Following the tragic events in Charleston, South Carolina, it is difficult to disagree with President Obama’s moving and powerful obituary at the funeral for one of the victims, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, that it was time to take the flag down. However, the public furore over the use of the Confederate flag has also demonstrated how quickly traumatic events can cause us to forget even the recent past.
The killings conducted by Dylann Roof on 17th June shocked people around the world. Perhaps even more surprising were the responses of family members of the victims that instantly forgave the killer. The images of Roof with the Confederate flag that have dominated the Internet since the killings have justifiably sparked an important debate over its use. To most observers, these pictures make the meaning of the flag clear: white supremacy, racism, and the South. Many – particularly African Americans – rightly share this view. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, the flag came to symbolize mass resistance of white Southerners to the federal imposition of anti-segregation laws. From this point of view, it seems fairly evident that it is time the flag came down. The image of the black filmmaker Bree Newsome climbing the flagpole of the South Carolina state capitol building to remove it will almost certainly becoming an iconic image. Many American politicians, even those previously defenders of the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage and identity, have called for it to be removed (although this seems to be political posturing by many Southern politicians). Many Southern states are now debating whether to remove it from their state flags. To many Americans, most African-Americans and non-Americans, removing the flag will be a symbol of progress. However, there are a few issues that as historians we must address.
First of all, the debate around the removal of the flag sounds much like treating the symptoms rather than the disease. While this would be an important symbolic gesture, and long overdue, we have to be realistic and acknowledge that removing the flag will not eradicate racism. Unfortunately, it may also cause as much resentment as keeping it. One only need to look at the plans of South Carolina’s Klu Klux Klan to have a pro-flag rally, or to consider the many other Dylann Roof’s that are out there. There are also those that genuinely believe in the flag as a symbol of heritage and identity which is not racist. There are even black groups that have adopted and adapted the flag to symbolize a new Southern identity, such as the creators of NuSouth Apparel. The historian John M. Coski reminds of the historical origins of the flag, which lay in differentiating Southern troops from Union forces in the Civil War, but also the various different meanings the flag has held since then. Discussion on the flag are rightly and understandably politically charged, but in order to understand the various meanings it holds to individuals and communities in the 21st century, we must look to the past. That being said, whether it’s political posturing or anti-racist activism, it is clear that it’s time for the flag to come down.
Secondly, one of the frustrating elements of the debate over the flag has been the fact that it has revived the old myth that the South remains the home of American racism, that it has not moved on from the Civil Rights movement. While racism certainly still exists in the South, history, as well as the events of the last twelve months remind us that racism has never really been determined geographically. It exists everywhere, and it manifests itself differently in different places. Finally, the spree of newspaper articles, news stories and blog posts on the Confederate flag have worked as a smokescreen for one of the larger debates that characterises and plagues American life – guns. The fact remains that Roof was able to obtain a gun very easily, and one wonders at what point America will begin to tackle this issue.
Ah! – or Aagh! – that time of the year again … marking and external examining (why, I wonder??): looking at the results of a year’s hard work by both students and staff and how that translates into written work. We are often asked, “How do I get a first class grade?” Here are some obvious answers:
1. Get the basics right – a first class piece of work should at least be well-written, using sentences, punctuating and spelling correctly. I cannot see a first class essay as one that has incomplete sentences, is littered with basic grammatical errors, etc. Similarly, referencing – footnotes and bibliographies – should be in the right format. By level 6 (year 3) there really is no excuse for getting these basics wrong.
2. READ! your bibliography will reflect the amount you have read and the range – you have to engage with historians and their arguments (historiography). This means using more than general survey texts; monographs and journal articles are a must.
3. And finally – having done all the reading, you cannot just list or outline the views of other historians; a good answer is going to have an argument, a conclusion, and hopefully a point of view coming down on one side or the other, answering the question set – or in a dissertation, the questions posed by the writer in their introduction.
When a student manages this, the results are often really a pleasure to read – they show understanding, engagement, and enthusiasm. I hope your work falls into this category – but if not, keep working at it, and remember – READ!
As part of the University-wide Festival Fortnight, this week has seen a series of presentations and awards by and for History students and staff.
On Monday, students presented some of their work at the Humanities Student Research Conference, which gave them the opportunity to talk about some of the projects that have interested them the most – including group work and dissertation research. Level 5 History students Grace Cooper and Matt Saffery presented the findings of a recent project which explored early modern childhood. The group made a ‘Horrible Histories’ magazine aimed at children, which tells a story of what it might have been like to be an early modern child.
Third year students discussed the findings of their dissertation research: Jack Miles presented on ‘Edward Said and Cornwall’; and Jordan Spencer presented on ‘JFK’s Legacy’. Rachael Colmer and Erika Mellor talked about their work for the History Society, before handing over the task to their course-mates. One of the aims of both Festival Fortnight and the conference was to make interesting connections and to open discussion between different subject groups, so it was great to see our students taking part!
On Tuesday afternoon and evening the hard work of students and staff across the University was recognised at two awards events held in Cheltenham Town Hall. Some of these awards were open to nomination by students. Erika Mellor won Course Rep of the Year Award. Former History student Alicia Mascall, who now works as an academic advisor, won ‘Best Academic Feedback‘. Her citation reads:
“Alicia has given effective advice when helping students structure their dissertations. She has been described as ‘keeping students sane throughout their time at University’ and goes the extra mile to make sure students understand their feedback.”
Finally, Professor Melanie Ilic was one of a significant number of staff presented with long service awards at this event, for over 25 years of service. Congratulations all!
