February 02, 2007

History and story: When "folklore and fact collide"

At the end of my hep cat post the other week, I mentioned all too briefly Chris Barton's post at Bartography about fictionalized versions of history in children's picture books. If you didn't notice the mention or read it then, go read it now (and not too quickly either), and come on back.

Since we started homeschooling three years ago, I've noticed that one question that comes up often in various home education online groups is "How do I teach history when I don't know much myself?" or "Which books are accurate?" or "How do I know which books are accurate?" Usually parents ask about solid books with unimpeachable research that they, often lacking the knowledge themselves, can trust. There's no easy answer beyond doing your own homework and a lot of reading before you teach your kids.

I was reminded last week of this dilemma and Chris's post while reading The New York Times article, "In [Frederick] Douglass Tribute, Slave Folklore and Fact Collide" (as usual, try Bug Me Not if you don't want to bother with free registration at The Times):
At the northwest corner of Central Park, construction is under way on Frederick Douglass Circle, a $15.5 million project honoring the escaped slave who became a world-renowned orator and abolitionist.

Beneath an eight-foot-tall sculpture of Douglass, the plans call for a huge quilt in granite, an array of squares, a symbol in each, supposedly part of a secret code sewn into family quilts and used along the Underground Railroad to aid slaves. Two plaques would explain this.

The only problem: According to many prominent historians, the secret code — the subject of a popular book that has been featured on no less a cultural touchstone than “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — never existed. And now the city is reconsidering the inclusion of the plaques, so as not to “publicize spurious history,” Kate D. Levin, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, said yesterday. ...

It’s “a myth, bordering on a hoax,” said David Blight, a Yale University historian who has written a book about Douglass and edited his autobiography. “To permanently associate Douglass’s life with this story instead of great, real stories is unfortunate at best.”

The quilt theory was first published in the 1999 book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline Tobin, a journalist and college English instructor from Denver, and Raymond Dobard, a quilting and African textiles expert. It was based on the recollections of Ozella McDaniel Williams, a teacher in Los Angeles who became a quiltmaker in Charleston, S.C. “Ozella’s code,” the book says, was handed down from slave times from mother to daughter. Ms. Williams died in 1998.
In fact, one of the first books to suggest the idea of the quilt as a form of secret code is the 1993 children's fiction picture book, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, who never tried to cloak her story as history (its follow-up, Under the Quilt of Night, is slightly less decisive). However, according to the Amazon page for the book, one reader's review of Sweet Clara states, "This is one of many books I purchased as a learning tool for the Education Committee of our local quilt guild. It's instrumental in showing our young people some of the history of quilting." Oh dear.

While there's certainly a place for folklore in history, it should always be identified as myth and not passed off as fact. Unfortunately, since the publication of both Sweet Clara and, six years later, Tobin's Hidden in Plain View, the idea of the quilt code has taken off as history and spawned, or has been included in, a number of children's books:

The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud

The Secret to Freedom by Marcia Vaughan

The Mystery on the Underground Railroad by Carole Marsh

The Underground Railroad for Kids: From Slavery to Freedom with 21 Activities by Mary Kay Carson

Even National Geographic, which should know better, perpetuates the myth in a lesson plan, telling teachers to "Have students look at pictures and (for advanced readers) read about African-American quilting traditions. Ask them to look for quilting practices that might have helped slaves teach each other about the routes to freedom. Have the students describe the quilts they see and discuss how these long-established African quilting traditions may have helped slaves in the United States understand how to use quilts to communicate. Ask students if they think they would be able to effectively communicate important ideas with quilts."

In these books, the line between fact and fiction is pretty blurred, not just for younger children who aren't yet able to conduct their own research or know yet to question the source but for their unknowing parents and teachers as well.

Home educating parents and classroom teachers alike often prefer a "living books" approach, since real stories, especially when they're beautifully illustrated, are a wonderfully engaging way to attract and hold children's interest in a subject, not to mention an easy way to liven up what is often dismissed as "dry and dusty" history. And both home educating parents and teachers can have trouble teasing the myth from history; according to The Times article, "The codes are frequently taught in elementary schools (teachers have been eager to take up the quilting-codes theory because of its useful pedagogic elements — a secret code, artwork and a story of triumph), and the patterns represent a small industry within quiltmaking."

As Shelley Pearsall, who writes children's historical fiction, notes at the very worthwhile and comprehensive Underground Railroad Quilt website (for more on this site keep reading, below):
[The "Quilt Code"] enables schools to keep from tackling the realities of the runaway slave experience. I think it also diminishes the incredible courage, guts, and individual determination the journey required. There were no quilts -- there was hunger, there was fear, there was illness, there was bad weather, there was frequent misinformation and losing your way -- it was not a lovely journey of hopping from one quilt pattern to the next.
Mentioned just above, a solid source of information on the myth of the quilt code is Leigh Fellner's Underground Railroad/Quilt website, a "greatly expanded" version of Fellner's March 2003 article for Traditional Quiltworks magazine, and one of the few websites I've ever come across with a bibliography. Be sure to scroll all the way down on the website's main page. I've had this site bookmarked for a while, and was glad to see it included in J.L. Bell's Boston 1775 post on The Times article -- where Bell also notes that "there are many elementary school lesson plans about the 'quilt code,' despite all the serious historical questions" (and don't miss his paper on “grandmothers’ stories” of the Revolution). I'm pleased to see that Fellner updated the website as recently as last month. It includes a wealth of information, with a variety of links and the aforementioned bibliography/list of resources, including links to the article, Young Readers at Risk: Quilt Patterns and the Underground Railroad by Deborah Foley of Culver Academies; primary sources from the University of North Carolina, Library of Congress, and elsewhere; and, also from Culver Academies, a lesson plan of "Search Strategies for Researching the Lives of African Americans".

