American Social History Project • Center for Media and Learning

May 2009

Panel discussion: “Public History in New York City’s Cultural Life”

“Public History in New York City’s Cultural Life” panel
L-R: Suzanne Wasserman, Deborah F. Schwartz, Ron Grele, Dave Herman, Ruth Sergel, Oneka LaBennett

The American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning and the Gotham Center for New York City History co-sponsored a panel discussion on “Public History in New York City’s Cultural Life” at the City University of New York Graduate Center on Monday, April 6th. The event was held in memory of Adina Back, a historian, educator, and colleague who many at the ASHP knew personally. The evening’s five panelists represented an array of backgrounds, and each offered a unique approach to public history. All five panelists’ presentations suggested intriguing possibilities for engaging with local communities to shape and inform public history projects. Oneka LaBennett, research director for the Bronx African-American History Project, described the way her project works with students and academics at Fordham University to reach out to members of the community. Deborah F. Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, discussed her institution’s efforts to enlist Vietnam veterans and members of a Carroll Gardens parish to shape the Society’s exhibitions. Ruth Sergel, an artist and filmmaker, described how her desire to document personal responses to the events of September 11, 2001 led to her subsequent project, a yearly event commemorating the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Dave Herman gave an entertaining presentation about the City Reliquary, a small non-profit storefront collection he founded in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Ron Grele, the former director of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, put the evening in perspective by reminding us that it is our task to complicate, rather than oversimplify, history for public consumption. The enthusiasm of the participants and the event’s large turnout despite the rainy April night suggested that public history is alive and thriving in New York, and that the role of public history in the city’s cultural melange is sure to grow as long as the city’s past continues to inspire new generations of scholars, historians, and artists and their audiences.

Featured Document: “Now, Will You Be Good?”

“Now, Will You Be Good?”
Grant Hamilton, Judge Magazine, 14 December 1902
This 1902 political cartoon by Grant Hamilton published in Judge, an illustrated satirical weekly, is a regular feature in ASHP/CML’s Teaching American History workshops. We use it as a morning warm-up (most recently in December 2008), a way to both reveal and stimulate teachers’ thinking about U.S. imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century. We also use it to model strategies for how to analyze and interpret political cartoons generally. The cartoon, entitled “Now, Will You Be Good?,” portrays the supposed benefits of U.S. imperialism. Both Cuba and the Philippines are depicted as helpless children under the guiding hand of a kindly Uncle Sam, but “Cuba” (recently independent though still subject to United States domination as a result of the Spanish-American War) is portrayed with a toy Statue of Liberty and shiny military playthings, while an envious “Philippines,” depicted as a bloodthirsty savage mired in “primitive” conditions, looks on in shocked surprise. The caption reads “Uncle Sam (to Filipino) – See what I do for a good little boy?” The cartoon is a potent symbol of its era’s pro-imperialist mindset and also prompts comparisons to our own early twenty-first century moment of waning U.S. imperialism-how would such a cartoon read now if the nations were Iran and Iraq? Israel and Syria?

In Cuba, as in other nations, Uncle Sam’s military “toys” facilitated the rise of military dictatorships during the first half of the twentieth century, making the country safe for U.S. investments and tourists. This history was included in a recent Teaching American History program workshop on the Cold War, where historian Van Gosse (Franklin and Marshall College) described the nationalist context for the revolution that overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. With Cuba in the news again this spring, as President Obama moves to lift the trade and travel sanctions imposed on the country during the Cold War, it is worth remembering that the U.S. and Cuba have a history together that long predates the Castro regime.

Picturing U.S. History Forums

Since October 2008, ASHP/CML’s website Picturing U.S. History has hosted four public discussions on teaching and learning select eras in U.S. history using archival visual evidence. The Picturing History Forums extend the website’s commitment to providing teachers and students with resources that demonstrate ways historical images can illuminate the past as well as critical approaches to teaching with such materials. Structured as succinct blog entries by guest moderators, the Forum is meant to serve as both an active arena for dialogue and a long-term resource for future consultation.

The Forums remain open for your participation! Visit the Picturing U.S. History site to read and comment. In the coming months the website will offer new features, including new book and website reviews as well as additions to “My Favorite Image.” And this fall join the discussion with guest moderator Catherine J. Lavender, College of Staten Island, on the West, and Alice Fahs, University of California at Irvine, on the Civil War.

Take Our Children to Work Day

Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work day, April 23, 2009

April 23rd was “Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work Day” at the CUNY Graduate Center and ASHP/CML was one of two research centers to host an event. About a dozen children of Graduate Center employees visited ASHP/CML’s offices to participate in “Playing the American Revolution.” Our guests enjoyed a hands-on sneak preview of a new online video game produced by WNET/Thirteen in partnership with ASHP/CML. In “For Crown or Colony?” players assume the role of fourteen-year old Nat Wheeler as he journeys to Boston to become a printer’s apprentice and becomes caught up in events leading to the Boston Massacre and the American Revolution. Although the game is intended for middle school students, at least one participant under the age of ten embraced the game as an opportunity to practice reading skills in a fresh new way.

Save the Date: The Digital Word – A Conference, Thursday, October 8, 2009

On October 8, 2009 ASHP/CML and the New Media Lab will host The Digital Word, a day-long national conference on the future of academic publishing and the far reaching implications and possibilities of digital technology for textbooks, scholarly journals, and academic monographs. The conference, to be held at The Graduate Center, will feature roundtable discussions including publishers, scholars, teachers, and new media practitioners and funders who will address past successes and failures as well as ideas for future practice. The goal of the event is to provide common ground and the basis for on-going efforts to use new media in inclusive, affordable, and effective ways to engage in and disseminate scholarly work.

Watch for the fall ASHP/CML newsletter or check the New Media Lab website, which will have more information on The Digital Word.

Don’t forget to visit Now and Then: An ASHP blog for updates on ASHP/CML events and other staff musings.