Raised on Cornbread and Recollections

Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak, Home of William Faulkner

Earlier this month, I joined other members of the National Trust on a memorable trip from Memphis down to the Mississippi Delta.  Dr. Bill Ferris, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and one of the nation’s leading scholars on the American South, joined us and helped set the context for what we were seeing in places such as Oxford, Sumner, Indianola, and Dockery Farms.  His remarks were a masters class in the connections of place with memory, history, food, drink, literature, race, and gender.

At one point, Bill noted that a relative of his liked to say that “he was raised on cornbread and recollections.”  As someone who has eaten my fair share of cornbread, often quotes my grandmother, and tells stories passed down from my father, I understood completely.

We launched our journey into the Delta from Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford.  Both the site and writer are reminders of the importance of recollections and history to life today.  Historic sites at their best are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  I often say that “the period of significance is now” with historic sites to point to those intersections.  You cannot have been in the preservation field very long without hearing the famous William Faulkner quote from Requiem for a Nun, which goes, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  That’s very true at a place like Rowan Oak, where communities of people who write and love literature, admire architecture, and enjoy good liquor and good company all visit for remembrance and inspiration.  (To that last point, Faulkner has another famous line which suggests that “pouring out liquor is like burning books.”  He enjoyed his Four Roses.)

At its best, memory is a poet and not a historian.  But not all recollections are correct, and some are purposefully misleading, including “Lost Cause” memories told by my beloved grandmother. Perhaps the most meaningful and moving part of the trip was the 90 minutes we spent at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the murderers of young Emmett Till were tried and acquitted in 1955, setting off events that led to the modern Civil Rights movement.  Visitors are invited to “engage in the story of Emmett Till, explore your own story, and create a new emerging story with us.”  It is important to bring this past into the present, where we are still grappling with the racism that led to Till’s murder and the murder through lynching of at least 4,000 African Americans from 1877 – 1950.  In that restored courthouse, we read aloud an apology from citizens of Tallahatchie County to the family of Emmett Till.  One of our National Trust Council members spontaneously used that venue to speak from the heart about his mother’s recollections as a young African American woman in the Delta who was only five years older than Till.  This is a historic site that exists to tell the story of Emmett Till in order to move people forward.

Sumner Courthouse

Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi

 

Site of Till Murder Trial

Site of the Emmett Till Murder Trial in Sumner, Mississippi

You don’t have to be a historian to play a role in the telling of the full American story.  I happened to be with attorney Bryan Stevenson — the dynamic founder and head of the Equal Justice Institute  — last week, and was reminded of the work we all have to do when he said “injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”  If we want to build communities and a nation full of hope, it is important that we set forth a new narrative about the injustices in our lives, past and present.  Historic sites, monuments, and recollections are good places to begin.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

A Few Words on Advice

Parker Palmer, a writer I read frequently, had the following to say about advice:

“Advice-giving comes naturally to our species, and is mostly done with good intent. But in my experience, the driver behind a lot of advice has as much to do with self-interest as interest in the other’s needs — and some advice can end up doing more harm than good.”*

Advice

How often do we give advice when simply presence and acknowledgement is required?  I was thinking about this after a trip last week where I visited our historic site Belle Grove and spoke with a class of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Virginia.  We found ourselves in a very good conversation about how we should “hear, understand, and honor” diverse stories from our past and present at both places.  Presence and acknowledgement are being used effectively at Belle Grove in the response to diverse perspectives and stories.  At UVA, there was a back-and-forth with the students around hearing, listening, and engagement.

One of the students suggested that we change our name to the “National Trust for Historic Engagement!”  I immediately warmed to the idea, as I like the thought of engaging the past with the present.  Much of our traditional way of telling and interpreting history has to do with the self-interest of the interpreter, as opposed to interest in the other’s needs, much less the true story.

You may think these Monday posts fall into the “giving advice” category, which could lead you to see this entire commentary as self-contradictory.  However, I appreciate the way one of my colleagues responded, when she wrote that with her passion for personal growth it was meaningful “to be invited to pause on something so grounding.”  That’s exactly the intent: as an invitation at the beginning of the work week to pause and reflect.  If I’m doling out advice in the future (which I’ll occasionally do), I hope I can now stop and think first about whose interest is driving the conversation.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* At the risk of giving you advice, I recommend this post by Palmer — a regular writer for Krista Tippett’s On Being project — where he recounts the story of a friend who had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and the well-meaning advice received from others.

