We Won’t Be Talking about Slavery: Public History by Bike

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A colleague of mine with a large fan base recently tweeted that his reason for getting a PhD was a love for writing and teaching. People will confess to almost anything on social media, even their worst afflictions. I, for one, sympathized. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how a slight adjustment to this combination of loves might have led to an entirely different and more appealing life-path.

If one loved biking and teaching, for instance, one could lead bike tours in some historically rich city, like New Orleans. This is on my mind because I recently went on a half-day bike tour of New Orleans with my family, and we were taught quite a lot by our knowledgeable guide, John.

For instance: The French settled first near what is now called Bayou St. John. Soon they came to realize that the water, the air, and the mosquitoes were less of a problem a few miles away, where the Indians just happened to be living. That was where we were standing right now, John explained, the highest ground in the city of New Orleans, beside Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Yeah, John said, they forced the Indians off the prime real estate and just took it for themselves. Sad story, but there you go. With dismissing phrases and gestures like these, John seemed to suggest that there was a lot we could talk about that we weren’t going to talk about.

“We won’t be talking about slavery,” he added.

The comment struck me, and I understood it in several ways. Sometimes the light will dim in the eyes of my students in the US History survey, as if to say, “He’s going to talk about slavery again, kill me now.” All I can say is, I know, I know. The topic can bring you down.

This semester I’m teaching an upper level African American history course for undergraduates, and I’ve about had it with the topic myself. Trying to cover all my bases for a class on Nat Turner, I finally got around to watching “The Birth of a Nation,” the recent film by Nate Parker. In one early passage, Nat’s master is renting him out to preach obedience to the slaves on neighboring plantations. Here the film punches hard, depicting the cruel squalor and indignity whites forced on blacks in order to profit off them, their flesh and their lifeblood. “I’ve had enough,” I remember thinking.

John’s customers were folks on vacation. They weren’t looking for a heavy ordeal.

I read an article once by a guide who gave tours at a southern plantation, who had to deal regularly with a hostile contingent eager to argue whether slavery was as bad as everyone wanted you to think. “We won’t be talking about slavery,” made sense from this angle, too. John would want to nip that kind of controversy in the bud. He wouldn’t want to get into it with some idiot with an ax to grind. His job was to keep things upbeat and move us along.

John was a ropey, tall man, forty-ish, weathered, very slim, some cool tats, a notable haircut. Later I asked my kids what they remembered about him. My daughter described his earrings and polished nails. My son remembered his zip-up leather jacket and how quickly he spoke. Both liked him. I liked him, too, but also took a professional interest. We would bike for a while, and then he’d gather us somewhere and deliver a blast of information. Sometimes you have to talk fast when you’re on a schedule and trying to fit it all in. His talks were like my lectures, not delivered each time word-for-word but very well-practiced, all the same. He would state a point, a concept, fill in some detail, give an example or two, and then come back and restate the point. He was doing what I try to do, to usher a few bits of information through my students’ brains, from the short- to the long-term memory.

And doing a good job of it, too. There were a number of things I learned on the tour that I’m not likely to forget. The difference between a balcony, a gallery, and a veranda. The technology of an above ground tomb. The sixty years of French rule, the forty years of Spanish, before the Americans took charge. Grasping this rough chronology gave me a new appreciation of the city’s history. Something took root in that single century, something particular, that continues to bear fruit to this day.

In preparation for our trip, I had re-watched “Gumbo,” the first episode of Ken Burns’ documentary series, Jazz. Wynton Marsalis is one of the great voices in that series, articulating much about the music and the city that gave it birth. “Jazz music celebrates life, human life, the range of it, the absurdity of it, the ignorance of it, the greatness of it, the intelligence of it, the profundity of it–and it deals with it.”

I remembered this quote as we wheeled down the boulevards that serve as the borders between neighborhoods—“neutral ground,” John told us. It reminded me of David Simon’s HBO series, Tremé, about post-Katrina New Orleans. Simon’s argument in that series can be boiled down to the following: look what we almost lost; look what we’re still in danger of losing.

One of the members of our party, a Californian traveling with her husband, had Katrina on her mind. “Was this part flooded?” she would ask as we crossed from one neighborhood to another. John would answer without elaboration. Finally he said, with a touch of exasperation, “We’ve been here three hundred years—that was just one storm.” Katrina played such a role in one President’s political fortunes, and perhaps in the election of his successor, I wondered if the topic wasn’t another racially-charged minefield that required steering around.

And yet I began to notice that we weren’t always on neutral ground. Andrew Jackson may have won the battle of New Orleans, John admitted, but otherwise was “not a good guy.” Slavery would get a mention after all, as would the Trail of Tears. In the cemetery we visited, among the somber, rough and crooked tombs slowly baking their contents into ash was a castle-shaped mausoleum, built of polished stone, with wooden doors and stained-glass windows, and outfitted with climate-control. Our affable guide didn’t hide his disapproval. All it lacked, he suggested, was a disco ball.

Other remarks were dropped here and there, some choice commentary, let’s say, to go along with the facts. Interpretation wasn’t totally absent. It was just that things were carefully managed as to restrict it to a single source. In this, too, I recognized a kinsman. I have my captive audience. I like to deliver my point of view. And I tend to manage, at least most of the time, to avoid controversy or disagreement. But I’m not going to explore the matter further. Let’s keep things upbeat and move along.

A version of this essay appears at the Society for US Intellectual History blog

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