Join 3,432 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Perspective Matters
July 10, 2010 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Perspective Matters. The exact same moment in history (the arrival of Union troops in Fredericksburg VA in 1862), as described by a white woman resident of the area, and a black slave. It would be an understatement to say they had diverging viewpoints.
posted by COD (27 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very cool post. This is a really interesting blog that I wouldn't have run across - another post here, "Are We Historians or Memorialists?" is a good one too.

Interpretation is in my line of work, and I've been revisiting some of the ideas about this lately. Interpreting historic sites is almost always a process of negotiating the conflicts between treasured mythology and wishful thinking with fact and scholarly perspective (which integrates the concerns and thoughts of people not usually represented in the romantic version). Unfortunately, most Americans grow up with the mythology, not the history, and people with a vested interest in the mythology as something that is a foundation of their worldly success or self-opinion are rarely open to a more comprehensive interpretation.

We need to be bolder and more confident in interpreting historical sites with contemporary, more inclusive perspective, and also in finding and preserving new sites that round out our understandings of history and get us far beyond the Rich White Guy's Birthplace or Fort Whatever No. 7 model. We have plenty of monuments to capital and war, relatively few interpreted well.

This is one of a number of great reinterpretation projects going on around the country. I'm glad they're blogging about it, and in a nice clear way that's not jargon-y or insider-y, too.
posted by Miko at 6:43 AM on July 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


Thank you, a very compelling comparison.
posted by meinvt at 6:56 AM on July 10, 2010


Thank you for sharing this, always good to see people recognize that there are two sides to every matter and perspective changes how we approach politics, and history.
posted by Fizz at 7:19 AM on July 10, 2010


Diverging viewpoints indeed, and with the good fortune of finding two accounts both with such vivid language.
posted by Forktine at 7:37 AM on July 10, 2010


This is interesting, but I'm not sure I see anything surprising about it.

After reading through it a few times, I don't see any discrepancies in how they report fact. It seems to boil down to "the Yankees took our town, and I am very sad, for I am a white southern woman" and "the Yankees took our town, and I am very happy, for I am a black southern man."

I'm not saying it's not cool to read this, but it doesn't really seem shocking that a southern black man and a southern white woman would have differing points of view on the Union army taking over a town.
posted by resiny at 7:38 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying it's not cool to read this, but it doesn't really seem shocking that a southern black man and a southern white woman would have differing points of view on the Union army taking over a town.

She talks about smoke hanging over everything; he remarks how mild and pleasant it is, sun shining. She sees the burning buildings, the destruction, the immanent invasion - he sees glistening bayonets and onrushing freedom. That there aren't any discrepancies in fact is what makes it most interesting; it's what they choose to focus on, which subset of the facts they report, and how they describe those facts.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:44 AM on July 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


Interpreting historic sites is almost always a process of negotiating the conflicts between treasured mythology and wishful thinking with fact and scholarly perspective

Very true; your comment made me think of the Helen Keller birthplace in Alabama. It, like most media related to Ms. Keller, emphasizes her early life through college, conveniently leaving out the fact that as an adult she was a radical socialist, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, worked for womens suffrage and the legalization of birth control when those were very liberal views. In fact, I think the next time I hear someone go on about what a socialist Obama is, I will tell them "He's not a socialist; Helen Keller, now she was a socialist!"
posted by TedW at 7:45 AM on July 10, 2010 [15 favorites]


Very nice reminder the idea of "objectivity" when it comes to history is totally, totally made up.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:50 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Very nice reminder the idea of "objectivity" when it comes to history is totally, totally made up.

See, this is what I don't get. For one thing, are you referring to objectivity of fact or objectivity of POV?

The perspectives differ only with regards to subjective emotional responses, not objective facts. Certainly you have to sift through the biases of differing POVs to get at the kernel of truth contained therein, but both accounts agree that the Union army took over Fredericksburg on a certain day in 1862. Just because you have to triangulate various accounts to uncover the truth doesn't mean there isn't truth.

Or am I misunderstanding what you're saying?
posted by resiny at 8:08 AM on July 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Rashomon!
posted by sciurus at 8:15 AM on July 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


As a former resident of Fredericksburg, thanks for posting this.
posted by NortonDC at 8:19 AM on July 10, 2010


Oh, I'm not saying there's no "truth," just that there's no way to say "This was a good event" or "this was a bad event" because... good or bad for whom?