Responding to Anger

Anger

Anger

Our recent national conversations too often seem soaked in anger. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t become angry.  It is a trait we all seem to share.  What differs is how we respond to anger:  our own and others.

Over the winter holiday, our family visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Last Friday, our divisional management team toured the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at the National Trust Historic Site Montpelier.  Both cultural institutions showcased the many ways a people oppressed have responded to anger held against them by others as well as that held inside themselves. While at Montpelier, I picked up Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop, a powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

In her collection of essays No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin has a two-part piece on anger. The first half looks at public anger, while the second focuses on our private anger.  I thought of the first in the context of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and Dr. King’s nonviolent approach.  Dyson asserts — and King’s own writings demonstrate — that King’s teachings came from an anger against racism that never abated but which led to his life’s work against injustice.  Le Guin notes,

“Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger.  It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice….Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous.  Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal.  It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.  Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.”

Mere Distinction of Colour

The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at James Madison’s Montpelier (photo credit: Montpelier Foundation)

Le Guin shifts from public anger, political anger, to a more personal experience.  And what she sees is troubling.

“…though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger….Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air.  But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment.”

I think we have all seen this type of smoldering anger, and I would suggest it is what we are seeing in today’s national conversations.  Le Guin compares it to a weapon that we don’t know how to stop using.

“Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger.  Then the threat passes or evaporates.  But the weapon is still in our hand.  And weapons are seductive, even addictive; the promise to give us strength, security, dominance . . .

“Looking for positive sources or aspects of my own anger, I recognize one:  self-respect.  When slighted or patronized, I flare up in fury and attack, right then, right there.  I have no guilt about that.

“But then so often it turns out to have been a misunderstanding—the disrespect was not intended, or was mere clumsiness perceived as a slight.  And even if it was intended, so what?

“As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, ‘I pity her poor taste.’

“Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear….If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of?  That gives me a place to look at my anger from.  Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.”

That’s a lot to unpack and I recognize that much of the anger of the oppressed is the result of experiencing systemic discrimination, not mere slights over self-respect.  But with that caveat, this passage—and the entire essay—hit home with me.  Thinking about that dogged pursuit of justice in our public anger and the questioning of why we use anger as a weapon in our private lives are good places for me to reflect upon during this week when we celebrate the life of someone who moved beyond anger toward justice.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

History as an Antidote to Folly

Age of Folly

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy by Lewis Lapham

Kurt Vonnegut has called him America’s greatest satirist, while others suggest he was born of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.  Lewis Lapham—editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and the object of those accolades—is a writer of great eloquence and “lethal wit.”  I was delighted to see that some of the best of Lapham’s essays from the past twenty-five years have now been collected into a new work, Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy.

This is both a wonderful and important book. Lapham surveys the past twenty-five years to make the case that America’s imperial impulses have shaken our democratic principles.  You can agree or disagree with his premise, but his arguments are lucid, thoughtful, and often challenging.

In the very first essay, from 1990, Lapham states his case succinctly and directly.

“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star.  It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends.  What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”

Lapham also explores the change in our concepts of public and private and its affect on our society, noting that “the familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told”  but that

“…it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words ‘public’ and ‘private.’  In the 1950s the word ‘public’ connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); ‘private’ was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs).  The connotations traded places in the 1980s. ‘Private’ now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), ‘public’ becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).”

This book was published prior to Donald Trump’s election as president, but Lapham sees it coming and is not surprised.

There are many themes addressed throughout Age of Folly.  But to make his overall case, Lapham turns to history, calling it an “antidote to folly.”

