After witnessing a colonial Williamsburg reenactment depicting a slave telling the story of a vicious whipping, and another slave crying after her children were sold at auction, Andrew O’Hehir describes the famed living history museum as “a covert battleground in America’s culture wars.”
I am glad to see that journalists are recognizing the powerful part that history has played and will continue to play in these so called “culture wars.” (To suggest that history is a major battleground in the culture wars is not “far fetched.”). This, of course, has been an issue I have been dealing with for a couple of years now, ever since my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction was published in 2011.
Here are some of O’Hehir’s reflections on the tension between the white visitors to Williamsburg and recent attempts by the museum to give slave and African-American experiences a more prominent place in the story it tells about colonial America:
Every article ever written about Colonial Williamsburg brings up the overwhelming whiteness of the visitor population. Given that the venue was literally segregated during the Jim Crow era (blacks were admitted only one day a week, and the actors playing slaves lived in separate quarters), made no effort to include programming on African-American life until the 1980s, and cannot avoid focusing on the single most painful aspect of African-American history, it’s not exactly shocking that black people aren’t breaking down the doors. Another factor may be that the Revolutionary War itself is often seen, not just by African-Americans but by everybody, as an all-white duel of elites – George Washington vs. King George – whose ideas and slogans and conflicts are locked away behind glass in the vitrine of the distant past.
That dusty sense of certainty is exactly what has long made the American Revolution feel like a safe zone for contemporary conservatives; contemporary Tea Party activists picked their name for a reason. The heroes and villains of the Revolution seem clear-cut, and there’s very little popular debate about underlying causes (which makes it very different from the Civil War). The schoolbook versions are loaded with heroic deeds, truisms about God and tyranny and liberty, and paeans to the blinding greatness of the Founding Fathers, usually considered as a semi-divine monolith rather than a group of bickering men. That certainty is also exactly what the “Revolutionary City” program at Colonial Williamsburg seeks to undermine. (“Revolutionary City” is now concentrated in a 90-minute chunk towards the end of the day, but this summer it will expand throughout the schedule and become increasingly interwoven with other events.)
No doubt “Revolutionary City,” along with Colonial Williamsburg’s extensive Web outreach and ventures into social media, is in large part a matter of adapting to a changing environment. Attendance has trended steadily downward since a peak in the mid-1980s, and the institution faces a version of the Republican Party’s marketing problem: An all-white, heartland-based demographic is no longer enough. But unlike the GOP’s soul-searching, the process of reinvention at Colonial Williamsburg feels genuine and all-pervasive. (I should make clear that you can can observe most outdoor activities in Williamsburg, including some of the “Revolutionary City” theater, without paying admission.) Given its long-standing image as the squarest and most white-bread of all American tourist attractions, the question of whether Williamsburg can attract a new audience without totally driving away its old one is a puzzler.
HT: Aaron Cowan
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