My family and I just came back from the east coast (Washington D.C. and Gettysburg, PA), but I feel as though all of you came along for the ride, too. Good thing I took the van. Our destinations were full of historical import, but more: I saw everything through the critical lenses and themes we've talked about all year long.
We start in Gettysburg where the official story of the battle (the voice-over narrator) is one that emphasizes union: "Both sides fought bravely and their heroic deeds are commemorated here." And we were repeatedly told that General Lee was "always a gentleman." Maybe, but he was also a traitor who fought for his "country's" right to perpetuate slavery in the western territories.
"Confederate heroes?" I thought. Talk about your forgiving attitudes and the Fables of Reconstruction! This was, of course, Lincoln's triumph -- what James McPherson (a famous Civil War historian, whose book I was reading) called the brother fighting against brother mythology.
We saw the house where Thaddeus Stevens (and why is he always scowling in official photos?) practiced law. Stevens was the leader of the Radical Republicans -- the vindictive folks who thought Lincoln and his buddies were way too kind to the Rebels. Stevens was a life-long abolitionist who refused to be buried in a cemetery that was not integrated. In contrast to the fancy memorials at Gettysburg Cemetery, Stevens was buried on an unmarked site.
Yet, there is something so moving about the Gettysburg Address and it was great to stand on the spot where Lincoln delivered his "brief address that changed the world." McPherson says Lincoln did nothing short of re-writing the Constitution on the spot. Another eminent historian, Garry Wills, put it this way: "Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is the best example in history of the fact that nothing is more practical than idealism, that ideas matter, that words are more important than weapons."
Speaking of public memorials, Gettysburg made me think of our field trip first semester in which we examined public art. One striking feature is the fancy statuary -- Greek mostly, perhaps an attempt by a young nation to make it clear that our heroes are as noble as any of those in classical literature. In Washington D.C., we saw a statue of a woman that looked like a piece you'd find in a temple in Athens, but it was called "America." Why, I wondered, was the country portrayed as a woman in that piece?
The National Portrait Gallery also had a fantastic exhibit on hip-hop, and I remembered our discussions of the democratizing impulses of art. I thought about who is usually represented in museums and who is left out, and I thought about all the talent on display by the best taggers. That, too, is public art.