Especially with American History, the way it was taught in school was "The Civil War was good because it freed the slaves." Well, ok, but clearly that's just one perspective on it. The end result was ultimately on the good side of progress, but the war itself obviously wasn't "good" for everyone.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:23 AM on July 10, 2010


Okay, if that's what you're saying then there'll be no argument from me. I think the moment that clicked with me was in 9th grade when I stumbled across the following quote by Abraham Lincoln from the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate:

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything."

It was a revelation of sorts: "Oh. Hm. I guess nothing's quite as straightforward as I've always thought. Maybe Lincoln wasn't quite the demigod he's been made out to have been."

(Though I probably didn't know the word demigod back then.)
posted by resiny at 8:31 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


the way it was taught in school was "The Civil War was good because it freed the slaves.

You must not have gone to school in the South. Down here it was all about Northern ecnomic aggression, slavery was merely a minor side dispute. And after the war carpetbaggers and newly freed blacks ran the South into the ground.
posted by TedW at 8:54 AM on July 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


K-12 American history education is a national embarrassment for the reasons grapefruitmoon mentions: most history curricula and texts present the past with a rationalized narrative that reads like settled fact. The student's only job is to imbibe it. But of course, every past event was complex and there was passionate debate on all sides. Things could have turned out differently at any point.

For more on this, there is a fantastic book by James Leowen, Lies My Teacher Told Me. He examines about a dozen history texts and finds lots of oversimplification, omission, and downright inaccuracy. But even more to the point, it's the tone - "There's only one acceptable way to views these incidents, and here it is --" that does damage to thought. And also takes all the interesting-ness out of history along the way.
posted by Miko at 8:57 AM on July 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Civil War aspect of the post is low-hanging fruit:Of course, a free white woman and an endentured black servent are going to see the Northern troops differently.

It would be more interesting to see this story with the ambiguities of a more recent time-period inscribed -- WWII, perhaps? The American occupation of the Bikini Islands, maybe?
posted by vhsiv at 8:57 AM on July 10, 2010


It was a revelation of sorts: "Oh. Hm. I guess nothing's quite as straightforward as I've always thought. Maybe Lincoln wasn't quite the demigod he's been made out to have been."

Well it's also pretty clear that Lincoln's views changed in the years following those debates. It's also important to remember that Lincoln was a politician attempting to be elected speaking in Charleston Illinois. The far left liberal opinion at the time was the "send 'em back to Africa" position which is the conclusion of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
posted by Locobot at 8:58 AM on July 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


More on John Washington (the second post has a photo of where he crossed the river). Also:
I'm going to leave you with this. Back in Virginia there was a young slave, twenty-two years-old. His name was John Washington. He'd grown up Fredericksburg, Virginia. Had a white father whom he never knew, a slave mother named Sarah. She taught him to read and write. He grows up an urban slave with lots of skills, highly valued, probably a brilliant young man. He got hired out five times in the late 1850s and the first year of the war. He married his sweetheart in January 1862 in the African Baptist Church in Fredericksburg. And he chose his moment of escape at the first appearance of Union forces along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg on the 18th of April, 1862. He left a narrative that he wrote after the war that I had the great good fortune to have lopped in my lap and have recently published a book about it. And in that narrative he tells this remarkable story of the day of his escape. He even drew a map of Fredericksburg of the day of his escape, including a glossary of sixteen sites and buildings and crossroads on that map, as though he wanted the world to see as well as hear his story. And John tells this story--he's twenty-two years-old--he tells the story of all the white people evacuating Fredericksburg and his mistress, Mrs. Tolliver, is literally packing her china and her silver, and she says one day, "Now John, you'll be with us tomorrow, you'll be with us tomorrow." She's assuming his loyalty. And he says, "Yes Misses, yes Misses, I'll be with you tomorrow." And then his next scene is he's got a hotel where he's been hired out as a steward, almost like an assistant manager, and he describes all the white people fleeing the hotel and fleeing the streets of Fredericksburg, and he says he took the twelve workers up on the roof of the hotel--and the hotel was called The Shakespeare, I kid you not. He takes all the black workers up on the roof of the hotel where they could see across the river and see what he called "the gleam of the Yankees' bayonets." And then he brought them all back down into the kitchen and he poured a round of drinks, and he held a toast, and the toast was "To the Yankees." And then he instructed his fellow workers, he said, to get out of there. "But," he said, "don't get too far from the Yankees."

