May 13, 2013
UPDATE: Curator interview reveals more historical information about the cabin.
Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina, had more than 170 slaves before the Civil War working in the fields to pick Sea Island cotton. Not much evidence of the slaves’ daily toil exists now, though, except for a couple one-story, dilapidated cabins–the last physical reminders of the brutal and degrading living conditions of the enslaved, as well as an emblem of the strength and endurance of the nearly four million Americans living in bondage by the time of the war.
Today, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) announced the acquisition of one of these 19th-century cabins, which was donated by the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society last month after they received it from the plantation’s current owners. The cabin will travel to its new home at the Smithsonian to preserve the story it stands for.
Slave cabins are held in other museums and collections around the country. However, NMAAHC focused on acquiring one from Edisto Island, says curator Nancy Bercaw, who is in South Carolina this week to oversee the relocation project, is that the Point of Pines plantation was one of the first places where slaves “self-emancipated” themselves before the Emancipation Proclamation. South Carolina’s coastal islands, Bercaw says, were the earliest territories overtaken by Union troops. Point of Pines became a Union stronghold in 1861, and the African Americans living on the plantation, along with other slaves from around the area who had left their owners, declared themselves free.
Museum representatives just arrived at the plantation this morning to begin the week-long process of taking the cabin apart, piece by piece, and driving it up to the Washington, DC area. Officials say that every board and nail will be carefully numbered and packaged for shipment. The cabin eventually will be reconstructed inside the African American History and Culture Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015.
Already, dismantling the cabin and examining the site has revealed details about the plantation’s slave community, says Bercaw. The cabin is now understood to have been part of a larger “slave street,” which consisted of up to 25 similarly small dwellings built in a row along a road. Bercaw and her team are working with Low Country Africana, too, to interview local descendents of the slaves. Their stories will supplement the documentation of the community’s history.
“The Point of Pines slave cabin will help us share the living history of a place and the resilience of the people, who, in the darkest days of slavery, built the cabin, cleared the land, worked in the fields and raised their families there,” says Bercaw. “The cabin will be one of the jewels of the museum positioned at its center to tell the story of slavery and freedom within its walls.”
Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, says: “Slavery is one of the most important episodes in American history, but it is often the least understood. By exhibiting this cabin, NMAAHC will ensure that the rich, complex and difficult story of the enslaved will be made accessible for the millions who will visit the museum.”
The cabin will be the focal piece of the museum’s exhibition “Slavery and Freedom,” which examines slavery’s role in shaping America and its lasting impact on African Americans.
The Museum currently is in the early stages of construction, but stop by its recently opened onsite Welcome Center to preview what is to come.
May 6, 2013
“None of us know the Lord’s will,” Burtis J. “Bert” Dolan wrote to his wife about his journey on the new airship, the Hindenburg. He had purchased his ticket for the trip on May 1, 1937, two days before setting off from Frankfurt, Germany. It cost him 1,000 RM, equivalent to about $450 during the Great Depression, according to the National Postal Museum. His ticket survived the disaster on May 6, 1937. He did not. He died, along with 35 others.
The exhibit, “Fire and Ice,” which opened in spring 2012 for the 75th anniversary, included never-before-seen discoveries like the map of the Hindenburg’s route across the Atlantic, but now, thanks to the Dolan family, it will also include what may be the only surviving passenger ticket from the disaster.
Had Dolan not listened to his friend, Nelson Morris, and changed his travel plans, he would’ve headed back from Europe by sea. But Morris persuaded him to try the passenger airship and surprise his family with an early return. It was the perfect plan for Mothers Day and so Dolan agreed. When the airship caught fire just before docking at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, Morris jumped from a window with Dolan behind him. But Dolan never made it.
Not knowing he was on board, Dolan’s wife learned of her husband’s involvement through Morris’ family and, along with the rest of the country, followed the newsreel and audio reports from the disaster that made headlines. Debates continue about what caused the initial spark and ensuing flame that consumed the ship within 34 seconds.
As part of the museum’s exhibit “Fire and Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic,” visitors to the National Postal Museum can view Dolan’s ticket and passport and learn more about the disasters that still captivate audiences.
May 3, 2013
When Christopher Columbus set off across the Atlantic in search of a Western route to Asia, the continent became a footnote in the discovery of America. But before the country was even founded, Asians and Asian Americans have played integral roles in the American story. Some chapters of that history are well known: the impact of Chinese railroad workers or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But countless others have been overlooked.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a new traveling show developed by by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center seeks to provide a more complete story of Asian American history. Now on view at the American History Museum, the exhibition “I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” begins with the pre-Columbian years and spans the centuries, to tell of the Asian experience with a series of posters featuring archival images and beautiful illustrations that eventually will travel the country. A condensed set of exhibition materials will also be distributed to 10,000 schools nationwide as teaching tools.
Though often marginalized with legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asian Americans were central to American history, “from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement,” explains Konrad Ng, director of the Asian Pacific American Center.
The densely packed exhibit resonates with many of today’s conversations around immigration, identity and representation. Beneath the broad banner of Asian American identity dwells a deeper, more diverse set of experiences. The Puna Singh family, for example, represents a unique blending of cultures that occurred when Punjabi men–unable to immigrate with Indian brides–became employed in agriculture in the West, and met and started families with female Mexican fieldworkers. “The story of Asian Americans,” says Lawrence Davis, who worked on the exhibition, “is very much one that’s not in isolation.”
The Asian experience is one that includes a diversity of cultures and countries. As early as 1635, Chinese merchants were trading in Mexico City. By the 1760s, Filipinos had set up fishing villages in the bayous of New Orleans, and Vietnamese shrimpers and fishermen are a large part of the Coast’s current economy. Asian Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War, including two brothers, who were the sons of the famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng, brought to the U.S. by circus-owner P.T. Barnum. In 1898, Wong Kim Ark, a Chinese American, won a landmark Supreme Court case, which established the precedent of birthright citizenship. In the 1960s, Filipino workers marched alongside Cesar Chavez for farm workers’ rights.
The exhibit borrows its title from the 20th-century Filipino American poet, Carlos Bulosan who wrote:
Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers,
I say I want the wide American earth
For all the free.
I want the wide American earth for my people.
I want my beautiful land.
I want it with my rippling strength and tenderness
Of love and light and truth
For all the free.
“When he arrived in the U.S., like most immigrant stories, it wasn’t easy,” says Ng of the poet. “And yet he still came to love this country.” Despite the hardship, discrimination and even vilifying, many Asian Americans came to love this country as well, and from that love, they improved it and became an integral part of it.
Though Ng had a hard time singling out any favorite chapter from the show, he says many present “new ways to think about the community,” including the politics of international adoption, the spread of Asian food cultures and much more.
“I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” will be on display at the American History Museum through June 18, 2013 before traveling to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
April 23, 2013
In the early 20th-century, southern black musicians found the devil in the harmonica. The cheap and portable instrument was made by Germans for use in traditional European waltzes and marches, but when it made its way to America’s Southern neighborhoods, black musicians began to develop a totally new way of playing, which bent the harmonica’s sound (quite literally) to fit the style of the country’s increasingly popular “devil’s music,” or rather, the blues.
In Classic Harmonica Blues, out May 21 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, producers Barry Lee Pearson and Jeff Place capture the last century’s most talented players on 20 tracks from the Folkways archive and from live recordings made at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Recently we talked to Pearson about the album, and below is an excerpt of our conversation, in which he discusses playing the harmonica backwards, the instrument’s voice-like qualities and the importance of making any instrument speak your own language.
What inspired this album?
As a teacher, I found the harmonica to have one of the most interesting traditions. When African Americans picked up the instrument in the 20th-century, they completely transformed it into something it had never been intended to be played as in Europe. To me, that is such a remarkable demonstration of the power of tradition. You don’t just take and play an instrument the way it was built to be played. The music is inside you, and you take that instrument and you try to recreate the way you think music should be played. That’s what African Americans did.
How was the harmonica originally intended to be played?
The harmonica is a transverse reed instrument that was invented in Germany in the 19th-century by clock makers. There are many different kinds, but the one that took off was made by Hohner, who started to mass produce his models. Harmonicas come in a variety of keys, and they are created to be played in those keys—so if you have a C harmonica, you play in the key of C by blowing through the reeds.
What did African American musicians change?
African American traditions use a different scale than European traditions, so they could not play some of their notes on the harmonica. That is, until someone figured out that you could bend a harmonica’s notes. If you play a harmonica backwards—that is, suck air in, in what is now called “cross harp” or “second position”—you can take notes and force them down a pitch or two. It’s really a completely different technique. It coincides with this love for instruments to sound like the voice, to make the instrument say what you say, and to make it warmer, more expressive of the voice’s emotional timbres. In the blues, a harmonica can cry and whoop and holler.
How did you decide which tracks to put on the album?
