history

Birthdays and Better Luck

Representative Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) drawing the first number in the 1969 draft lottery. (Wikimedia Commons)

Representative Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) drawing the first number in the 1969 draft lottery. (Wikimedia Commons)

I turned 30 a few weeks ago.  So far, it doesn't really feel any different than all the years before it.

Yet, on the morning of my birthday, on the way to the office, I listed to the episode of WTF where Marc Maron interviews the legendary comedian Billy Crystal.  Because Maron enjoys talking about the arcs of people's careers, all of the decisions and turning points and difficulties and glories, they covered the years when Crystal determined to become a professional comedian.  One turning point for Crystal was when, in the 1969 draft lottery for the Vietnam War, his number was drawn so late that it as good as guaranteed that he would not have to go overseas to fight.  On December 1, 1969, the first number drawn in the draft lottery was 258, which meant that all men born on September 14 between 1944 and 1950 would be required to report to their local induction centers.   My birthday, the day I listened to that interview, is September 14.

I learned this fact when I was in high school.  My world history teacher had assigned us a book review. We could could choose any book we wanted, as long as it dealt with the history and politics of the Vietnam War.  Being something of a hippie peacenik who was too smart for my own good, I picked a book that was a compilation of oral histories and other first-person accounts from draft dodgers and conscientious objectors.  The book seeks to convey that these people who elected not to serve in Vietnam, often at different kinds of great personal risk, had substantial reasons that we should, perhaps, keep in mind today as we confront more and more complicated wars.  The book came out in 1991, just as the United States came out the Gulf War.  I read it in the spring of 2004, about a year after the United States resumed bombing Iraq.

In that particular moment in time, no one understood exactly what course the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would take, and no one knew exactly how people in the continental United States might be called to serve overseas.  The knowledge that the men who shared my birthday were the first to be drafted chilled me.  While I was in high school, I had a close male friend who shared my birthday.  It was hard to imagine how I'd feel if he had been draft-eligible in 1969.  

So I sat in my car, on a birthday that is something of a milestone, thinking about these historical coincidences and how they can affect people's lives.  For Billy Crystal, the position in which his number was drawn genuinely changed his life for the better; it motivated him to be better and do more.  For me, if I had been born forty years earlier and born male, I would have suffered from the luck of the draw.  If faced with this situation today, what choices would I make?  I don't know the answer to that question, but I hope that my next decade is filled with better luck.

Women Ghostbusting in Historic Houses and Buildings

Everyone who knows me knows that Ghostbusters (the original) is my favorite movie.  Bill Murray ranks high in my personal pantheon and features in my quasi-professional Twitter bio.  I can freely quote Saturday Night Live sketches featuring Murray and Dan Aykroyd that are now deep cuts to all but the right age group or an SNL superfan.  So I may not be a white dude nerd bro, but I am certainly a part of the audience that could be ticked off by a female reboot.  That is the history I took in with me to see the new Ghostbusters today, a remake, not a reboot, of the movie that means more to me than any other.

And I loved it.  Partially because of how it handles history, in general.

Image from the   Ghostbusters  website .

Image from the Ghostbusters website.

The now iconic introductory sequence from the original movie features an older librarian discovering a ghost among the stacks at the also iconic main branch of the New York Public Library.  In the new version, they've subbed a Historic House Museum for that library - in other words, they've subbed the only thing that could be more meaningful to me at this point in time.  I laughed and laughed as the tour guide, a young comedian known for playing a certain type of uptight nerd, leads a group of visitors through this historic mansion.  The house, with its luxurious Gilded Age interior, is a stereotypical Historic House Museum in every way and desperately in need of the Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums, for sure.  The tour guide seems humorless and the guests only nod in awe when he remarks, as if they are in the know, that the house's luxuries include a "face bidet" and an "Irish-only security fence."  Even as I was laughing at these "luxuries," it occurred to me that the security fence joke serves as both a smart invocation of the intricacies of Gilded Age racism and a nod to the frequently problematic nature of celebrating histories of rich families without truly evaluating why they're worthy of preservation.  Because the owner of this (fictional) historic house had an insane daughter and there is a macabre component to the history, the tour guide has also rigged a candlestick to fall over on command and startle his guests.  This is yet another good-natured nod to the fact that some Historic House Museums distort or spice up their history in order to please their visitors.  I. Was. Dying.