And then John Washington walked two blocks down to the river, he witnessed the formal surrender of Fredericksburg, he saw the bridges being burned by the Confederate forces, and he walked one mile up river, and he said he crossed the river at Fickland's Mill; and the old stone ruins of that mill are still there. So I know exactly where he crossed the river.

He got into a rowboat, he crossed, and that night he slept in the camp of the 30th New York Volunteers. A captain in that regiment named Ladd, l-a-d-d, formally freed him, he said, based on the law that had just been passed by Congress forty-eight hours earlier in Washington, freeing the slaves in the District of Columbia. John Washington spent the rest of that summer as a camp hand and a guide for the Union Army, all the way through Second Manassas. He dated his arrival in Washington, D.C. as part of the first great wave of freedmen into the capital, as September 1. And by the following year I found him in a City Directory record, living at his first address on 19th Street in Washington. He had his wife, his newborn child, his mother and his 68-year-old grandmother living there with him. Apart from, beneath, next to, underneath this great military and political story, thousands and thousands of John Washingtons are freeing themselves.
From Lecture 15 of Yale History Professor David Blights's excellent course The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877.

Washington's memoirs are available in John Washington's Civil War: A Slave Narrative and Professor Blight's A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:04 AM on July 10, 2010 [13 favorites]


The Civil War aspect of the post is low-hanging fruit:Of course, a free white woman and an endentured black servent are going to see the Northern troops differently.


True, but even so, you rarely get to see the words of both side-by-side in an interpretive situation like a National Park battlefield. At least until recently.

It would be more interesting to see this story with the ambiguities of a more recent time-period inscribed -- WWII, perhaps? The American occupation of the Bikini Islands, maybe?

Totally agreed - and, I think, part and parcel of the same approach.
posted by Miko at 9:18 AM on July 10, 2010


Maybe Lincoln wasn't quite the demigod he's been made out to have been.

Maybe he was a person, with flaws and imperfections like anyone else. Maybe his views changed between when he gave that speech in September 1858 and when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the 13th Amendment in 1865. Maybe, as with LBJ and the Civil Rights Act, it means a little more when people rise above their prejudices to do the right thing.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s essay Was Lincoln a Racist? (Q&A transcript) discusses the same thing (he quotes W.E.B. Du Bois quoting the same speech from the Lincoln-Douglas debates). Du Bois said Lincoln "was big enough to be inconsistent -- cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man -- a big, inconsistent, brave man...I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed."
posted by kirkaracha at 9:20 AM on July 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


the way it was taught in school was "The Civil War was good because it freed the slaves.

You must not have gone to school in the South.


Illustrating my point exactly. The same event in history taught in the same country takes on two completely different flavors depending on where in that same country you learned about it. Same event, but totally different interpretations.

(And obviously, I grew up in the North. So far North, that "Yankee" is someone who eats pie for breakfast.)

And yes, Miko's right - the way history is taught in K-12 American schools (at least the public schools) is totally lacking any kind of rigor and is generally just an embarrassment - especially when you start meeting foreigners who know more - not only about general history, but about your OWN country's history - than you do.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:42 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's a cliche I hear a lot about the teaching of the Civil War in the US, and I may as well repeat it, because it definitely describes my own experience:

When you're in grade school, they tell you it was about slavery.

When you're in high school, they say actually, it was a lot more complex - there were trade issues, and longstanding social conflicts, and problems with political balance, and larger economic considerations.

And then when you're in college, they say okay, it was really about slavery.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:14 AM on July 10, 2010 [9 favorites]


I allways liked Frederick Douglass' oration on the dedication of a memorial to Lincoln. It's a fairly nuanced view of Lincoln and his relationship to black Americans during the civil war.
Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:19 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seconding Lies My Teacher Told Me. That book changed my life.
posted by hypersloth at 5:54 PM on July 10, 2010


One more perspective: Fredericksburg 146 years later.
posted by Rhaomi at 6:21 PM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


More on Lincoln and Douglass.
posted by speedo at 10:14 PM on July 10, 2010


Seconding Lies My Teacher Told Me. That book changed my life.

He also wrote Lies Across America, about how historic sites and markers get things wrong. It has a chapter on Helen Keller's birthplace that I mentioned above.
posted by TedW at 3:38 AM on July 11, 2010


« Older Lights, camera ... Edison! Thomas Edison & Co. mad...  |  The depravity of Major League ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments