I was driving home and listening to one of my least favorite shows on National Public Radio – Marketplace – when they did a short feature on history-buff tourism in the United States. A nice break from endless musings on the meaning of housing markets, loan rates, control of inflation, etc. The sort of stuff that bores me, but that’s just me. Also a nice break from the idea of tourism as simply blanking out one’s mind at a beach or amusement park. People going somewhere to learn something or see something they were taught about. Or, better, something about which they taught themselves. I like that.
But this wasn’t just a story about tourism to, say, the Liberty Bell and the like. Nothing like that good and important patriotism, you know, the kind that ruminates on the possibilities and promises of the United States (who doesn’t like liberty, really?). I actually like that stuff and feel happy that folks are drawn to it. No, the NPR story concerned the recent boom in Civil War battle sites as tourism destinations. Turns out folks spend more money at historical sites than they do at beach sites. Stunning. Promising? Sure. The problem, however, is how we talk about something called a Civil War memorial site.
The story, typical public radio fare: reporter, with a “Civil War historian,” walks around a site of a particularly bloody battle just south of Nashville, Tennessee. There’s a lot of talk about how local people decided to forgo commemoration, choosing instead to forget this chapter in local history. Voice-over, sounds of crunching leaves, wise historian. And so on. The story has its strange comic high-point (according to the reporterly flow) when, while walking around, they find a golf ball buried in the dirt. Turns out this historical site is actually a golf course, though preservation groups have purchased the land in order to develop it into a historical tourism destination. The word came up a few times, even, a word I’ve always chilled when hearing: plantation. The outrage, which drove the “humor” of the moment, was that a golf ball was on the grounds of a plantation…
I fixated on this golf ball moment. It was supposed to evoke an icky feeling about how something so historic had become crassly and uninterestingly commercial. Golf at a Civil War battle site? Gasp!
I get that. But that very moment of the story was just preceded by an incredible reference, true or not: new-ish residents scrubbing blood off the walls. The scrubbing off of blood connected nicely to the golf ball. Once you’ve gotten rid of bloody history, you make space for open and crass commercialism.
You can see where this is going, right? I’m tempted to claim – and it would be speculative about motives – that historical tourism is always a washing away of blood, that people enjoying vacation and buying trinkets can’t sustain painful memories of war and loss. But I’m not saying that. Actually, I have faith in history buffs, that they come somewhere to learn or see their knowledge in person. Stand in the place they’ve read about, thought about, maybe even had very sad feelings about. So, I’m not per se opposed to historical tourism on grounds of commercialism…though I remain always suspicious of the trinket market’s power to render pain and loss a commodity, and therefore a spectacle.
What I want to note, to be quite straightforward, is that the very reportage and historical reconstruction of this site (as with other Civil War battleground sites in the South) washes off the blood of slavery, even as it might seek to re-paint or re-surface the blood of the soldiers who died in this or that battle. This is the other golf ball, so to speak, that the reporter and “expert” fail to find, even though it is the very theme of their reflections as they walk through the soon-to-be historical site. Think about it: what is the difference between calling this site a place of mourning and remembering the dead soldiers (Union and Confederate, of course, with no important distinction) and calling this place a farm that enslaved humans and where that revolting institution was (with futility, thankfully) defended to the death? The difference means everything. The latter would put the memory of slavery front and center, that other blood on the walls the reporter and “expert” fail to see as scrubbed off. In fact, they themselves do a good bit of the scrubbing, with no self-consciousness or shame. The former? The idea that this, like so many other grounds, will be a place of morally neutral remembrance? It makes the very condition of its own memory invisible. You cannot have a Civil War without enslaved peoples at this very site. At this very site…that is so important to remember. They come together, this site and this war, yet the memorial reconstruction is, well, revisionist. No matter the good intentions, if in fact those intentions are good at all.
What other ghosts might haunt this plantation? What blood was scrubbed off the walls as the reporter and historian wandered through the grounds? Who is responsible for that scrubbing? I’m wondering how all of this links back to the questions of slavery apology in Alabama (and other places), how the resistance to that apology is never matched by those who might object to the neutralizing of the dead Confederate soldiers (they defended slavery to the death, after all), how that memory and the forgiveness of their pro-slavery “worldview” is allowed to live in public spaces across the South…
In the end, I guess I’m just making the simple point that our remembering at these so-called “historical sites” is sadly degenerated. That’s why I was so interested in the re-sailing of the Amistad to Africa and back. Our remembering is degenerated. Degenerated past the point of recognition of the actual events – the history! – putatively remembered by visitors. And that we can’t really come to terms, after all of these years, with the very thing that defined our nineteenth century: slavery. What a shame, too, that for all of our love of history – proven, really, because so much money is spent there (we are Americans, after all) – we can’t come face to face with its most basic sufferings and survivals. Something tells me there is a lot to be learned mourning that pain at these very same sites.