Saturday, 28 January 2012

'Who Do You Think You Are?'

I have a real passion for genealogy. My family has been traced back to the late seventeenth century, and there is nothing like seeing an ancestor’s name on a parish record or census. It’s an incredible feeling. And, genealogy has experienced something of a boom in the last decade, partly thanks to the hugely successful series, Who Do You Think You Are. The BBC programme has spawned an American TV series, and every month a genealogy magazine is published, giving advice for people to trace their own family tree. This is a fantastic example of how history can be made interesting, as well as showing how television is a powerful medium. Indeed, some episodes have garnered over four million viewers. [1] I think the series is great – there have been so many memorable episodes, from Alistair McGowan, to J.K. Rowling, David Tennant to Boris Johnson. If you’re sensing a ‘But’ here, that’s because there is one. There are a few problems with this kind of format, which can be related to some of the bigger problems with television. These life stories thrive on the dramatic, they have to be sensational or shocking to draw us in. To put it another way, is history not exciting enough without a familiar face to makes us watch? Surely this means, in some cases, the show becomes more about the celebrity than it does the history. Viewing figures dropped significantly for Tracy Emin’s episode (estimated at 3.54 million) when compared with the episode with J.K. Rowling; one article suggested that fewer people were interested in Tracy Emin, because she “can offend the mainstream”.[2] Also, while some episodes contain elements of social history, Michael Parkinson has stated that the producers dismissed his family tree for being too dull, as many of his ancestors were working class miners. What is interesting are the comments from this online article, with several people stating that the history of “normal” people, i.e., a large majority of the population, is being ignored.[3] A television producer however may not agree with this – he or she might say, “well that’s not an interesting story, for one, and for another they haven’t gone through much.” According to whom? I think it’s quite insulting for someone to dismiss your heritage in one foul swoop. However, let’s go for the pitch. My family consists of generations of farm labourers. Not particularly “television-worthy” you might say. But boring? Certainly not. Like Parkinson’s family, they would have been an ordinary group of people, living through an extraordinary amount of change during the Industrial Revolution, and the early twentieth century. It is fascinating to imagine what their lives would have been like, and how different it would be to the present. What was a typical day? What did they eat? What did their job involve? Even, what were they like? Most of these questions will never be answered. But the fascination is still there. History is about people, and perhaps Who Do You Think You Are should have a few more episodes on the “ordinary” men and women of society. Truthfully, anything that encourages history gets my vote, especially because television has the ability to reach such a wide audience. But this doesn’t mean the history of ordinary people is not worth telling.

[1] Busfield, Steve, “Davina McCall’s Who Do You Think You Are?” The Guardian, 16 July 2009,
[2] Papamichael, Stella, “Who Do You Want To See”, 14 October 2011
[3] Holmwood, Leigh, “Michael Parkinson: My Family Was Too Dull” The Guardian, 21 July 2009

Monday, 23 January 2012

Oral History Interview

As part of my Public History MA, I had to conduct an oral history interview over Christmas. I can honestly say that it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. My chosen interviewee was a friend and neighbour, so perhaps this was one of the reasons why I found it so difficult. Regardless, I sincerely hope no one ever listens to my “attempt” at oral history, which is a shame because my interviewee is one of the most interesting people I have ever met, someone who has the best stories about every single possible subject you can imagine. As soon as I turned on the recorder, everything I had learned for the past three months went completely out of the window. Luckily, my interviewee was a good talker so the interview does contain some great stories but this was not down to me at all.

I was also nervous about asking certain questions. The interviewee’s husband had died a couple of years ago, and I was reluctant to delve too deep into this subject for fear of upsetting her. I had not asked these questions in an informal sitting, so I didn’t want to ask her with a recorder sat between us. On the other hand, there were lots of questions I could have asked, if I had not been so flustered and actually focused on my interview schedule. When my interviewee was talking about her school life, she mentioned she had been educated in Germany in the early 1950’s. If I had known about this beforehand, I could have made so much more of this in the interview. Post-war Germany would have been a fascinating subject to cover - unfortunately the last time I studied this was a short module on the Cold War in college, one that mainly focused on Russia and America. So all I could muster at the time was “did you notice any anti-British feeling?” Embarrassing.

I also discovered that I hate the sound of my own voice. This, coupled with way too much nervous laughter, signalled the end of a potential career in oral history. While it was only my first attempt, I think I would need a fair bit of practice before I was fully confident. A shame really, as my main strength is the ability to talk to people.

The result of this project? Huge respect for journalists and news readers.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Arizona and the Act of Denial

I'm not sure how to voice my utter disgust at a new law that the state of Arizona has just approved. Apparently, in a pretty much solid vote at the Tucson school board, books by Native American authors cannot be studied because they deal with "racial" issues. The list of banned books includes Rethinking Columbus by Bill Bigelow, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña and William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Yes, you read the last one right. I’ve never read this particular play, but apparently the school board was offended by the themes of “colonization and slavery”. Where to even begin…

The concept of banning books is chilling, but what’s worse is that teachers cannot use these particular books for reference in class, or keep them at school at all. As you might expect, the school board objected to the word “banned” and tried to backtrack, stating that the books had not been completely removed from libraries and classrooms. So while the books can still be found, they should not be used to teach students about race relations with Native Americans or Mexican Americans. Not really the best line of defence, but there you are.

