Social, Spatial, and Racial Justice in Interpretation at African American History and Cultural Museums
Over the last two decades, geographers and other scholars have begun to study how African American history in the United States is misrepresented and disregarded relative to other historical narratives (for example Adams 2007; Alderman and Campbell 2008; Butler 2001; Hanna 2008; Inwood 2011; McKittrick 2006, 2011; Modlin 2008). Presented in museums and on plantation tours, roadside markers, and street names, the chattel slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, redlining, the Civil Rights Movement and other key moments and people in African American history have been unevenly memorialized across the American cultural landscape. Museums are particularly important sites of historic preservation, documentation, and interpretation in light of research that Americans perceive museums to be among the most trustworthy sources of historical information, even over eyewitnesses or college history professors (Rosenzweig and Thelen 1998). Recognizing that museums are not politically neutral sites and do not operate in a vacuum, this new avenue of research seeks to understand how different types of history and cultural museums specializing in African American experiences change and adapt their narrative emphases in response to contemporary events. With recent events such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2015 terrorist attack at Emanuel AME in Charleston, and the forthcoming presidency of Donald Trump, this research looks at how museum sites have responded to expanding geographies of racism and racial violence. My research also advances discussions of more socially just and theoretically nuanced understandings of the memory of slavery and other oft-ignored periods of African American history and their importance to the foundation of the United States’ political economy and culture. I am greatly interested in implications that this social justice research has for contemporary race relations and education in the US. My approach to social justice is informed by the work of many scholars, especially geographers who have called for critical geographies of memory and antiracist geographic research. As Kobayashi and Peake (2000) note, antiracist struggle is situated—i.e., it takes place somewhere—and therefore scholarship of these struggles must engage with understanding the various social and commemorative process at work in these places.
Critical Historical Geographies of Slavery in the American South
In the more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that formally brought an end to chattel slavery, people in the United States have done much to downplay, sanitize, and outright forget both the history of slavery—despite its foundational role in the establishment of the U.S. political economy—and the life-altering damage that powerful white men, predominantly, inflicted upon millions of Africans and African Americans through a brutal system that lasted more than 200 years. Contributing to the process of whitewashing the histories and geographies of slavery have been the large absences of many academic disciplines to engage in critical research on chattel slavery until relatively recently. Since the 1960s, geographers have increasingly grappled with the discipline’s racist and imperialist past, engaging in “critical” studies that have advanced the discipline and added emphases on social justice, drawing upon diverse social theories such as Marxism, feminism, Critical Race Theory, and postmodernism. My dissertation builds upon this scholarship in developing a critical historical geographic understanding of slavery and its legacy in the U.S., paying particular attention to the “Deep South” states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In the case of researching slavery, my dissertation argues that the ways in which people in the contemporary South (mis)remember the United States’ history are serious reflections on how contemporary issues of racism and white privilege operate in America. Taking a critical approach to historical geographic research of slavery is not merely an academic process but is inherently political. The dissertation engages with critical historical geographies of slavery by focusing primarily on counter narratives of slavery—“counter” in the sense that they stand in opposition to and correct whitewashed, dominant narratives that purport slavery was a mostly benign, patriarchal system. Further, it examines social and economic relations that operate to perpetuate these mythic perceptions of the United States’ chattel slavery system. The overarching research goal is to study the processes through which people form, operationalize, and can advance counter narratives of slavery.
Geographies of Holocaust Memory
Stemming from my master’s research, studying and teaching about the Holocaust, genocide, the geographies of memory surrounding these tragic situations form the second intellectual strand of my academic interests. Although I have had to put these interests somewhat on the “back burner” while working on my dissertation, I have tried to keep up with recent geographic scholarship on the Holocaust and its geographies of memory, including attending a series of Holocaust Geography sessions at the 2015 AAG meeting in Chicago, organized in part by the wonderful Anne Kelly Knowles whose new book Geographies of the Holocaust I still need to purchase and read… This line of research helped shape my early publication record, including an article co-authored with my master’s advisor on the Stolpersteine memorial project in Berlin and a book chapter on empathy and Holocaust memory in a book that should be out later this year from Cambridge Scholars publishing. I think there would be some fruitful analysis that could come from a close/critical comparison of the historical geographies of the Holocaust and the US slavery system, and I want to engage with and think through these connections after I am past the dissertation phase of my life into (hopefully) an academic career.
Geography in Film and Media
All film has a geography, if for no other reason than that it was filmed or created somewhere. Beyond that deceptively simple concept, however, I believe that film and other media forms (such as TV, YouTube and other online video series, even stand-up comedy and the daily news) are “low-hanging fruit” for scholarly analysis. While I would hesitate to call myself a cinephile, I do have an interest in viewing, analyzing, and “reading” (the metaphor of film as text) media for their potential cultural importance and their geographic themes.
One such example of this work can be found in my dissertation research (and planned research beyond grad school) on the recent spate of films and other media addressing the topic of U.S. Slavery. These include 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and the “Ask A Slave” web series. Another example of how I use film comes in the classroom. Over the last year or so, I have begun to develop assignments for Intro-level World Geography and Geography of the (US) South classes that require students to watch, analyze, and critique films. The assignments are designed to introduce students to the importance of film globally (pushing GEOG 101 students to watch foreign films), to geography (suggesting documentaries that focus on geographic themes), and also to regional identity (so for example, getting Geography of the South students to delve into Southern “icon” films like Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation but also more recent films like 12 Years a Slave or The Help). If you are interested in using or viewing these assignments, please contact me or leave a comment on this page.