Interpreting African American History if You’re NOT African American

Session on Interpreting African American history and culture, AASLH annual meeting, 2012

Last September, I had the privilege of moderating a session on interpreting African American history at historic sites in a room filled with some of the smartest people in the field during the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.  The panelists–George McDaniel, Pam Green, David Young, and Tanya Bowers–gave outstanding opening remarks but even more engaging was the discussion that followed with the audience.  Because African American history can be a sensitive topic and to demonstrate a way to confront these issues among a group of strangers, I used a technique drawn from Great Tours (page 117).  Each person in the audience was given a 3×5 card and was asked to anonymously complete the sentence, “I would feel more comfortable talking about African American culture and history if…”  Among the responses I received were:

  • I didn’t work at a site that had 150 slaves and is now surrounded by an African American community.
  • it wasn’t so difficult.
  • I knew my visitors had a solid background on the history of slavery.
  • my boss was not so married to the dead white “great man” tour.
  • I knew more definite answers about our particular site.
  • our staff and board included African Americans and we had more African American contacts in the local community.
  • there were more surviving objects to use as spark plugs in museums and conversations with visitors.
  • I knew what words to use.
  • the interpreter began the program acknowledging this is a tough topic and that all questions/views are okay.

Any of those response would have made for a good discussion with the panel, but I received several that stated, “I would feel more comfortable talking about African American culture and history if I were African American,” so I presented it to the panel and audience.  Because the discussion was interesting, thoughtful, and encouraging, I am sharing an edited transcription of the discussion in a four-page pdf handout, which includes a page of resources for more information.  Of course, you are welcome to use this for yourself, but you can also share it with your board, staff, and guides.

4 thoughts on “Interpreting African American History if You’re NOT African American

  1. ljminzes

    As a participant in this session, a very sincere thank you for your post. This session was fantastic and so appropriate for a current project I am working on. It was very reassuring that some of the same views and conclusions expressed by the panel were the same views and conclusions our team had come to in our many discussions. As the session was the last day of the conference, I had a difficult time taking notes quickly enough…Thanks so much for the summary!


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