Fighting over Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory

Knowledge Questions: How is history shaped by our present beliefs? To what extent can we accurately construct knowledge of the past? How do we decide what is an “accurate” history?

Below are three articles discussing the different ways and the consequences of how Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered today. Each shares ideas about the fact that many times our memories of the past and our histories are created to serve our current agendas. For some, history is not about a sincere desire to accurately understand or make meaning of the past. When we interpret the words and memories of our historical figures, can we say that one interpretation is better than another?

Restoring King

King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King Jr’s: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/restoring-king/

From Most Hated to American Hero: The Whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr.

White people love Martin Luther King Jr.

For them, he is the standard-bearer for resistance while negotiating the minefield of white sensibilities. In the rewriting of history, King has been fashioned into an apologetic freedom fighter who carefully sidestepped white ire while pointing out inequality. They have cunningly backdated their admiration for King and the civil rights movement to prove that they have always stood on the side of justice.

It is bullshit.

https://www.theroot.com/from-most-hated-to-american-hero-the-whitewashing-of-m-1824258876

The Consequences of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Canonization

Pence, of course, is doing only what the current version of the holiday demands. Across the ideological spectrum, politicians must seek to fit themselves under the aegis of the Kingian legacy. That means a contingent of Americans who surely oppose the positions King held in his life are compelled to contort him into something friendly. Columns must wield King to attack everything from “identity politics” to the very act of “politicizing” King’s life itself. Democratic presidential hopefuls must employ King in order to make the case that each of their disparate platforms is the natural heir to his legacy. The sound bites evoking King are stretched like skin over the bones of existing debate. The figure celebrated looks nothing like the leader who lived—and who was killed—but like a granite-chiseled modern founding father, a collection of axioms by which our age is defined.

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/martin-luther-kings-legacy-and-those-who-claim-it/580903/

The War Over King’s Legacy

So who was the real Martin Luther King Jr.–the integrationist preacher of the summer of 1963 or the leftist activist of the spring of 1968? The question is not just academic. Its competing answers shed light on enduring–and urgent–tensions between white and black America over race, class and conspiracy. Most whites want King to be a warm civic memory, an example of the triumph of good over evil. For many African-Americans, however, the sanitizing of King’s legacy, and suspicions about a plot to kill him, are yet another example of how larger forces–including the government that so long enslaved them-hijack their history and conspire against them. In a strange way, the war over King’s legacy is a sepia-toned O.J. trial, and what you believe depends on who you are.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/mlk/legacy/legacy.htm

The reliability of oral histories in constructing knowledge of the past

Knowledge Questions: How do we construct knowledge about the past? How reliable are oral histories when learning about the past? To what extent do oral histories need to be independently corroborated in order to be believed?

The Underestimated Reliability of Oral Histories

As an archaeologist, if I have to dismiss the veracity of Native American oral traditions simply because they are not written down, then simple logic forces me to dismiss some of the accounts written in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which also began as oral tradition. To do anything else would be to maintain a racist double standard.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/09/dead-sea-scrolls-oral-written-history/571039/

How science and First Nations oral tradition are converging

Science is finally catching up to oral traditions passed down through generations of First Nations cultures

While the convergence of science and oral history is important, Kimberley TallBear, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Native Studies, says that it’s important that such investigations be a collaborative effort. She’s concerned that Western culture has always dominated that of First Nations and that it could do so again.

“I think it’s good, and I think it’s progress,” TallBear said. “But Western knowledge … [is] privileged over Indigenous knowledge.”

https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/science-first-nations-oral-tradition-converging-1.3853799

Ancient Sea Rise Tale Told Accurately for 10,000 Years

Aboriginal stories of lost islands match up with underwater finds in Australia

Without using written languages, Australian tribes passed memories of life before, and during, post-glacial shoreline inundations through hundreds of generations as high-fidelity oral history. Some tribes can still point to islands that no longer exist—and provide their original names.

“It’s quite gobsmacking to think that a story could be told for 10,000 years,” Nicholas Reid, a linguist at Australia’s University of New England specializing in Aboriginal Australian languages, said. “It’s almost unimaginable that people would transmit stories about things like islands that are currently underwater accurately across 400 generations.”

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-sea-rise-tale-told-accurately-for-10-000-years/

Good riddance: Americans need to set aside icons like Robert E. Lee to live up to our potential.

Knowledge Questions: What is the role of historical monuments in learning history?  What is the role of history in society? How does history change over time?

screen shot 2019-01-06 at 5.33.17 pmWhen we choose how we view history, we risk mythologizing events and people, reducing them to two-dimensional stories. It takes nothing away from Abraham Lincoln’s heroic stewardship of our nation through the Civil War, for instance, to admit that he was still a creature of his era. For most of his career, he saw slaves as rival laborers for white wage-workers and thought they should go back to Africa. Frustratingly, our instinct to sanitize history ensures that we are always looking backward for our better angels, struggling to meet a standard that remains forever out of reach.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/11/21/feature/good-riddance-americans-need-to-aside-icons-like-robert-e-lee-to-live-up-to-our-potential/?utm_term=.2d7c7ab31918

See other posts related to this one about historical monuments

Peterloo v Waterloo: the historical divide in British politics

Two opposing views of history explain many of today’s disagreements

The centenary of the armistice on November 11th is a welcome reminder that historical memories can unite the country. It is an unfortunately rare one. These days history is more commonly used to divide and inflame. The right of the Conservative Party and the left of the Labour Party—the ideologically ascendant factions in their respective worlds—are wedded to sharply contrasting interpretations of British history, which focus on very different events and freight them with very different emotions. Let us call them the Waterloo and the Peterloo interpretations.

https://www.economist.com/britain/2018/11/08/peterloo-v-waterloo-the-historical-divide-in-british-politics

Historical nonsense underpins UK’s Brexit floundering

From Hastings to Dunkirk a past that blinds Britain to reality has been peddled.

Superiority, antagonism and a fear of betrayal are not healthy historical lessons; instead they encourage Britain’s worst tendencies. “All the wrong people are cheering,” Dora Gaitskell told her husband Hugh – then Labour leader – of his 1961 declaration that joining the EEC would be “the end of a thousand years of history”. As our experience in Ireland shows, Europe offered not an end but a new beginning. By refusing to confront its complex and difficult history, Britain is turning its back on decades of shared progress, to the dismay of its friends. Britannia is adrift on the waves, and only by facing its past can it reclaim its future.

https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/historical-nonsense-underpins-uk-s-brexit-floundering-1.3630936

A 124-year-old statue reviled by Native Americans – and how it came down

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Art is in the eye of the community
So if the statue doesn’t provide an accurate idea of history, is it valid as a piece of public art? Jeff Hou, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, says no. He says the public realm is accountable to one audience – the public.

“In the public realm, works of arts and design are subject to the public process. In other words, the public can have a say in what’s appropriate in a public space in a democracy,” he told me.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/24/early-days-statue-removed-san-francisco-native-americans

Podcast: More Creative Historical Thinking

Our conversation about how all history is revisionist and open to creativity with Michael Douma continues this week.

You don’t have a weaker understanding by having an additional explanation, every additional explanation that you have makes the painting come more alive and stronger. That history described and explained from different perspectives is history better understood. And so, a historical pluralist like myself would say there is not one objective story to be told, there’s true stories and false stories based on correspondence theory. But we can look at any event and tell many different stories depending on what it is, that we wanna pull out there what do we wanna highlight what is important to us because history is always written from the perspective of the historian.

https://www.libertarianism.org/podcasts/liberty-chronicles/more-creative-historical-thinking