…Istanbul, not Constantinople. I love that song.
If you’ve spent any time…well…conscious throughout the last decade or so, you’ve inevitably seen moves to change or remove this or that monument, location, object, or whatever. It’s met with equal parts support and opposition, with often equally intense emotions bolstering either side of the arguments. There have been some I have been enormously in support of, and admittedly some that I really didn’t see the need. In both cases, I’m more or less fine with it.
Well, as someone who spends a rather disproportionate amount of their time rummaging around archives and collections and scouring digital archives on the internet to try and flesh out a bit of detail about this or that, which happened potentially hundreds of years ago, it’s…absolutely refreshing. You see, and I’ve mentioned this in earlier posts, it speaks to what I call prescriptive and descriptive takes on researching and presenting history.
I guess it’s worth reminding everyone that I’m an anthropologist and not a historian, so my perspectives are colored by that training.
In descriptive history, one attempts to look into something. Anything. It genuinely doesn’t matter what. It can be the building of an iconic bridge or building, or it can be the day to day lives of colonial New Englanders. But what we do in working on descriptive projects, is make an (inevitably futile) attempt at objective presentation. It really, reeeeeally doesn’t matter what values I have and how they may clash with those of the past. We aim to describe it.
The catch here, is that usually (in my case anyway) I’m digging around archival boxes and reading letters or land deeds or ships’ logs. And the things people were talking about aren’t necessarily what I’m getting at. A good example is one of my current projects (which are all very slow going due to Covid).
Those were the days.
I’m trying to get a better glimpse into the presence/lives of enslaved people in Rhode Island, and more broadly in New England. The vast majority of these people couldn’t write and weren’t really permitted an education. So I’m mostly left with local lore and archival research. In the archives I’ll find all sorts of stuff, but most of what I find doesn’t talk about slavery, and when it does it’s in a very sterile, business sense. Basically nobody is talking about beating the humans they owned. But I have found notes sent to people describing children for sale who fit the general description of what they’re looking for.
I’ve also read descriptions of individuals in diary accounts of slave owners. And I’ve also read “local lore” accounts of Pauledore DeWolfe, who was enslaved by the DeWolfe family of Bristol, which say that he had a legendary clam cake recipe and many people offered to buy it off of him for sometimes large amounts of money, which he always turned down.
There is maybe a 2% chance that that would have gone well for Pauledore, who was living in a state that decades earlier fell into a riot in which a black neighborhood and several black owned business were burned down because several black individuals wouldn’t get off of the sidewalk when a few white individuals were walking by. This wasn’t the only race riot in Rhode Island. Another occurred after being incited by a local newspaper.
It’s also worth mentioning that clam cakes weren’t invented until 1920 anyway.
And so we are often left inferring details from passing mentions in 200 year old/partial first hand accounts, glorified hearsay, and local legends. And so our attempt at truly descriptive history gets zoomed out a bit. From a day to day understanding of the lives of several enslaved individuals we look more broadly at the misunderstood structure of slavery in the northern states, and the presence of plantation slavery in the very town in which I grew up. You look at community among enslaved peoples, and at burial practices that often incorporated West African traditions.
Through it all you piece together a picture of what happens, and that starts painting what inevitably becomes some form of narrative, because you’re trying to tell a story, after all.
With prescriptive presentations of history, things eventually begin to start at the end. “Let’s tell the story of the American Civil War.” Or “Let’s tell the story of Custer’s Last Stand.” You know what happened. You just want to tell it better. These things become the monuments and living history exhibits. And they can be wonderful. But…they tend to be rather permanent. And that’s the snag.
The inevitable outcome of immortalizing events in history as fantastic monuments and short blurbs of events, is that it’s prescriptive. It tells you a very small snippet of what happened, and it’s inevitably colored by the time in which those who set it up live. We wind up viewing our ancestors as pinnacles of morality and without the flaws of “kids these days,” and it’s an almost grotesque distortion of what really happened by the time it reaches the popular understanding.
That’s a problem. Or can be. If absolutely nothing else (like, say, the idolization of slavers to the point you find it unfair to mention the fact that they owned and bred people for profit and labor), it overshadows SO MUCH ELSE that happened.
It can get, and has gotten, to the point where it can feel unfair to discuss other angles of history. As if it’s a movie and you don’t like the spinoffs. There’s nothing at all wrong with the classics. But don’t idolize them at the expense of so many incredible things that have happened.
The funny thing about my two views on history is…at their core, they want to be the same. All history at some point started off as descriptive. It got popular, some aspects were accentuated for tourism or ethnic pride. All three of those things are popular, but popular narratives lead you to think Custer was cool, that the Boston Tea Party was the start of the American Revolution, and that Christopher Columbus was a net useful individual.
But they all started from a point of wanting to understand what happened. And that’s my approach. I’ve referred to it as a “warts and all” approach to historic presentation. I’m not interesting in polishing the vile things that happened, any more than I’m interested in downplaying the wonderful things that happened. I try to strike that balance in what I produce, with varying success. Often times I find myself striking a balance between what everybody knows about and what it is I’m actually unearthing.
Some people don’t like that! I get a kick out of it. As if I have a choice in what happened. So what if Revolutionary War agitator and arguably hero John Brown, was gross and made his fortune in the slave trade? It happened, so I’m talking about it. I’m not going to gloss it over or pretend it didn’t just so history doesn’t make someone uncomfortable. As I said, viewing our ancestors as infallibly moral clouds our willingness to learn.
I’ve gotten comments that I shouldn’t talk about it because “everybody owned slaves,” as if that mitigates the weight of it. To that I say, NOT everybody owned slaves. Not even the entire Brown family were in support of slavery and John Brown wound up falling out with his brothers over it.
It’s gotten to the point where I’ve been accused of talking about “that race shit,” as one eloquent individual who definitely respects history put it.
But enough about me.
There are a lot of comments that these newer narratives, and these renaming of some of our favorite places is somehow erasing history. That one is funny to me. Where did it go? I don’t understand how tweaking a name to invite a broader understanding of what happened can apparently cause a ripple in time that undoes certain events.
I’ve heard it about the name of Rhode Island, I’ve heard it about Plimoth Patuxet dropping the word plantation from its name, not—as some popular press articles like to insinuate—because of the connection of that word with slavery (that’s a legit concern, but the least of it in this case), but rather to include the Native word for the territory in the name in order to invite a broader understanding of the history that happened there and why the place is important.
It…literally does absolutely nothing to the destination or what happened. It does, however, present a broader and more descriptive than prescriptive view of Plimoth.
It’s also worth adding, as the song notes, that this stuff has always happened. It can be jarring to see a beloved haunt under a different name. Change can be tough. It can be uncomfortable to have our rose colored glasses shattered. But it’s always happened. It think maybe it’s part of the beauty of living in a time when information is democratized—we are able to form opinions and openly criticize decisions without fear of being murdered over it. We might have an epic battle with a Facebook adversary, but it could definitely be worse.
So with that said, I leave you with another snippet of the immortal They Might Be Giants’ wonderful cover of Jimmy Kennedy’s 1953 song, Istanbul:
Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople.
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
They’ll be waiting in Istanbul.
And! Thanks to the immutability of history combined with the invention of the internet that allows you to immediately learn about pretty much any topic ever, you won’t be stuck aimlessly wondering the globe in search of Constantinople so you can meet your hot date. You’ll be able to easily learn that it’s Istanbul now.