Threshold fear

In the essay “Interpreting Race, Slavery, and United States Colored Troops at Civil War Battlefields,” Beth Parnicza (and co-authors) writes the following [and please excuse the extended quote]—

“While ‘To Freedom’ was a large-scale program, most of the park’s efforts to discuss emancipation occur in a more intimate setting, often on walking tours in which a lone interpreter discusses various facets of slavery and emancipation with a handful of visitors. Although this is a more open and democratic venue for conversation, in this setting the interpreter is more vulnerable to criticism and, in some cases, reckless attacks. Audience demographics and interpreter approach tend to be the most important factors in determining the conversation’s course. When speaking to an all-white crowd, interpreters can discuss slavery and emancipation in ways that keep the focus on history, which can result in making the conversation seem ‘safe,’ even if disagreement ensues. Some white visitors are wary of the topic: concerned with protecting the reputation of their Confederate ancestors or fearful of being accused of racism or ‘held accountable’ for the sins of our collective forebears. These individuals often protest in quiet ways, most commonly by replying to any discussion of emancipation by insisting that their ancestors did not fight to preserve slavery, an empty response that supposedly somehow excuses them from the intellectual responsibility of learning about the historical worlds of African-Americans. To respond in constructive ways to these reactions, interpreters must be familiar with recent scholarship, exude confidence, tact, and clarity, and possess prepared, thoughtful answers to common visitor challenges or fears.

Dynamics are frequently different among all-black groups. These are rare at FRSP, usually consisting of adults participating in special programs designed to discuss slavery and emancipation. Members of these groups tend to appreciate frank and direct discussion. They are quick to identify and refute age-old myths of slavery, primarily the sugar-coated assertion that most owners were ‘good’ to their slaves, and the assumption that slaves who didn’t run away must have been content. Once these old arguments have been clearly identified as myths, they are eager to move into discussing the historical realities of slavery and the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children in the Fredericksburg area.

In mixed groups, the conversation is even more complicated. Based on past experience with historic sites, African American visitors are frequently suspicious that they will hear a mythical story of content slaves and benevolent masters, while many white visitors resent feeling burdened by past affronts for which they are not personally responsible. Interpreters working with mixed groups must strive to understand the perspectives of all their visitors, but they also have the responsibility to complicate these views and ask all present to thoughtfully consider new questions, such as how non-slaveholding Confederates still contributed to defending slavery and how slaves who remained on plantations despite opportunities to escape nonetheless resisted and/or resented their situations. The more interpreters can equip visitors with new information and encourage open discussion, the closer we come to achieving our goals of provocation and fostering enhanced understanding.”

Two things:

First. The visitor-personality dynamics here are why I think that a real audience research study on visitors to Civil War museums will skew the universal findings of Falk, Pekarik, et. al. We really do need a systematic analysis. To that end—all of these claims—mine, Parnicza, and Carmichael’s are all anecdotal and intuitive. They’re probably accurate, but we really need to start referring to actual data on this.

Second. This is exactly what I’ve been saying, on this blog, and in other venues. In regard to non-traditional visitors, Parnicza is describing “threshold fear.” Why would many African-Americans or anyone else who can see through equivocation about slavery go to a historic site when they know they’re going to hear nonsense.

Parnicza is in a unique spot in the National Park Service. Backed by the Rally on the High Ground initiative and compelled to meet stringent interpretive goals (not to mention working for John Hennessey), she can expect her institution and its interpreters to promulgate (or facilitate) the best kind of historically informed discussion.

Unfortunately, most other institutions are oblivious to these standards and expectations. And where the authors of this article take note of the NPS’s logistical tight spots regarding volunteer use and budget cuts… well, that’s the world that most other state and private sites and museums have been living in for over a decade.

Further, Parnicza describes a certain avoidance technique used by white visitors. In sites outside of the NPS, it is very often the part time staff, docents, volunteers, and at times, the full-time staff themselves who practice these techniques in their interpretive work. The people who constitute the support groups that provide necessary operating funds for sites also do this.

This is a major problem. In the attempt to reach broader audiences—if that’s what we really want—and that’s not entirely clear from this issue—layering in new social history is not enough. We need to make bold interpretive claims to overcome this threshold fear.

 

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