

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Editors’ Note: We publish the editor’s introduction to the August 2022 issue of The Public Historian here. The entire issue is available online to National Council on Public History members and to others with subscription access.

Our August issue considers issues of authenticity, objectivity, and advocacy in public history. We begin with the Gregory Smoak’s NCPH Presidential Address, delivered virtually in May. Smoak argues that public historians must be advocates, particularly on the existential issue of climate change. As he writes, “we must remain true to our professional ethics and methods, but we must not shrink from advocating for good history and good science. Environmental history can be a powerful tool for doing just that.” Smoak’s exploration of the use of nature and the environment as a “fundamental category” in understanding the past as well as the present climate crisis sets the tone for an issue that tackles questions about the role of public historians as advocates and the meaning of objectivity.

Cover of the August 2022 issue of The Public Historian featuring AIDS memorial quilt color photograph. Cover background features two shades of gray.

The August 2022 cover of The Public Historian features Duane Puryear’s panel on the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Nino Testa explores the complicated story of the AIDS Quilt as archive with a focus on Puryear in the article, “‘If You Are Reading It, I am Dead’: Activism, Local History, and the AIDS Quilt.”  Photo credit: Nino Testa

Nino Testa dives deeply into layered meanings of authenticity and advocacy in “‘If You Are Reading It, I am Dead’: Activism, Local History, and the AIDS Quilt.” Here, he brings a fresh reading of Duane Puryear’s iconic Quilt panel, pictured on our cover. Testa’s exploration of the panel, which Puryear made in anticipation of his own death, situates it within his life of activism in Dallas, Texas, and the Midwest, and thereby “complicates a binary understanding of the Quilt as being in sentimental contrast to the politics of direct action.” Outside of New York City and San Francisco, and even in those urban centers, the politics of activism and the politics of care and memorialization coexisted within the same communities, organizations, and individuals. Testa also examines the complicated history of the panel as an object, further unsettling the meaning of authenticity while emphasizing the importance of the Quilt as archive.

Stephanie Gray, in “‘Restoring’” Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre: Preservation and Power in the Depression-Era South,” examines how the “imaginative reconstruction” of an eighteenth-century theater “projected a sanitized portrait of Old Charleston that promoted artistic and architectural excellence and downplayed or willfully ignored racial and class tensions.” At the same time, the theater project benefited from New Deal-era modernization of southern cities and thereby gained the support of city boosters and federal funders. Although the rebuilding of the theater would not be understood as restoration in the modern use of the term by preservationists, Gray employs the term to capture the twin purpose of the project: to restore the cultural power of the city’s elite, and to restore the nation’s spirit by celebrating a supposedly more genteel past. Here too, the meaning of authenticity of the material past lies on shifting foundations of perception.

In “‘A Pledge of Allegiance to the South’: Commemorating the Enslaved at Two Historic House Museums in Kansas City, Missouri,” geographer Amy E. Potter analyzes how these museums have grappled with honestly interpreting slavery. Most studies on plantation museums focus on the deep South, but Potter emphasizes the importance of reckoning with slavery in the Midwest and elsewhere. Using surveys, Potter finds that visitors for the most part are open to learning about slavery and that staff view interpreting it as essential, but that volunteer docents and some board members continue to resist incorporating greater attention to the subject. She advocates that small house museums outside of, as well as in, the South do more to educate audiences and offer more inclusive, accurate interpretation of slavery.

Evan Faulkenbury, in “Howard Zinn’s Public History,” makes a strong case for viewing the activist scholar as a public historian. Acknowledging that “Zinn’s methods were far outside the norm” and that his work has been subject to ongoing “charges of inaccuracy,” Faulkenbury nevertheless finds that Zinn’s commitment to history in the service of activism and social justice offers inspiration to public historians who hope to move “the public to act in meaningful ways.” Further, Zinn’s work reminds us of the limitations of objectivity and that we ought to “be prepared to defend our interpretive choices” and “make bold arguments about why the past unfolded as it did.” At the same time, Faulkenbury cautions, “Zinn’s public history helps us realize the limits of subjectivity,” noting that if scholarship becomes purely advocacy, “what would prevent the opposite side from weaponizing history in service to right-wing conspiracy theories?”

In their Report from the Field, “Public History in the Age of Insurrection: Confronting White Rage in Red States,” Brian Murphy and Katie Owens-Murphy tackle these questions directly based on their attempts to dismantle two sites associated with the Confederacy in Florence, Alabama. Proposing “a methodological shift in the practice of the public humanities,” they advocate action research and restorative justice as the basis of public scholarship. Perhaps most provocatively, they suggest public historians cannot meaningfully engage with “those who have forfeited their relationship to the truth,” such as neo-Confederates clinging to Lost Cause ideology, especially those who advocate violence to preserve their own power.  Yet, Murphy and Owens-Murphy argue, they can, and must, engage with communities willing to work in good faith and open dialogue towards the goals of “action, truth-telling, accountability, and repair.”

We hope that readers find this issue thought-provoking and that it engenders further discussion about these essential issues for public historians.

~Sarah H. Case, the editor of The Public Historian, earned her MA and Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is a continuing lecturer in history, teaching courses in public history, women’s history, and history of the South. She is the author of Leaders of Their Race: Educating Black and White Women in the New South (Illinois, 2017) and articles on women and education, reform, and commemoration.

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