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Alan Singer

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"You Don't Own Frederick Douglass"

Posted: 01/10/12 03:54 PM ET

On Saturday January 7, 2012 I took students from a teacher education class at Hofstra University to the New-York Historical Society exhibition "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn!" Although I am critical of the exhibit, I thought it important that teachers and future teachers see it and draw their own conclusions.

In front of the society building are statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In an earlier post, I suggested that Lincoln and Douglass, if they were alive today, would probably be picketing the exhibit because of its historical inaccuracies. As an old '60s radical, I can't resist a little political theater so I hung a sign on the Frederick Douglass statue:

Warning: The exhibits at the New-York Historical Society are ideologically driven and plagued by historical inaccuracy. View critically and use at your own risk. Be suspicious when White men tell the story about how they made the world better for Black people.

I also wore a homemade t-shirt with the same message when I entered the society. The two young women at the front desk were eager to take my admission. Not only did they comment positively on my shirt, but one of them took a picture. However, as I started up the stairs with my students to the exhibit on the second floor a young man ran after me and ordered me to return with him to the main office.

He demanded to know who I was, informed me that the society was a private institution, and asked me to leave. I said I had been invited by both the curator of the exhibit and the president of the board of the New-York Historical Society to visit the exhibit and to bring students. I explained he could see the invitations online or call them if he wanted to check. They would know who I am.

At the office, we were met by a security guard who wanted to know if I had hung the "warning" sign on the statute. When I answered affirmatively, I was told the statute of Frederick Douglass was private property and if I did it again they would call the police and have me arrested. I responded, "You don't own Frederick Douglass."

However, since I did not have another sign with me, and did not plan to get arrested, I agreed not to hang another sign on their statue of Douglass.

There was some question about my walking around their building while wearing my t-shirt, but they let me return to my class if I carried a jacket with me while they sorted out the issue. They also assigned a different young man to join my class for the tour. He was very friendly, seemed to enjoy my comments on the exhibit, and he and I shook hands at the end of our visit.

Mistakenly, I thought Roger Hertog, chairman of the New-York Historical Society, was my friend. Recently, he sent me an email to make sure I knew about "a half-hour history of the society and its museum that aired recently on PBS... explaining our mission, our ups and downs over the last couple of hundred years, and our remarkable collections." His email even included a link to the video.

My friend Roger added that he wanted me to become a member, increase my membership level, or even join the Chairman's Council. If that was not enough, he sent me his office phone number in case I had any questions.

However, it turns out the New-York Historical Society wants me to donate money but it is not that interested in my views on history or their exhibits. Richard Rabinowitz, president of the for-profit American History Workshop and the chief curator and writer for "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn," posted a reply to my review of the exhibit on the History News Network. He titled it, "Did Alan Singer Actually See the Exhibition?" Well Richard, I did! Twice.

Dr. Rabinowitz opened by stating: "First, let me lay to rest Singer's absurd allegation that the exhibition submits to the right-wing 'political direction being imposed [on N-YHS] by Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman.'" He insisted "I never met with Messrs. Gilder or Lehrman in the course of work on this exhibition or discussed the public interpretation of slavery with them. I do not know whether they have funded this exhibition or not." However, he conceded "Like hundreds of other historians, teachers, and students, I have benefited from their generosity to major institutions in our field."

That actually is the heart of the matter, in both politics and historical work. Do people shape their beliefs and actions, perhaps subconsciously, because that is where the money is? Dr. Rabinowitz's "explanation" reminded of a quote by Upton Sinclair, a muckraker, author, and political activist who ran for governor of California during the Great Depression. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

The main thrust of this exhibit, as it has been in previous exhibits on slavery and the slave trade at the New-York Historical Society, is that slavery was an evil, but because of its commitments to liberty (rights) and democracy (popular rule) the United States has overcome this evil. My view is that the history of the United States is much more complex.

For example, the exhibit presents the free press in the British American colonies as a major part of the democratizing process. However, it does not mention that early American publishers, including John Peter Zenger, supported their newspapers and pamphlets by printing advertisements for the recapture of escaped slaves. This has been well documented in the work of historian Graham Russell Hodges.

The exhibit also neglects the role played by ordinary people like sailors, slaves and commoners, what historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker called the "many-headed hydra," in defining the culture of the revolutionary Atlantic. Lastly, while the exhibit and the New-York Historical Society, celebrate the triumph of liberty, they completely ignore the continuing impact of racism and imperialism on shaping the United States and the world.

In his response to my review, Dr. Rabinowitz accused me of locating "single sentences within secondary or tertiary level interpretive panels" and elevating them "arbitrarily to the status of 'major themes'" that I then dismissed as "platitudinous or even worse, as inaccurate." Did Richard Rabinowitz actually see the exhibition? There are only about two-dozen panels, none of which are secondary or tertiary, and what I identified as the major themes, are the major themes identified in the exhibit.

Dr. Rabinowitz feels I focused two much on the interpretive panels and not enough on the actual artifacts. The problem is that it is the panels that provide the narrative and present the meaning of the artifacts to the audience, an audience that can appreciate their beauty and antiquity, but can hardly read them and is not in a position to provide an alternative explanation of events.

One last thing. At the conclusion of his response to my review, Richard Rabinowitz asks, "why did the professor bother to visit the exhibition? He might as easily have asked me to send him all the interpretive texts via email and he could have saved himself the train and subway fare from Long Island."

Actually, I live in Brooklyn, a few blocks from the curator. I believe, apparently unlike Dr. Rabinowitz, that it is okay for historians to disagree without getting nasty with each other (I never mentioned his name in my review which might be what really galls him), and that our disagreements are an essential part of making meaning out of the past. I also want to repeat, you and the New-York Historical Society may be very rich, but you do not own Frederick Douglass and you do not own me.

By the way, I don't take Dr. Rabinowitz's comments personally and I will email him copies of this and all my future posts and I welcome his replies.