Speaking with Clint Smith, Dr. Ibrahima Seck, the director of research at the Whitney Plantation, talks about the importance of education and of sites such as the Whitney. Seck told Smith, “The problem with [this] country–and also all around the world—is . . . miseducation. The miseducation of the mind and hidden history.” The role of education in the dissemination of information and in the fostering of democracy is important. The calls for “patriotic education” are nothing new, and what these calls do is obfuscate the “hidden history” that counters the myths of American exceptionalism. This is what Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez address in Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. It’s what I address in a lot of my writing. It’s what Smith addresses when he says he grew up in New Orleans and he “had never been taught the Louisiana Purchase was a direct result of the Hattian Revolution” or anything about the 1811 slave revolt.
We know why these histories don’t get taught. We know why women like Grace and Donna, before going on the “Slavery at Monticello” tour with Smith, didn’t know that Thomas Jefferson was an enslaver. We know that this knowledge, a long with the knowledge of other “hidden history” provides us with a framework to see the same things when they happen in the present. This is what occurs with Donna and Grace. Smith points out that after hearing about the separation of families under slavery the women, “self-proclaimed Southern Republicans, found themselves identifying the parallels between families separated during slavery and those separated while seeking asylum in the United States from violence in Central America.”
All of this is important, but as Seck points out, we can put all of the “hidden history” that we discover in the archives and elsewhere into books, and those books remain on the shelf, collecting dust as time marches onward. Or, individuals may not have access to the books. So, the question becomes, “How do we connect this information with people?” Seck continues, “This needs to be an open book, up under the sky, that people can come here and see.” Seck’s comments, while specifically focusing on the Whitney Plantation and other such sites, makes me think a lot about historical markers and “monuments,” things that people pass everyday, sometimes without even stopping to read them or recognize them. While someone must make a concerted effort to go to the Whitney, one does not have to make a concerted effort to walk or drive by an historical marker or a “monument.” This is what I think about when I think about “an open book, up under the sky.”
A few years ago, I went to a conference at the University of Georgia, and institution that recently started the History of Slavery at UGA Project (HSUGA). When I went for the conference, I did what I am wont to do during my downtime between panels or events, I walked around the campus. As I walked, I came across an historical marker that sits near UGA’s arch. The marker details the founding of UGA from about 1785 to the end of the Civil War. Reading the marker, I paused as I read the third paragraph:
During the War for Southern Independence, most of the students entered the Confederate Army. The University closed its doors in 1864, and did not open again until January 1866. After the war, many Confederate veterans became students.
“The War for Southern Independence” leapt out at me, and I stood there, taken slightly aback, that this phrasing existed on an historical marker placed on the grounds of one of the oldest public universities in the United States. Like with most things, I wasn’t completely shocked, but I still looked at it amazement.
The original marker was erected in 1952, two years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision and two years after the landmark higher education cases Sweat v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents. We need to think about the use of that phraseology not just in regard to Lost Cause rhetoric but also in regard to the historical context of 1952, a moment when backlash against Supreme Court decisions and calls for integration would intensify, leading to things such as the reemergence of the Confederate Battle Flag, not just flying outside of houses and businesses but playing prominently within the designs of state flags, including states such as Georgia.
Today, the racial makeup of UGA is 66.8% white, 9.3% Asian, and 8.2% Black, with other ethnicities rounding out the student population. How many of these students walk by the marker and even read it? If they do read it, what do they think about the language? How does “The War for Southern Independence” read to Black students as it stands there on the campus where they are getting their education?
In 2020, 61% of the football players in the SEC, which UGA is a part of, are Black. On Saturdays, fans pile into Sanford Stadium or huddle around their televisions watching the Dawgs play. Fans cheer on as these Black students put themselves in harms way every second of the game. When those athletes walk across campus and stand in front of the historical marker, what do they think? Do they think, “How many of my fellow classmates who cheer for me on Saturdays know this is here?” Do they think, “How many of my classmates agree with this?” Or, do they think, “How many of the donors who cheer for me also support this language?”
This is what Seck gets to with his comments above. More people have and will read the marker sitting next to the arch than will go to the library and read books on the history of slavery and race at UGA or in higher education. More people have or will read the marker than will read the findings of the HSUGA. More people have or read the text on that marker than will take a class where they learn about the language of the Lost Cause.
The point is the marker exists as a means of disseminating information, no matter what that information may be. People will stop and read the text. They’ll look at the surrounding area. They’ll take in the information. The information we place in public spaces is of paramount importance, and in the next post I’ll continue this discussion by expanding on Seck’s assertion that we need “an open book, up under the sky.”
Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.