History Is Often What We Choose To Remember
Professor David Glassberg of UMass-Amherst explored truth and perceptions of American history at a seminar yesterday at the Framingham History Center.
While a picture may be worth a thousand words, it can also be used to sway the hearts and minds of a nation.
It is in how we remember and interpret those images that give us a sense of place and self. Yet we must remember how those historical flashbacks can, and often are, manipulated for various political persuasions.
According to David Glassberg, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and author of Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life, we are a nation of dichotomies and contradictions when it comes to remembering historical events.
Such was the premise before about 65 people who attended a presentation on "Collective Memory and Community Engagement," by Glassberg at the Edgell Memorial Library, sponsored by the nonprofit Framingham History Center yesterday afternoon.
Glassberg said he views these types of presentations are part of his job in educating the public and being an ambassador for the University of Massachusetts.
"Before I arrived at UMass in 1986, I used to work for the National Park Service, so I've always had an interest in engaging people outside of the classroom."
Depending on the juxtaposition of image, patriotic fervor, just cause and reality, we are drawn to think in one direction, i.e., "All men are created equal," yet the Founding Fathers condoned, practiced and wrote into law their intended injustices aimed directly at non-Anglos.
For instance, George Washington knew the rules very well. In his second home in Philadelphia, Glassberg said Washington had kept African-American slaves in his house and rotated them between his home in Virginia. His reason for rotating the servants was simple. If a slave resided in Pennsylvania for more than 60 days, he or she could seek to be released from the service of their owner. So Washington regularly shipped them back and forth between states to ensure they never reached that 60th day in his house, which was literally steps away from the Liberty Bell.
We tend to forget these caveats when, for example, we see the famous painting depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Both versions are part of United States history. Yet one story tends to make it on the pages of the books we read in elementary school, and we believe that to be history and true.
Glassberg says we go down a similar path when we memorialize the accomplishments of people or events in statues on our town commons or near government buildings. It is the concept of nobility, good vs. evil, that evokes a reaction when we "Remember the Alamo" or "Custer's Last Stand."
Yet we forget that Texas squatters were trespassing in Mexican territory in modern day San Antonio, driven by the God-granted Manifest Destiny that had no boundaries. And for decades, we forgot about the Native Americans who defended their own homeland at the Little Big Horn.
Glassberg also noted the importance of local history. In Framingham, the founding and subsequent demolition of Shoppers World connected generations with family traditions or annual events. Everyone experienced it.
Now that it's gone, there is likely a fond remembrance paired with a chasm of community of what was then vs. what is now.
Glassberg said a similar sense of losing identity occurs in other communities.
Forty and 50 years ago, Cape Cod communities such as Wellfleet and Truro were united by a central meeting place, a post office, general store or coffee shop.
For Wellfleet, once the post office was moved to the outskirts of town, people didn't congregate in the center any longer. They lost their motive to meet as neighbors and drifted apart.
New construction brought new neighbors and pretty soon the older generation didn't recognize their own town.
Many decided to sell and move. It didn't make sense to earn $20,000 a year and live in a house valued at $2 million.
Yesterday's presentation was the first in a series of four that will explore memory from the perspective of science, psychology, art and history, sponsored by the Framingham History Center.
Subsequent events will take place at 7 p.m. Sept. 8 (The New Frontier of Slowing Brain Aging: Preventing Dementia by Dr. Dudha Seshadri); 7 p.m. Nov. 17 (The Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel Schacter) and 2 p.m. Jan. 22, 2012 (Making History/Making Place: New England's Search for a Usable Past by Bill Hosley).
For more information about these events, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.