I’ve always been interested in the relation of Smithsonian Folkways to our region [the mid-Atlantic]. Other places have better delta blues, but New York really was the center of the local music world, for so many people from North Carolina and places like that. So we’ve got a lot of Piedmont and Appalachian traditions on here. Most importantly, it hit me that a lot of this stuff just hadn’t been heard very much by a new generation. A lot of the folks I hang out with have kind of a jaded attitude towards some of the stars of the past, because they’ve heard them all their lives. But a lot of younger people coming along don’t feel this way at all. So we’ve got the legends on here, like Sonny Terry. Younger listeners will be in awe of these artists, rather than say, “Oh, that’s Sonny Terry, I’ve got all his albums already.” I wanted to put a product out there that would be fresh to a new generation.
What are you hoping this new generation of listeners takes away from these songs?
I hope people might want to think more about the harmonica, and maybe try it out. I also would like them to understand that you can play it in a variety of ways. You can bend an instrument to your cultural preference. If you put your mind to it, you can make an instrument talk for you, in the language that you prefer—in your own cultural idiom.
Any favorite tracks?
I’m very fond of Doctor Ross. I wrote a piece on him in Living Blues back in the 1980s. “Chicago Breakdown,” a Doctor Ross cut [track 17], is one of my all-time favorite songs.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on January 7, 2007, he said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that…changes everything….Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
The iPhone has proved even more revolutionary than Jobs understood, as its role in the remarkable capture of the Boston Marathon bombers illustrated. In the wake of the bombing, the FBI asked for crowdsourcing assistance to identify suspects. The digital sites Reddit and 4chan were instantly swamped by a “general cybervibe” of shared digital information sent from iPhones and video surveillance cameras. It was a stunning interaction between citizens and law enforcement.
This interaction is currently very high on the media radar screen. In the Washington Post, Craig Timberg recently wrote about the technologies that can produce “access to unprecedented troves of video imagery” and information about location data emitted by cellphones. In their recent book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Google executive chairman Jared Cohen and Google director of ideas Eric Schmidt describe how a camera will “zoom in on an individual’s eye, mouth and nose, and extract a ‘feature vector’” that creates a biometric signature. This signature is what law enforcement focused on following the Boston bombing, according to Schmidt and Cohen, in an excerpt from their book, published last week in the Wall Street Journal.
A media appeal from law enforcement is not new. John Walsh’s television program, “America’s Most Wanted,” is credited with capturing 1,149 fugitives between 1988 and 2011. But the stakes have sky-rocketed in the digital age, and the issue of unfiltered social media information has proved problematic. In the midst of the Boston manhunt, Alexis Madigal wrote for the Atlantic that the crowdsourcing flood revealed “well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight” of their rush to judgment: “This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline. . .”
In a story on April 20th, the Associated Press reported that “Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4chan, smartphones, and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detectives. . . . .” The problem of inevitable mistakes, the AP noted, illustrated the unintended consequences of law enforcement “deputizing the public for help.” Reddit is a giant message board divided into subsections similar to local newspapers, except that users are the content providers. In the Boston case, users viewed their assistance as “a citizen responsibility” and engulfed the digital sites with every possible piece of “evidence.”
On the PBS News Hour April 19th, Will Oremus of Slate said that Reddit is unmediated democracy in action—a site where everyone gets to vote on what rises to the top of the page as the headlined feature. The lack of a filter means mistakes will be made, but Oremus argued that the potential for good superseded the bad. He also suggested that the Boston experience, where innocent people were momentarily tagged as suspects, illustrated how complex the learning curve is going to be.
It has certainly been a learning curve for me. I was intending to write here about a fascinating new book, Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison, when I found myself scurrying around exploring “Reddit” and “4chan.” But as it happens, there are intriguing parallels between the advent of revolutionary technology a century ago and today’s media metamorphosis.
In the Gilded Age, Freeberg writes, society “witnessed mind-bending changes in communication. . .hardly imagined beforehand.” Their generation was the first “to live in a world shaped by perpetual invention,” and Edison personified the age with his contributions to the light bulb, the phonograph, and moving pictures.
As in the digital age today, the greatest impact then was not simply the invention itself but the invention’s consequences. There were no rules: For example, how should street lighting be constructed–should there be one giant arc light, or a series of lights lining the streets? Freeberg also explains how standards were developed for the use of electricity, and how professions evolved to implement those standards.
One of my favorite stories in The Age of Edison describes how electricity affected public behavior: people accustomed to lurching home from saloons in gaslight’s forgiving darkness were now exposed to public opprobrium by electricity’s illumination. Electricity, Freeberg suggests, was “a subtle form of social control.” Neighbors peering from behind curtains were the cultural antecedents of today’s surveillance cameras.
Like Steve Jobs did in the 21st century, Freeburg writes that “Edison invented a new style of invention.” But in both cases, what became important were the ramifications—the unintended consequences.