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

A War on Whose Christmas?

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

On Tuesday I spent a good part of the day at the Tenement Museum, on New York’s Lower East Side.  I was there to meet with the museum’s new president, Kevin Jennings, and to tour their new Under One Roof exhibit with Annie Polland, the EVP for Programs and Interpretation.  An affiliate historic site of the National Trust, the Tenement Museum tells the full American story about how many have come together to make our nation today.

Which brings me to the so-called War on Christmas.

The day I arrived, Kevin had just published an op-ed in Newsweek entitled “A War on Christmas?  What Christmas Are You Talking About?”  Early in the piece he asks the key question:

“In recent years, a new holiday tradition seems to have emerged in America. From pundits to Presidents, the airwaves fill each December with people decrying the so-called “War on Christmas.”

As a historian and museum President, I find myself wanting to ask “War on whose Christmas?”

Those bemoaning the “War on Christmas” harken back to a mythical past in which our nation all came together to celebrate the holiday in the same way. I’ve got bad news for these folks: those times never existed.”

The entire piece is worth the read, because Kevin uses the three families highlighted in the Under One Roof exhibit— the Epsteins, who were Holocast survivors, the Wongs, and the Velez family, who migrated from Puerto Rico—to show how the holidays were celebrated in many ways in just one building in New York City.

Exhibit Timeline

The changing faces, and diversity, of 103 Orchard Street (photo credit: Tenement Museum)

From the lessons learned from the exhibit, Kevin ends with a strong call for inclusion.

“By rewriting the past to reduce the multiple ways Americans celebrated the holidays to a single unitary “Christmas,” those in the present can cast suspicion on difference and project a future where we are all uniform: no room for different traditions, no room for new ideas brought by immigrants, no diversity in our nation.

Such a rewriting of history is not based in historical fact but in politics, and is not only disrespectful to our ancestors but dangerous for current and future Americans who don’t fit some prescribed “norm.”

Rather than celebrate a past that never existed, we should honor the past that did – one in which a diversity of holiday traditions were observed.

Diversity is what makes America America, and the different ways we celebrate the holidays is a wonderful and affirming reminder of the richness of our culture.”

Let’s celebrate our inclusive and real American story, not something that a certain news network has decided is a way to divide our country into Americans and others. And let’s stop letting those pundits and politicians weaponize “Merry Christmas.”

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

To Learn Something New (About Old Places), Bring in New Partners with Different Perspectives

Cooper-Molera Garden

Garden View at Cooper Molera prior to the beginning of rehabilitation (credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

At the National Trust for Historic Places, where I work, we believe that historic sites are fundamentally places of intersection. When we allow them to share their stories, historic sites are dynamic spaces where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  One very important way they intersect is with community.

About ten days ago, I visited Cooper-Molera, one of our National Trust historic sites where delight and enjoyment are at the heart of our community intersections.  Cooper-Molera is a two and one-half acre property in the heart of downtown Monterey, California’s historic commercial district. There we are implementing a new model that combines commercial uses and interpretation in creative ways.  We will have a bakery, restaurant, and event center in adaptively used historic buildings operating in collaboration with museum uses in one of the adobe residences to reinvigorate the site, sustain it financially and engage audiences that might never visit a historic site or house museum. Those are the people we should all want to meet at this intersection.

We call this a shared use model for historic sites, because the commercial, for profit, museum, and nonprofit entities all share the same space and support each other.  This shared use model itself is an intersection with the local community, developed through intense engagement with local preservationists and long-time supporters of the site and with unexpected partners including a for-profit developer and community institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Rehab at Cooper-Molera

Rehabilitation and New Construction underway at Cooper-Molera

 

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

There is a great story that emerged from one of our recent conversations with a group of Latino leaders in Monterey.  The “Cooper” in Cooper-Molera was an American sea captain, John Cooper, who moved to Monterey when it was part of Mexico and developed a robust business as a trader and merchant.  In the past, we would have focused almost exclusively on his story and we were surprised when this focus group of Latino leaders said we should focus on it again as one of the main stories we tell.  But they had a different spin on it.

John Cooper, they reminded us, immigrated from the US to Mexico when he came to Monterey and he did so without papers—as an undocumented immigrant.  He came in search of economic prosperity, he converted to Catholicism and married a woman named Encarnación Vallejo, who was the sister of General Mariano Vallejo, arguably the most powerful man in Mexico at the time.  He and Encarnaciόn had children and in 1830, John Cooper became a naturalized citizen of Mexico. We’ve been telling this story for years, but never framed this way.  Our focus group urged us to tell this old story in a new way that would highlight its ironies in the current political climate, focus on the central role of Encarnaciόn de Vallejo Cooper, and allow Latino audiences multiple ways to see themselves in the history of this place.

As is true in so many aspects of life, we never fail to learn something new—in this case about old places—when we bring in partners with different perspectives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB