Sometimes as a historian I’m caught between my desire to interpret/contextualize a historical source, and the importance of letting individuals from history have their own, unmediated voice. Some posts in my blog contain lots of extra explanation and analysis that can shape how you read the quotes and copied passages , and others I’ve simply copied and left the reading and understanding up to you readers. It’s always a struggle for me and I’m hoping that I can get at finding the right balance as I keep on writing.
Especially when I was in graduate school, the pressure was always on not just to find important historical sources, but to fit them in larger narratives and use them to build up some sort of argument or larger point. And though (I think) I’m pretty good at finding those great sources, there’s always been a nagging voice in my head that wonders what the original authors/speakers would think of how I’m using their words. Did I get it right? Am I using their material in ways that they had never considered? What would they think? These are just a few of the questions I ask myself as I write and especially as I got back and look at pieces I’ve written in the past.
Every situation is different. Some historical sources are made even more powerful or can lend themselves to discussions that the original authors might not have thought about but nonetheless might have engaged in given the opportunity.
Other sources don’t need as much assistance from the historian and are more effective when you let the original author’s voice speak as loudly as possible. I think this is especially the case when you’re dealing with authors from communities that have traditionally been silenced or misinterpreted by the dominant voices in our society.
These sources are more compelling on their own and as a historian I feel it’s just my job to give the proper introductions and step to the side. I’ll leave my readers with a few short thoughts on why I’m interested in the source and what I was thinking about as I read it.
In the past few weeks I’ve been debating on how best to write about a 1930s ex-slave narrative and have finally decided that this is another good candidate for a brief introduction only. This is a story by Tom Randall about life as a slave in Ellicott City, Maryland. Randall was interviewed towards the end of his life by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937, part of a larger project to collect oral histories from former slaves before they passed away. Randall hadn’t moved very far from his boyhood home in Ellicott City- he was living in Oella (just a mile away) at the time of the interview. I grew up in this area and was really happy to learn more about the experience of slavery in Civil War-era Maryland. Continue reading
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.”
A short yet iconic line. I bet you just read it in Kennedy’s voice too (I did). On that cold and gloomy January day, the president broke the ice with a message of hope and excitement that inspired millions of Americans and promised a fresh new start for the country. These words are just the tip of the iceberg, and if we dig a little deeper we can use this short sentence to learn a whole lot more about civics, politics, and the changing role of individual Americans in society from the Civil War to today.
Several decades after the inauguration, Bill Moyers reflected on Kennedy’s inspirational rhetoric and personality: “I remember John Kennedy not so much for what he was or what he wasn’t but for what he empowered in me. We all edit history to give some form to the puzzle of our lives, and I cherish the memory of him for awakening me to a different story for myself. He placed my life in a larger narrative than I could never have written. In his public voice John Kennedy spoke to my generation of service and sharing; he called us to careers of discovery through lives open to others…It was for us not a trumpet but a bell, sounding in countless individual hearts that one clear note that said: “You matter. You can signify. You can make a difference.” Romantic? Yes, there was a romance to it. But we were not then so callous toward romance.” According to Moyers, what Kennedy brought a new perspective on an American’s individual role in improving their society. To the young Kennedy supporter, this message rang much louder and clearer than anything he had ever heard before.
You may be interested to know that although Kennedy’s inaugural call to action sounded new and different from his political contemporaries, it was actually the result many years worth of experience and thinking. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., eminent historian and special assistant to President Kennedy recalled that: “This thought had lain in Kennedy’s mind for a long time. As far back as 1945 he had noted down in a loose leaf notebook a quotation from Rousseau: “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, What does it matter to me? the state may be given up as lost.” In his address accepting the democratic nomination in 1960, he said of the New Frontier, “It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” On September 5 at Cadillac Square in Detroit, Kennedy departed from his prepared text to say “The new frontier is not what I promise I am going to do for you. The new frontier is what I ask you to do for our country.” He continued to polish the thought in the back of his mind until he was ready to put it in final form for the inaugural address. Continue reading