History (and Resources) Matters

Since the seventh grade I was convinced that I had decided on my dream career. I was going to be a history teacher. Wouldn’t you know that some people discouraged me from it? In high school I was told that I was too shy, I wouldn’t be paid enough, and that kids were”too bad” these days. Despite, some of society’s current hangups about teachers I thought it was one of the most noble professions and I still do. My junior year of college I changed my mind about pursuing secondary education as a minor because I had some serious problems with my college’s curriculum and advising. By senior year I was intern at Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and I was in love with this new thing called “museum education”. Now, here I am.

In my opinion, public history is very much about education and many times that means reaching teachers and students. More museums are hoping to bridge the gap between schools and their institutions. Museums aren’t the only ones trying to build communities that involve historical inquiry and students of all ages. The web is fully of many things and some of those “things” can be extremely profitable to teaching history in and outside the classroom. Daniel L. Cohen and Roy Rosenweig call the collection of history-based websites online “the history web”.


One of my favorite history based websites is History Matters:the US Survey Course on the Web. History Matters is a resource website for teachers and students (high school and college). It was created in 1998 by Pennee Bender, Joshua Brown, Roy Rosenzweig (imagine that) and is part of the George Mason University website. The website is a great example of useful materials including: 1,000 primary resources, syllabi, forums, reviewed and annotated history websites, and much more. Two of my favorite features of History Matters is their Digital Blackboard and Students as Historians sections. Digital Blackboard is a listing of links and descriptions of web-based assignments for students. It includes topics from Immigration to Watergate. Students as Historians is a resource list of students history projects. Some of the projects are student articles online or are projects that involve making informational websites. While the website isn’t particularly visually intriguing but it is straightforward and updated (something that isn’t always remembered). Any history teacher, professor, or museum educator can find something of value from this website.


Double Duty: Black History Month & Photoshop

This week in my Public History and New Media class we were tasked with grasping the basics of Photoshop. Photoshop is familiar to many. For those unfamiliar, it is a computer program used to edit images. It’s used to change images that you see everyday in print media and online. Seeing isn’t always believing. Yet, the cliche is still true: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. If anyone doubts the power of an image then they haven’t taken time to realize how visually saturated American culture is.

This month is Black History Month and honestly I have little to say about it. It might be weird because I’m a historian who happens to be African American but I’m not a historian of African American history. The majority of my history interests are situated in race and ethnicity in American history. In fact my undergraduate study was more about Latino and Asian Americans but I digress. Well this month I found out about something called Black History memes. They use real historical images of black people but with humorous comments…well sometimes. Some of them are a bit funny and other ones just perpetrate tired stereotypes about African Americans. One such meme poses civil rights activist Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) as a dead beat dad, just one small example of how edited images get out of hand.

There is a reason places like the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia exists; they know about the power of an image. The museum has postcards, advertisements, and other objects that chronicle the racist imagery of African Americans from Reconstruction to present. We all need to remember these images because they’re still have an effect at present time. Don’t believe me? I suggest you simply pay attention during Halloween in America when some ignorant, culturally insensitive white frat boy decides his costume will be “a black guy” (or Arab or Native American…). I’ve come to find that a number of people my age don’t even know what blackface is.

You may be wondering, “What’s this have to do with Photoshop?” Well I’ve edited some images that show a brief example of the history of African American caricatures. Mind you, my skills are very basic. Also, know that those people who do have skills in Photoshop have the incredible ability to change images into almost anything they want.

This image is public domain and the original image is from Wikipedia/Wikimedia. Click the image for that link.

This image is public domain and the original image is from Wikipedia/Wikimedia. Click the image for that link.

Bert Williams was a Bahamian and one of the most successful black Vaudville starts of the 1920s. He actually looked like this.

This is an edited version of an original image provided by This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode]. Click the image for a link to the original.

This is an edited version of an original image provided by This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode]. Click the image for a link to the original.

This is a page from a music score for “Jim Crow Jubilee,” published in Boston in 1847.

This edited image is public domain and the original image is from the Library of Congress. Click the image for the link.

This edited image is public domain and the original image is from the Library of Congress. Click the image for the link.

Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee, 1900. Classic blackface.

Mining the Public?

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy; my belief is that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge and we public historians should recognize it, analyze it, critique, and contextualize it with our specialized learning. Call it shared authority, if you want, I call it respect.

Recently I discovered two websites that are related to this concept. The Experience Project is a social media website that has millions of users and was founded in 2007 as a platform for people to share their experiences on a particular subject with others. Those experiences are categorized under subject headings such as food, health, travel, etc. Responses range from short and lighthearted to deep insightful reflections. Sometimes users ask others about their experiences. The site is an exemplar of web 2.0: social media, interaction, and user-generated. While this site doesn’t have anything to do with history exactly I did find another site that operates on a similar premise but as a digital archive of social history.

Indian Memory Project
was founded in February 2010 by Anusha Yadav as a way to allow “regular” Indians the chance to digitally archive their family stories, letters, and images as an open repository of Indian history. The site reads like an open scrapbook of a whole country. Stories relate to the history of Indian independence or a widowed great-grandmother who educated herself. While the site could profit from objective historical context or commentary, this site is the brain-child of social history and web 2.0. Yadav noted that archives in first-world countries are successful but archives are very different in India and Shefali Bhushan of Beat of India (a Indian folk music site) also complains of Indian archives criticizing that they:”lock things in a cupboard where they gather fungus” [1]. Formalized memory isn’t just for the elite and its an archaic message that is clearly being challenged around the world.

Neither Yadav or Bhushan are public historians but we can all take a lesson in learning how we can use the web to diversify and democratize history. Of course, we must question whose stories have more weight; is everyone’s story equal? Should everyone get equal say in history? How best can we contextualize these expressions of social history while still recognizing non-academic public knowledge and experience? It is no easy set of questions but it deserves continued exploration. Until then we, academic and public historians, should keep mining the public.