The other way that the new Ghostbusters handles history involves Leslie Jones's character, Patty. In the original movie, the African-American Ghostbuster, Winston Zeddemore (played by Ernie Hudson), served as the street smarts of the group while the other three were white scientists with academic credentials.  Whenever there was a problem, Winston would provide the practical advice while Ray or Egon, the scientists, would have the complicated knowledge.  Being black seems to equate with having street smarts in a way that I did not quite realize was problematic until I became an adult with a pile of degrees, but this is also a worry that many people expressed when it became apparent that Leslie Jones would be playing a transit worker who becomes a Ghostbuster.  But here's the thing: her character, Patty, has an equal share of the knowledge-giving.  No, she can't speak to the science, but, as she says herself, she knows New York.  And she means its full history, which she knows because she "reads a lot of nonfiction."  When they finally pinpoint a historic building that will be crucial to the film's outcome, it's Patty who can say why it's important in the present day and why it was important a hundred years ago and a hundred years before that.  As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote in her review, "If this were a radical reboot, [Leslie Jones] would have played a scientist."  But, in a mainstream Hollywood movie, Jones playing a smart, funny transit worker who engages in a substantial life of the mind and who is critical at every turn of the plot is certainly something.

With these crucial moments, and the similarly subtle nods to New York culture and history that made the originals so great, this Ghostbusters pays attention to history.  They wrap it into their investigations, and their personal histories define them as characters in substantial ways.  Even beyond this, the new Ghostbusters is a tremendously funny film and one that goes further than Bridesmaids and other recent films ever could in making sure it's clear that women can be funny without also adhering to the standards for funny men.  It smashes the Bechdel test.  And for me, It meant more than I can ever possibly say to see smart women play wonderful versions of the characters that I have always held so dearly.

Embracing Cleveland History

FreeImages.com/Kurt Krejny

FreeImages.com/Kurt Krejny

I live in the Greater Cleveland area, which, at this moment in time, overwhelmingly means two things:

  1. The Cleveland Cavaliers have won an NBA Championship and thereby released our city from decades of cursed sports team.
  2. The Republican National Convention is almost upon us, an event which seems likely to bring our beloved city to ruin.

It is not difficult to see how there might be conflicts between these two narratives.

Conflict, in fact, seems to be what this area runs on - a mess of contradictions that make its inhabitants who we are.  And we are wounded creatures of habit, capable of maintaining a cautious optimism to bear us through the crushing circumstances of failure and loss that govern both our sports teams and our regional economy.  We build art from nothing or from discarded materials in an effort to improve our surroundings.  We try to build new neighborhoods from the hollow facades of our history.

As part of Cleveland's efforts to welcome the aforementioned Republicans, banners have been hung all over the city that provide "fun facts" about the city's history - first stoplight, birth of Superman, and so on.  They're strategically placed near historic buildings or places that they refer to, where possible.  When not possible, they're placed where people are sure to see them.  One example of this is pictured below - this banner, which references John D. Rockefeller, is part of a line of banners that cover windows of vacant shops on a once-prominent street downtown, near the central Public Square and many places convention-goers are sure to be.

Rockefeller Banner.jpg

This street, once the home to Cleveland's richest and most glorious people, homes, and commerce, now full of vacant shops and buildings whose windows have long been smashed out.  This street that is now lined by positive reminders of the past and near some of the city's finest reclamation projects of the last ten years or so - the abandoned bank turned into a destination grocery store, the department store turned into a casino, etc.  It can never be said that Clevelanders give up easily.  And so, It is my faint hope that, when the convention is over and the visitors head home, they will think of this city as a place that is using its history to transform its present and shape its future.  Until then... we wait.

Branding Historical Societies

FreeImages.com/Carlos Sillero

FreeImages.com/Carlos Sillero

I talk with a lot of people about historical societies.  Sometimes, I cringe when I hear how their own members refer to them or shorten their names.  These shortcuts only ever make the organizations seem exclusive and old-fashioned, two qualities that most historical societies, especially on the local level, no longer possess.

There’s a bit of a marketing problem in terms of what historical societies are, why they were formed, and why people should join them in 2016. 

Historical societies preserve aspects of the past.  Local historical societies might preserve a past that a current iteration of a town or city might hope to shed.  For example, they might preserve a farm near an area that values building a suburban community.

