The Need To Read Between the Lines

If there's anything I've learned after two years of working in a history museum, it's that history is problematic.

Before I took my job at Gilcrease Museum (which I constantly write about in my blog posts because I have no life,) I looked myself in the mirror and asked myself: “Do I really want to sell a museum that is the embodiment of the John Wayne cowboy trope?” I remembered the museum from my obligatory visits from elementary and high school to fulfil requirements for United States history classes and being inundated with mustached, old, white cowboys on horseback (still today, Gilcrease unfortunately has a crushing lack of Black representation in its collection of art from the American West). Fortunately enough, the marketing team in place at Gilcrease at the time I was brought on the team had done their best to promote the museum’s incredible collection of Indigenous art and objects, and the curatorial team had lined up a diverse range of powerful exhibitions which caught my interest enough to entice me to take the job.

The first exhibition I worked on promoting at Gilcrease was The Chisholm Kid: Lone Fighter for Justice for All which featured comic strips from the Pittsburgh Courier’s comic of the same name that ran in the early 1950’s. Set in the proverbial ‘Old West’ The Chisholm Kid featured a Black cowboy who roamed the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas doing good deeds and fighting crime, but more importantly, the trailblazing comic brought attention to the fact that an estimated 25% of cowboys on the Chisholm Trail in the years following the Civil War were Black. However, if you asked me in third grade after a trip to Gilcrease Museum what that number was, it would have been much lower due to how history had been taught, not only at Gilcrease, but in media and the U. S. education system. Now, though, that trend is changing at Gilcrease and elsewhere.

It is wonderful to hear of work being done by researchers like Lauren Klein (great name, by the way) to give voices to those that had been marginalized for generations. It is not by accident that priority was given to preserving voices of white men over the last several hundred years, but rather by design, and it is wonderful that researchers today are working to change the oppressive systems in place. Klein illustrates how hundreds of years ago, men in power were aware of their legacies, including Thomas Jefferson. She explains Jefferson had a “desire to influence that legacy through the documents he recorded, edited, and preserved” (Klein, 662.) This problematic figure actively worked to curate how he was remembered in history, and did well to quell records of those he enslaved.

Klein’s drive to examine the power dynamics at play in what remains of literature recording the history of those Jefferson enslaved is long overdue and incredibly resourceful. It is also refreshing that she addresses the importance of performing her work “without reinforcing the damaging notion that African American voices from before emancipation—not just in the archival record, but the voices themselves—are silent, and irretrievably lost” (Klein, 665.) There is plenty of work that can be done that can retrieve these resilient records if one looks closely and considers new means of data analysis and visualization that are available. It is also excellent that she jabs at Jefferson in the closing of her piece, stating that history must recognize “Jefferson’s personal responsibility for inscribing the silences of slavery into American culture” (Klein, 684.) While Jefferson’s willful omission of the voices of enslaved men and women had succeeded in his presentation as a hero to schoolchildren for generations, historical institutions in the United States are now finally recognizing the lack of representation of minority voices throughout history and the problematic legacy of the United States’ “founding fathers.”