Narrative in the Public Humanities

For today’s post I am going to focus on Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” because I think it effectively highlights some major issues in the construction and use of historical narratives in public humanities and public history. While clear narratives can be an attractive way to package history, the process is rife with potential problems, and a failure to address these issues has very real stakes. The article focuses on how narratives about the civil rights movement have been distorted or simplified for various political and social purposes by politicians, historians, the media, and the ‘public’ who consume these narratives. Hall covers a lot of ground and a lot of potential pitfalls in producing history in general, but it seems especially relevant to history meant for public consumption. While Hall focuses on history manipulated by politicians, these issues are easily applicable to historians and producers of the public humanities who will have their own biases, backgrounds, and goals for their research and cultural production.

Inappropriate periodization, lack of historicization, a predilection for history with clear dichotomies and sharply delineated sides and goals that pass over the contradictions, intersectionalities and the grey areas that make up what Hall terms ‘hard’ history are just some of the issues at hand. It is also important to note that both the producers and consumers of these narratives are at fault in Hall’s telling. While she discusses politicians in think tanks purposefully manipulating narratives to suit their goals she also discusses a white public that is eager to accept narratives that support their preferred visions of themselves, their country, and their history.

What I found most compelling about Hall’s article is the sense of the stakes for these sorts of incomplete or outright incorrect histories. Hall argues that simplified narratives—ones that may serve a political service, that erase intersectionality, that focus on clearly defined players and timelines, and mostly especially those that offer a sense of closure—fracture the connection of the present to the past and give us an incomplete or incorrect perspective of the present. This, in turn, prevents us from addressing issues of inequality and injustice adequately in the present. Hall’s article is an effective rallying call for a telling of history that is both ‘true and effective,’ and to fight against ahistorical, anecdotal perceptions of the world today.

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