Historical societies might have originated in Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s) notions of betterment—betterment often advocated in judgment of those who failed to meet standards and in conjunction with social platforms like temperance.  (Think of this like birth control and Planned Parenthood—many modern women love and use these resources, but they came out of Margaret Sanger’s questionable positions on eugenics.)

Historical societies often continued after their foundings at the behest of wealthy benefactors.  Depending on the community and the niche that the historical society fills, there may still be a “big man on campus” aspect to being in charge of such an organization.  Big fish, little pond, and so on.

Historical societies are often so heavily allied to the history of a small place in a particular era that they draw in members who have settled their for life and push away members who might not be so sure that place is the one for them (though perhaps the historical society could convince them so!). 

One of the problems that I have in talking to historical societies is that, when I go into their museums and talk to the people who are so tremendously passionate about their local history, I fall just a little bit in love with the place and walk through in my head all the considerations for what it might be like to live there.  I suspect I am not alone in this, though I may be alone in admitting it.  I don’t need to believe the branding to believe that the organization plays a vital role in a community—but the branding needs to evolve to attract people who need to be sold on that vitality.  And it needs to do that without alienating the passionate people who have kept these organizations going for many years of meetings, events, and community activism.

The Relevance of History in Oberlin

FreeImages.com/Andrew Mogridge

FreeImages.com/Andrew Mogridge

I recently wrote a post for the Oberlin Heritage Center's blog about a controversial period in the city's history in which a group of activists tried to integrate the town's barber shops.  After doing enough research on local businesses owned by African-American residents to write a month's worth of Facebook posts and a mini-exhibit in the museum's outdoor kiosk, I had no other outlet for fully conveying this story and its complex revelations.  A long blog post proved the strongest way to communicate this message to as many audiences as possible.

Here's an excerpt:

"Examining the history of Oberlin’s barber shops means addressing a situation in which overt discrimination was standard practice, far into the twentieth century and throughout the United States. In 1940, Oberlin had 4,305 citizens, and 897 of them were black.  Yet, by this time, there were no barbers in town who would serve African-American customers in their shops during regular business hours. This post presents the story of how, at the height of World War II, discrimination in the barber shops became a town-wide topic of discussion and, subsequently, a cause for social action."

Read more here.

The pre-history to my blog post is, of course, Oberlin's history as "a hotbed of abolitionism," "the town that started the Civil War," and a very active site on the Underground Railroad where former slaves might choose to stay and then find freedom, prosperity, and a semblance of racial equality.  Yet anyone following news about higher education knows that Oberlin today retains its activist bent and that questions of race and ethnicity have become significantly more complicated.  The history between these two eras is exemplified by the story told in my blog post, and the post provides important context for how social movements in the town may form and how they may succeed.  It allows residents of the town who may remember the some of these brave barbers to understand how this history enabled their existence.

A recently formed organization named the History Relevance Campaign celebrates stories like this one from Oberlin for how productively they demonstrate that studying history benefits numerous aspects of contemporary society.   This campaign has published a Value Statement, which outlines seven reasons history is essential to ourselves, our communities, and to our future.  Using their language, quoted below, it becomes clear how the story of Oberlin's barbershops exemplifies the ways that history can inform an understanding of the community.

History:

  • Forms our identities: "...History enables people to discover their own place in the stories of their families, communities, and nation... Through these varied stories, they create systems of personal values that guide their approach to life and relationships with others."
  • Makes communities vital places to live and work: "History lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities. No place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in human memory."
  • Creates engaged citizens: "By bringing history into discussions about contemporary issues, we can better understand the origins of and multiple perspectives on the challenges facing our communities and nation."

Since starting as an AmeriCorps Member at the Oberlin Heritage Center in September 2015, this blog post is among my favorite projects I've done.  It feels important and relevant.  It feels like the act of writing this story contributes to remembering parts of the city's history that seem difficult, but that inform how the city views itself today.  I believe it contextualizes places and ideas that are familiar to many people in Oberlin who may not remember this specific story, but that the story also reaches beyond one city to broader understandings of race and civil rights that resonate across the entire United States.  

Stories that work with these two levels of meaning have to be central in local history organizations.  By working with stories that connect past to present, local history museums can make substantial contributions to how their audiences broadly understand historical content.  By connecting local stories to national events, they make historical narratives deeper and more detailed, which can only benefit everyone's understanding of the past.