Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to pause and reflect, what we see are intersections. That’s what happened to me this week. It’s a year since George Floyd was murdered, 12 months for many of us spent on re-centering, on understanding that seeing ourselves as nice and not racist was never enough, and that in a world where white is “normal” and everything else is “other,” action is necessary for change. And change, however small or local, is still change. So on the eve of the George Floyd anniversary, I had the honor of listening to a group of high school students report from their 20/21 history class. Although, like everything else these days, the presentation took place on Zoom, in reality, it took place at Salisbury School, an independent boys boarding school in northwestern Connecticut, and in local archives, hiking trails and towns in Litchfield County, CT.
If you spend time around high school students, yours or someone else’s, you quickly realize teenage boys and history aren’t always a natural fit. This class was titled “Searching for Slavery in Salisbury,” and taught by Rhonan Mokriski. What I witnessed was the premiere of the student film “Coloring Our Past,” which focuses on local Black history and the Cesar family in particular, but also on the way the boys learned American history in elementary and middle school. After the screening, there was a discussion where the students and viewers like me were joined by members of the Cesar family including their matriarch and family historian, Katherine Overton.
Ms. Overton’s family has the distinction of being able to trace its roots back five generations in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut to Overton’s fifth great grandfather, Timothy, who fought in the Revolutionary War, and Titus, who is buried in Town Hill Cemetery, Lakeville, CT. If you’ve watched any of Henry Louis Gates’ series Finding Your Roots you know how rare it is for a Black family to have a history that doesn’t dead-end in enslavement. The Cesars are that family, landowners, farmers, and business people, who sent Rae Ellen Williams to Howard University in 1936, launching their descendants away from the tiny pocket of Connecticut where they’d lived for generations.
As important as that narrative is, much of it researched by Overton herself, that’s not what made the Thursday evening Zoom so distinctive. First, it was the privilege of listening to Overton’s family. On the Zoom screen were tiny grandchildren, teens who had helped with some of the filming, cousins, sons and daughters. There was a lot of laughter, and a few tears. Even though we were outsiders, we were present for their reaction to a film about their family, a gift to them, but also for us as witnesses. After a year marked by a murder seen around the world, here were 10 minutes of reparation shared when a high school history class attempted to undo the missteps of standard American social studies, not to mention your basic All-American racism and implicit bias.
This week on Krista Tibbet’s “On Being,”former poet laureate Tracy Smith talks about asking white readers to observe, listen, eavesdrop and reflect. One of the things she says is “As a Black person in America — as anyone who’s not white, in America — you know what it feels like to be the unintended audience of something and to have to bend your ears in a certain way to accept and deal properly with a statement that isn’t intended for you but that implicates you in some way. This is a skill. And this is a skill that it’s time for those in the community of whiteness to embrace, because, like I said, I think the salvation of our culture — and I don’t really think that’s an exaggerated term — depends on that kind of expanded awareness of self, of place, of where we are and what we’re doing here together.” I can’t speak for everyone on the Zoom, but I became a listener to a history I had no active part in, and yet I couldn’t help but think how the threads of my own family narrative and others like mine imprinted families like the Cesars.
The second thing that was so powerful was that this was history in action. A lot of museum folk talk about making history real, but too often that means actor-like guides or labels filled with questions rather than facts. I doubt any of the boys in the class will become historians, but I bet 50 years from now they will still be able to recall their feelings when they hiked to George Cesar’s farm site with their classmates and a metal detector or when they placed a Witness Stone dedicated to writer and abolitionist, James Mars on the Green in nearby Norfolk, CT and were greeted by Connecticut’s first Black Congresswoman Jahana Hayes. They didn’t just learn history, they were historians. They were participants.
There is a line in Allen Bennett’s play The History Boys that goes, “How do I define history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another.” This class, their film, the witness stone, and the other place-based work they did, took them away from learning the long list of stories we call history by making them story tellers, changing them from passive to active. Did they get a five on their AP U.S. history? I don’t know, and honestly I don’t care because they have an experience of doing history which is very different from studying for the AP.
I don’t work in a history museum or historic site any more, and since the collection I manage is largely art-based, I rarely do history exhibits. But if there is a lesson here, it’s what experiential educators the world over know: That we remember what we do, more than what we’re told. There are many museums and heritage organizations that help visitors understand history not as something they read on the walls, but in personal ways, making them part of the narrative. Think of Eastern State Penitentiary’s opening question, Old Salem Museum & Garden’s Hidden Town Project or the way Matilda Joslyn Gage’s house chose not to be another suffocating collection of 19th-century furniture, and instead asks visitors to talk about complicated questions surrounding religion, Indigenous people and women’s rights.
Burbling beneath the surface of American public education is an ongoing argument some have termed “the social studies wars,” pitting those who see teaching history as an opportunity to delve into the country’s complicated past, opposite those who think the “The 1619 Project” is dangerous and divisive. No matter who’s right, there is a generation who are abysmally ignorant about democracy in general and American democracy in particular. So many of our museums and heritage organizations, whether the proverbial wealthy white man’s home, the site of a social experiment or a memorial to carnage and disaster, offer us a window into how people thought and what they thought about. Those are bridges to conversation about how we reached this moment, to a group of high school boys, who learned a version of local history that left everyone out who wasn’t white.
At the end of the Searching for Slavery Zoom someone asked Rhonan Mokriski what he thought. He wiped his eyes, struggling to keep his emotions under control. After thanking everyone, from Katherine Overton and her family to his students and his school, he said he thought he saw change. That maybe, just maybe, this generation would be the doers and the change makers. It was a spark of hope at the end of a long year.
Sometimes it’s better to make change where we can then to rail at the world. As museum and heritage organization people, what can we do to follow these students’ example?