Studying public history has given me some great insight into the legacy of events, their impact on society and how history can be manipulated or wielded like a patriotic sword in defence of the nation. The debate over what to teach children often leads to explosive ‘History Wars’ – what a nation stands for, what should be celebrated or condemned and ultimately what or who we want our children to learn about. Trying to whitewash or ignore history will get you nowhere. What this law is effectively doing is erasing knowledge of Arizona’s first inhabitants, yet again championing the European, Western narrative at the expense of indigenous cultures. You cannot discuss American history without reference to race, slavery or oppression – like it or not, these are many of the central themes of American history, much like any other colonizing nation (just look at Britain’s record). I’m not saying they are the only themes, but they are pretty important. How can history be taught with such gaping holes? What happened to both sides of the story? And, how are teachers expected to follow this through?

Every October the United States celebrates Columbus Day, commemorating the day that the explorer “discovered” the Americas. (I use inverted commas because to the Native Americans, the continent was already there.) If the ban holds, I will be very interested to see how the state of Arizona celebrates this day – perhaps with more book removals, a silence on racial discussions and a refusal to acknowledge American Indian heritage? All someone needs to do is throw in the words “Native American Genocide” and the school board leaders will probably have a collective heart attack. Regardless, the board has a bloody fight on their hands – and Native Americans will be leading the attack, particularly as over 50% of the community is Mexican-American.

The removal of books gives us a telling perspective on society – essentially, it shows a community that is unwilling to face the past, choosing to suppress the ‘unpleasant’ areas of history instead of debating difficult issues such as race and oppression in a responsible manner. This gives the impression that it’s ok to teach history with significant blanks, and it’s acceptable to provide students with an incomplete and frankly inaccurate version of the past. Come on Arizona, set an example to your students.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

English POW 1, Germans 0

The HNN website is a great source for history in the news, from the big anniversaries to the genuinely quirky anecdotes. I came across this gem a few days ago – a British Prisoner of War, Major Alexis Casdagli, spent four years in a German camp during the Second World War, and took up embroidery to pass the time. However, he used his work as a fantastic form of resistance against the Germans, for he stitched secret messages on his tapestries that his captors never spotted. One tapestry, that the Germans innocently displayed in 1941, contained the words “God Save the King” and “F**k Hitler” in Morse code. The best form of passive resistance EVER.

The tapestry can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

“Send Back the Money!” Frederick Douglass in Scotland

Continuing my research into Frederick Douglass’s life, his controversial tour of Scotland deserves attention. Douglass visited Britain from 1845-1847, and spent several months in Scotland, lecturing about slavery in cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, and Dundee. Before he arrived there however, he caught wind of a campaign by local anti-slavery societies, directed against the Free Church of Scotland. In 1843, an independent sect calling itself the Free Church broke from the established Church of Scotland, defying their authoritarian methods. To raise money for their new organisation, Free Church missionaries were sent to the United States, collecting over £3,000 from Southern slaveholders. The abolitionists denounced the Free Church for supporting slavery, and when Douglass arrived in Scotland, his oratorical skill set this campaign ablaze:

“When the slaves of America heard of a free church, we had reason to believe that the day of our redemption drew near…they accepted the slave-holders’ invitation, took their money; paralysed their own Christian feelings, turned a deaf ear to the groan of the slave as they went on their way through the South – they were dumb on the question of slavery – were invited by the slave-owners to their pulpits – dined at their tables, at in their pews –heard them preach to their slave congregations – took the blood money, which was offered them, and brought it to Scotland, to pay the Free Church ministers. I charge them with having gone into a land of man-stealers – among men whom they knew to be man-stealers – they struck for the sake of money…tell them to send back to America that blood stained money!” (Frederick Douglass, “A Call for the British Nation to Testify Against Slavery” in Exeter, England, August 28 1846.)

Over 1,200 people came to hear this speech.

In 1846, a number of songs were composed (or adapted) to focus on the Free Church controversy:

“SEND back the Money! send it back!
'Tis dark polluted gold;
'Twas wrung from human flesh and bones,
By agonies untold:
There's not a mite in all the sum
But what is stained with blood;
There's not a mite in all the sum
But what is cursed of God.

Send back the Money! send it back!
Partake not in their sin
Who buy and sell, and trade in Men,
Accursed gains to win:
There's not a mite in all the sum
An honest man may claim;
There's not a mite but what can tell
Of fraud, deceit, and shame…

Then send the money back again!
And send without delay;
It may not, must not, cannot bear
The light of British day.”

Unfortunately for the abolitionists, the Free Church stood firm and refused to return the money. However, the impact of Douglass’s popular Scottish campaign would prove influential, particularly during one summer in London, 1846…more on this soon!