Among all the celebrations of VE Day, you might want to look out for “First Days of Peace” scheduled for Monday 11th May at 7.30 pm on BBC! West. Presented by Bonnie Greer, the half-hour documentary focuses on the American presence in Bristol during World War II and particularly the issue of race brought about by the segregation and discrimination in their armed forces. The introduction of American-style Jim Crow caused much conflict between black and white GIs and there was a riot in the city in 1944. Many British people were appalled by such developments and were angered even more by the discrimination evident in the disproportionate number of court martial cases that resulted in the death penalty being passed on black soldiers.
Our Emeritus Professor Neil Wynn provided a great deal of material for this programme and was filmed discussing these issues at FCH and with Bonnie Greer outside Shepton Mallet prison where executions were carried out. Happily, in one case, a petition and protests from British people saved the life of one of those convicted, but similar protests in Cheltenham were unable to save the lives of two African American soldiers convicted of rape – a capital offense in the USA but not Britain. although Bonnie Greer sees much that is positive in British reactions, the programme does highlight one less than positive aspect of the war experience and does raise interesting questions about both American and British race history.
This blog has on more than one occasion explored various aspects of what we might understand as public history. Just recently, for instance, we posted on Selma, on the role of war memorialisation in the making and maintain of both local and national identity and both ‘black history month’ and ‘native American heritage month’. Then there is also our close relationship with our local branch of the Historical Association. We have had some great talks this season (at our Park campus) and an equally exciting programme lined up for the 15/16 season which starts in September. All this public engagement is absolutely vital to keeping what we do within the University of Gloucestershire both fresh and relevant and, hopefully, matches closely to wider public concerns and interest. I was particularly impressed, for instance, by a recent article in The Guardian by Emma Graham-Harrison on a new exhibition at Auschwitz which raised really important questions as to whether horror and atrocity should ever be a tourist destination/attraction.
Public history needs to raise and discuss important questions such as these. It needs to bring the public into the university and discuss weighty subjects. This June we will be doing precisely that, although our topic is perhaps not quite as contentious as the Holocaust (but see our post on events of the 21st of last month)! On the weekend of June 6/7, and in conjunction with both the Edward Thomas Fellowship and Friends of Dymock Poets, we will be holding an event focussing on the coming together of a number of celebrated poets in this small Gloucestershire village shortly before the outbreak of the Great War and the landscape that inspired them. Papers given at the conference will also make use of the material held in the University’s own archives. This takes place on the Saturday, when there will also be an opportunity to see the premier of an innovative piece of drama presented by Dreamshed Theatre Company, Eleven Places Theatre Company, and emerging playwrights on the MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University. The play will be accompanied by specially-commissioned music. Whilst on the Sunday the conference moves to the village of Dymock and number of guided walks. These will explore the landscapes which inspired the authors, and the places where their families interacted with each other and the local community. All of this will be underpinned by an exhibition of original art.
Public history events such as this one must inform, provoke and stimulate but above all be attractive to a wide audience. We do hope that this is the case and invite people to join us over the weekend. Further information can be found here.
Congratulations to former colleagues Penny Richards and Jonathan Spangler, and to Jessica Munns, on the publication of their new book: Aspiration, Representation and Memory: The Guise in Europe, 1506-1688.
The Guise, cadets of a minor sovereign house, arose from a provincial power base to establish themselves as dominant political players in France and across Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. They spent most of their time and held much of their land in France, but their interests were always ‘trans-national’ and they aspired to thrones from Jerusalem to Hungary and to Naples. They very nearly gained the throne of France; indeed, briefly, a member of the family, Mary Stuart, was Queen of France and of Scotland.
The essays in this collection approach the Guise’s aims, ambitions and representations from this ‘trans-national’ dimension and are drawn from an international group of historians, literary scholars and art historians. Essays consider Guise claims to special consideration by men—by God—their eating habits, dramas about them, their place in history and ‘heritage’ history, and their portraiture, with special in-depth studies of Marie de Medici and Anne of Austria by Jonathan Spangler, Henry of Lorraine, fifth Duke of Guise, and his mid-seventeenth-century attempts to rule in Naples, and the long term reputation of the Guise by Penny Richards.
Thirty-seven students and three staff visited the prehistoric sites of Avebury and Stonehenge, both in Wiltshire. The aims of this Activity Week event were to explore the past use of these ‘ritual’ monuments in their landscapes and how they have been appropriated in the present by the ‘New Age’ and ‘Heritage’ cults. At Avebury it was possible to wander among the stones in the area contained by the massive earthworks, and indeed walk the full circle around the bank, which provided the necessary contrast with the situation at Stonehenge. There were also fine examples of folk culture to be seen in the tying of ribbons and the deposition of flowers in the trunks and roots of several fine beech trees, whose prominent root systems could have come straight out of an illustration from The Lord of the Rings. Finally, it is an ancient tradition to imbibe from Avebury Well – which in its modern guise has hops, malt and barley added.
The new interpretive centre at Stonehenge demonstrated the use of Neolithic and Bronze Age landscapes in a very accessible form, but without the mention of the modern ‘Druid’ cult or the political issues surrounding lack of access to the stone circle itself. With the closure of roads it is now possible to walk to the monument through the ancient landscape and this was experienced by most of the group, returning on the new shuttle bus. Another interesting area for study was the gift shop with its wide range of ‘Stonehenge Merchandise’ ranging from the academic to the gimmicky, with fridge magnets and chocolate megaliths being favoured by some of the members of staff. Altogether it was a successful and satisfying day giving varied and new experiences to all involved in a pleasant social context.