That theme runs throughout the book, but is summed up in the final essay, dating from 2014 and entitled “The World in Time.”  This essay begins with a quote from Cicero—“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child”—and then discusses Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s last word on the reading and writing of history.  “It is useful to remember” he quotes Schlesinger,

“…that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.  As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been or where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”

Just as we have tried at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (where I work) to tell the full American story and break out of the mold of house museums preserved in amber, Lapham notes that history is “constant writing and rewriting, as opposed to a museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble….History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago; it is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago.  The stories change, as do the sight lines available to the tellers of the tales.”  In this particular essay, Lapham looks at the writings of Tom Paine, one of two founding fathers he especially admires (the other being Roger Williams), because Paine’s writings are “like the sound of water in the desert” in these days. They speak not to the rich and privileged, but to the common man.  Paine uses memorable aphorisms such as “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark” and “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Lapham closes this essay, and this book, by noting that “None of us dies in the country in which he or she was born.”  History is made every day.  Our country changes.  It always has.  It always will.

“Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible…the guardians at the gate look for salvation to technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine.  My guess is that they are looking in the wrong direction.  An acquaintance with history doesn’t pay the rent or predict the outcome of a November election, but it is the fund of energy and hope that makes possible the revolt against what G.K. Chesterton once called ‘the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’”

History as an antidote to folly.  As we challenge ourselves to hear, understand, and honor the full American story, this rings true.

Highly recommended.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

We Shine a Light on the Past to Live more Abundantly Now

This week at the National Trust, we are preparing to host the 2017 PastForward national preservation conference in Chicago.  Long-time colleagues and new friends who care about the past and the places that bring that past into the present will gather from all across the country.  I suspect that we’ll share thoughts that challenge the conventional wisdom, offer support for a broader understanding of the American story, and come away with a new appreciation for the work that takes place by preservationists and by those who don’t (yet) identify as preservationists.

Why do these people gathering this week in Chicago care about the past?  And what’s with that name, PastForward?

In a recent conversation that included Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, (The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), journalist and author Krista Tippett summed up the answer to those questions with her opening line:  “In life, in families, we shine a light on the past to live more abundantly now.”

I think that’s a great summation of why so many of us will gather this week at PastForward.  William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  In that same spirit, I am of the belief that preservation isn’t about the past.  It’s about the continuum of past, present, and future. And we shine a light on all aspects of our past in order to understand “so many paradoxes and so many dilemmas”—to use a phrase by Gordon-Reed—that exist in our country and in ourselves.

Past Forward 2017

PastForward 2017 in Chicago

That’s what I hope we can bring “forward” this week:  an approach to understanding the past that helps us live more abundantly today.  And if you cannot be with us in Chicago, please be sure to check out the live-streaming of several of the TrustLive sessions (think TED talks for preservation with some amazing speakers).

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

Last week I had the privilege of launching the National Trust’s National Treasure campaign for Clayborn Temple, a landmark in the history of the Civil Rights movement.  It was here where Memphis sanitation workers gathered in 1968 and decided to go on strike, marching with their “I Am a Man” signs that became a potent symbol for all that is at stake in the fight for equal justice.  Clayborn Temple was where the leadership of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a national issue, effectively tying the sanitation workers’ cause with the national issues of economic justice and racism. It was to Memphis and Clayborn Temple that Dr. King was returning when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

To be in that sacred space with more than 150 Memphis residents, young African American poets and musicians, revered spiritual leaders who walked with the sanitation workers, preservationists of all ages, and current members of the workers’ union was an honor and a reminder of how the story of Clayborn Temple could be ripped from this weekend’s headlines.  We are still addressing the issues those sanitation workers and their supporters faced almost fifty years ago.  Preservation, remember, is not only about the past, but is also about today and the future.

It just so happened that I was reading a new book while traveling to and from Memphis.  Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy, covering America from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2016 election, has much to digest and ponder.  I’ll return to it more fully at some point in the future to explore Lapham’s contention that an acquaintance with history can serve as folly’s antidote.  But one of the opening essays related so closely to what had happened at Clayborn Temple that I quoted from it while in Memphis.

This 1992 essay is entitled Who and What Is American?  In response to the false construction that the American people share a common code of moral behavior and subscribe to identical theories of the true, the good, and the beautiful, Lapham writes,

The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens.  If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.

I Am a Man.

