The history I practice

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Photo source: Scalino.

Photo credit: Scalino

Recently, I went with a group of friends to see Yoga:  The Art of Transformation at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition includes representations of yoga practice in sculpture, painting, icons, and illuminated manuscripts across 2,000 years. Yoga originated as a radical religious practice, one originally designed to help practitioners transcend their bodies rather than strengthen them. Some yogis and yoginis lived lives of deprivation; others were spies, powerful leaders, or even fierce warriors. As we wandered through the galleries, one of my companions, a yoga instructor, said, “This is not the yoga I practice.”

I understood precisely what she meant.

As a public historian, I often feel a similar sense of disconnect and dislocation when I try to situate myself in many of the possible pasts that my discipline presents me with. Am I the intellectual descendant of 19th-century women’s organizations which sought to protect relics of a particular past in order to stave off unbearable social and cultural change? Do I owe my habits of work to Progressive Era professionals who applied the techniques of scientific management to solve pressing social problems, far too often without listening to the people directly impacted by dangerous working conditions or barely habitable tenements?  Am I a professional in a still-emerging intellectual field, one gaining in legitimacy because it has become tied to a larger effort to preserve the academic discipline of history?

More often than I probably should admit, I find myself thinking, “This is not the history I practice.”

Recently, I have embarked on a new research project to fill in some of the gaps in the genealogy of the kind of history I do practice, the kind often associated with the term “civic engagement” or even “progressive public history.” Those of us who have adopted these terms to describe our work see public history as a tool, one that communities and individuals might use to craft a viable political identity and gain a more legitimate public voice; to better understand the roots of a stubborn social problem; or to find models and values in the past that might apply in the present. Further, we understand public history as inherently political because it is located in the very institutions, community organizations, and public spaces where average people seek to understand, discuss, and untangle the challenges of everyday life. Finally, we tend to see ourselves less as experts and more as guides–the same term my yoga instructor uses to describe her role in our yoga practice.

So who are the intellectual ancestors for this kind of history?

I intend to make the case for Gene Weltfish. Weltfish was an anthropologist, a student of Franz Boas and a colleague of Ruth Benedict. In 1943, she and Benedict co-authored a pamphlet The Races of Mankind, which argued that race is a false construct. Weltfish and Benedict wrote, “The races of mankind are what the Bible says they are—brothers,” and presented evidence to prove that race was no factor in intelligence or ability. During World War II, the US Army used Races of Mankind for training, but it was eventually banned as “subversive.” So was Weltfish. Her strong commitment to racial justice–she also authored a children’s book on the subject, In Henry’s Backyard:  The Races of Mankind—brought her under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee. She was called for questioning twice and essentially blacklisted. After 16 years as an adjunct at Columbia University, her contract was not renewed, and she was unable to find another position for nearly a decade.

In 1961, Weltfish was employed in the Anthropology Department at Fairleigh Dickinson University. While there, she became involved in the American Civilization Institute of Morristown, a collaborative, multi-disciplinary educational program that engaged high school and college students in a multi-year project to preserve and interpret a historic structure in Morristown, New Jersey. In form, content, and pedagogy, the Institute can best be described as a precursor to contemporary public history and community studies. A variety of archival records are held in the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center. My preliminary research there reveals that Weltfish never lost her radical commitment to social justice. The American Civilization Institute was founded in response to a perceived problem:  soaring youth unemployment. Founders believed, “We can offer our youth a pathway to the future through a new combination of study and humanistic work.” Weltfish argued that interdisciplinary approaches would enable students to connect intellectual work with practical skills and help them create opportunities in a new and yet-undefined economy. She sought to empower young people to implement change. Working in a profoundly collaborative environment that included chemists, botanists, artists, builders, historians, anthropologists, high school teachers, and college professors, Weltfish saw herself not as an expert but as a mediator. She wrote, “The academic director has made it a practice to circulate among the various senior participants, establishing likely connections and acting somewhat like a combination catalytic agent and/or trouble shooter as the need might arise.” She argued, “We are developing people, not a plan.”

While I have only just begun this project, I already feel certain:  this is the history I practice.

~ Denise Meringolo is Director of Public History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a current member of the National Council on Public History Board of Directors. For the 2014 NCPH Annual Meeting, she is co-facilitating a Working Group designed to trace social and political activism in public history practice.

1 comment
  1. Ras Wayne Rose says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and extraordinarily stimulating article. It is quite obvious that you continue to inspire intellectual discourse on, and grapple with the social construct of human relations (especially in America).
    I too believe that solutions to many of our past and contemporary social problems can be found in the design, delivery and uses of public history.
    I wish you much success on this project, and would be happy to play a role, if needed, in such noble research.

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