Beyond the quilt code myth, an excellent choice for adults is Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory edited by the aforementioned Dr. Blight of Yale, who specializes in historical memory; some of his other books include Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory and Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War.

In a similar vein as Passages to Freedom but meant for children is Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad by Joyce Hansen, Gary McGowan (published in 2003 by Cricket Books), mentioned by JoVE the other day; she writes,
"While the topic is the underground railroad (and it appears to have lots of good historical information on that), the approach is very focused on how historians know what they know. Each chapter looks at a different type of evidence and assesses its value and how it would be used by historians. I only skimmed the book but it looks like it is well presented with lots of pictures of actual artifacts, record books, etc. It also deals with how historians use a variety of sources to build up a picture of what happened."
I haven't seen the book but I'm intrigued and would be interested to hear from JoVE, Mother Crone, and others who've read and used it with children. According to the Booklist review at Amazon, "the authors examine the origins and development of the Underground Railroad, with a special focus on the varieties and limitations of historical evidence. ... Valuable as much for its approach as for its specific topic." A good lesson to learn regardless of the historical event or era.

Memory is a funny thing. Modern impressions of some events -- such as the quilt code or, say, Pickett's charge at the Battle of Gettysburg -- are based on myths and legends rather than on historical evidence. The interesting part, of course, is learning how and why those myths and legends arose in the first place, and then changed over time. Speaking of Pickett's charge, Pickett's Charge in History and Memory by Carol Reardon is terrific book (and just out in paperback). Yes, Reardon is a military historian, so you might be thinking of edging your way toward the nearest exit or at least a more popular David McCullough title. But give her book a chance if you're interested in how to teach and learn history. It's hard to find a better lesson about primary sources, how memory even indavertently manipulates public opinion, and the dangers of accepting even primary accounts of historical events as truth, colored as they can be by personal biases.

Other good books and articles:

The classic mystery novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, published in 1952. Tey's protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, spends the entire book in a hospital bed. Where, bored by his confinement, he becomes fascinated with a portrait of Richard III and decides to delve into the mystery of the murder of the little princes in the Tower and the accuracy of Shakespeare's portrayal of the murderous hunchback. As Grant discovers, it's the victors who tend to write history.

Would JFK Have Pulled Us Out of Vietnam?: A tantalizing archival discovery suggests the perils of historical evidence, an article by Sheldon M. Stern, director of the American History Project for High School Students at the John F. Kennedy Library

Also by Sheldon Stern, the article Evidence! Evidence! All You People Talk about is Evidence!, at the Organization of American Historians website; the article was originally published in the March 1998 issue of History Matters!, the newsletter of the National Council for History Education.

Lesson plans from the Library of Congress, including The Historian's Sources and Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

Hardhat History, a website established by Professor Tom Isern originally for his undergraduate and graduate students at North Dakota State University "in their development as historical scholars".

James (Lies My Teacher Teacher Told Me) Loewen's Tips for Teachers, including Ideas for Dealing with Textbooks, Books and Periodicals Suggesting Alternate Approaches in History Teaching, Teaching American History Through Imaginative Literature ("American literature usefully ties in with American history, so long as that literature is historically accurate," writes Loewen), and more.

The American Historical Association's Guidelines for the preparation, evaluation and selection of history textbooks

And finally, even if you haven't discovered the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died recently, this appreciation today by Verlyn Klinkenborg of The New York Times:
Where does the truth of history lie? In coups and revolutions, in wars and treaties and the chronicles of our textbook heroes and antiheroes? Or does it lie in the pulse of ordinary life, in a dailiness that looks almost hallucinatory if you venture outside it? I think of Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died at 74 on Jan. 23, as an emissary between those two versions of history. His writing life divides between the conventional reporting he did for the Polish press agency PAP — a voluntary slavery, as he described it, that made the whole world available to him — and the literary journalism that has found its way into books like Imperium, The Soccer War and The Emperor.

He was both witness and reporter, and an enduring reminder of the fact that the two are not the same.
Read the last bit here, and read some Ryszard, too.

Updated, as I'm still going through The Times (in between bouts of wrestling the basement into shape before our departure and beginning to pack), to add today's op-ed piece, "History's Tangled Threads," by journalist and historian Fergus Bordewich in reply to last week's article. Mr. Bordewich is the author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (2005). Also worth reading is his original blog post the other year on the myth and reality of the Underground Railroad.

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