What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.  My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from my pride in its fleets or its armies or its gross national product.  Construed as a means and not an end, the Constitution stands as the premise for a narrative rather than a plan for an invasion or a monument.  The narrative was always plural—not one story but many stories….

If we indulge ourselves with evasions and the pleasures of telling lies, we speak to our fears and our weaknesses instead of to our courage and our strength.  We can speak plainly about our differences only if we know and value what we hold in common. (Emphasis mine)

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

So much of the story at Clayborn Temple points to what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.  When we were there to celebrate that space and its rebirth last week, I felt we were doing the “shared work of the imagination” that is required if we are to ensure that our faith in the republic does not—to use another of Lapham’s memorable phrases—“degenerate from the strength of a conviction into the weakness of a sentiment.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

The Revenge of Analog

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax

I recently finished David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog:  Real Things and Why They MatterAppropriately, I bought my hard-back copy in that most analog of places—Portland, Oregon’s Powell’s City of Books—the nation’s largest independent bookstore.

Sax, a business journalist from Canada, posits that “while digital technology has certainly made life easier, the analog technologies of old can make life more rich and substantial.”  He argues that in today’s digital world, analog is making a surprising comeback.  What are those analog technologies?  Notebooks and paper.  Vinyl records.  Film.  Board games.  (Vintage Game Night at the Woodrow Wilson House, anyone?) He also looks at the comeback of analog “ideas” in areas such as printing, retailing, and education.

Some of Sax’s examples strike me as first-world games of the highly educated. However, as I thought about the tactile nature of the pages as I read, I realized that he had an important point about the impact of real things in our lives. About two years ago I stopped purchasing e-books and have returned to buying books to read during my commute to-and-from work each day. (Sax quotes a twelfth-century Judaic scholar in saying, “Make books your treasure and bookshelves your gardens of delight.”)  We still subscribe to the New York Times home edition, in part, because my 24-year-old son wants to do the Times crossword puzzle with paper and ink (his grandfather would be proud) and Candice enjoys reading from a “real” newspaper.  One commentator noted that analog technologies such as newspapers allow us to have a feeling of finishing a task, whereas digital news feeds and links never seem to end.

At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, we are all about real things. Real places. And why they matter.

I’ve even had a revelation about my move to a paperless office, which I made two years ago.  Frankly, I’m not sure it has made me more productive. In discussing the revenge of analog in digital companies, Sax writes:

“One of the great promises of the information age was that advancements in communication technology would result in increased productivity.  Studies have shown that has not occurred, but most people don’t need academic data to realize this.  They simply need to look at the e-mails piling up in their inbox, at the texts pinging away on their phone…to understand that any technology built with the promise of productivity has the real potential to deliver an inverse result.

What some technology companies have done in response to this is limit technology itself.  At Percolate, a New York (software) company…(they) banned all digital devices from company meetings.  Noah Brier, Percolate’s cofounder and CEO, said the rule arose because he consistently sat in meetings where one person spoke and everyone else pretended to listen while they responded to emails or texted.  Not only was this rude, but the distraction increased the length of meetings drastically.  Once Percolate banned devices, the results were instantaneous. ‘It just makes it so people are actually paying attention.  Meetings are shorter and more useful.’”

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, notes in a review that Sax quoted a time-management expert as saying, “’You can waste time with all kinds of stuff, but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.’ A notebook’s selling point is that you can’t use it to look up stock futures or to swipe right or to play solitaire. It concentrates, not dissipates, the mind. What if Picasso had had Snapchat? What if Hemingway had spent half the afternoon writing Yelp reviews of his favorite bars?”

You may notice that I’ve begun showing up at some meetings without my computer in tow, and with a simple notebook and pen. (I haven’t made the complete break, I have to admit.) A retreat exercise helped drive the points about attention and productivity home for me, and started my shift even before reading Sax’s book.  We don’t have to be Luddites, but I like to think about how the “real places” we work to save in our communities can remind us how rich and substantial a better balance with technology can have in many different aspects of our lives.

Journals

I’ve always loved journals – my journal from my Rome sabbatical on the right and my current journal on the left, with my tools of the trade. Very analog!

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB