Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Why I Am Involved with Living History

A little while back, I wrote a post on this blog explaining a little of why I enjoy studying and talking of history. I will link to that as this current post is a sort of Part 2.

A Passion for the Past or Why I Study History

When I first embarked on the venture of Living History, I looked forward to not only bringing history to life for others, but also getting into some deeper historical research for my own writing. It ended up becoming much more than that.

I've been doing this for probably a little over a year now (close to a year and a half), and in addition to getting an even better grasp on historical events than I had before (which really fuels the history lover in me), more opportunities in music, acting, and writing opened up. I've also gained and even richer insight to my already pretty nuanced takes on history.

One thing I always make a point of doing when studying any era is to try and acquire a complete picture of all that was taking place in a given time, including the statutes of the day, the political climate, what happened previously that might have been the cause of such a political climate, and any other pesky nuances that might contribute to connecting with and trying to understand the past on a deeper level. This, of course, is in opposition to the more basic 'on the surface' view that many seem to have.
In the midst of it all, I found myself wanting to talk of these more nuanced views and therefore try to quell the many preconceived notions that seems to cloud our vision of the distant past. Yes, studying history can be overwhelming and perhaps that is at least part of why many tend to take that basic surface only approach that also feeds many historical myths.

When asked where to start, I usually recommend starting with Mary Miley Theobald's book Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked along with her accompanying website. Of course, I don't necessarily agree with everything she says (you'll have that with anyone, though) but it is a great place to be opened to seeing which historical events might need a little further investigation in order to have a more well-rounded outlook.
As a subscriber to Jas. Townsend's newsletter and YouTube Channel, I find much of his insights to be extremely valuable (Jas. Townsend & Son is a great source, particularly great if you are looking to get into Living History), not only as a reenactor, but also as someone that considers herself a lifelong student of history. There was one issue of his newsletter that especially jumped out at me and if I may, here is a passages from it:


"It also doesn’t matter what your race or ethnicity is [when it comes to being a reenactor]. Eighteenth-century North America was made up of a rich and diverse mix of cultures and ethnicities. Society wasn’t as stereotypical as you think.
A more obvious example may be for Americans of African descent. We’ve had a number of people tell us that they do not want to portray a slave, believing that a slave persona is their only option. But the truth is there were many free blacks in 18th-century North America. There was even a black regiment that fought on the colonial side of the war. There are so many stories that are begging to be told, otherwise they could be lost and forgotten forever.
If you are concerned that reenacting and living history is only for men (admittedly, some groups and time periods of reenactors might have more of a reputation for being only men), the flintlock era is for everyone. The opportunities are amazing. Many of the military units accept women into their ranks. There are so many things women did in the 18th century that were important, and those stories need to be told. Women of this time period were not hidden away."

Now, I highlighted three sentences in bold-faced print for a reason, but the one out of all of them that is - in my opinion - of utmost importance is the statement of the many stories that are begging to be told, lest they be lost and forgotten. It is these stories that can give a person - regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender - pride in who they are and where they come from (and I mean real pride, not the fabricated kind the media sells us as a way of dividing us).
We can learn so much from these stories, both the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, but that can never happen if these stories continue to go ignored. Not to mention that while I'm sure that many who come to historical sites do so with an interest in learning more of the portrayed time period, a good number of these individuals come in with preconceived notions. This is especially so when it comes to the women of the time.
Even just from observing what I see many saying online, it seems to be widely believed that women were "hidden away" and "put in their place", lest they be "burned as a witch for stepping out of line." While having more pronounced gender roles, more defined meanings of "women's work" versus "men's work", and a strong push toward all women marrying when of age back in the day isn't false, many of our predecessors were more worried about surviving than they were concerning themselves with 'John Smith's' wife helping run her husband's business instead of being confined to the hearth "where she belongs". In fact, 'John Smith down the road' having his wife help him run his tavern was not all that unusual, as - for many at that time - the home was the center of the economy, not only for that household, but the entire community. Many businesses were conducted from inside a family's home and often, the entire family contributed in one form or another (children as young as four were considered active members of the family, meaning they also did their share). But many today don't seem to consider that.
Here is an anecdote to hopefully demonstrate my point:
Two weeks ago, I was at the museum working with the blacksmith and of course, we get families that come to visit and explore the museum and the area's covered history. When I mentioned that, yes, there were women taking on the position of blacksmith and other trades back then (meaning the 18th century and Revolutionary War), each and every guest seemed surprised.
I've read of such accounts from other historical sites as well, when the tourist seems to think that women were merely subservient housewives (one reason why - according to Jas. Townsend and other sources - women are also hesitant when exploring the idea of being involved with Living History) and are often shocked when they learn of women working in a place like a printing press or blacksmith shop. Usually the tourist in question assumes that the museum is fulfilling some sort of 'equal opportunity clause' when in reality what they are seeing is historical accuracy. I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say things along the lines of "wow, that's the opposite of what you normally hear!" While I am always happy to clear those details up for them, it is troubling to see just how skewed a lot of it is.

Colonial Williamsburg's website has some excellent articles on the contributions of women throughout history and how, oftentimes, seeing a woman working at a printing press, owning a tavern, etc, really was not considered all that unusual for many in Colonial society:

Women's Service in the Revolutionary Army

Gentlewomen of the Press

With All the Grace of the Sex (also includes a brief podcast)

According to the article, "Gentlewomen of the Press":

 "Though creative research has produced evidence of women working at male-dominated occupations in the eighteenth century and before, there is undoubtedly more documentation out there, in newspapers, diaries, legal proceedings, and prints. What is more compelling is the lack of documentation that women were not allowed to work. Although religious practices and social norms might have restricted certain activities in some parts of the world, there were no laws prohibiting women from working a trade.
"Yet sometimes scholars and guests have a hard time accepting the notion that women did just that. Schumann says that "the greatest obstacle for the visitor is in accepting [Clementina] Rind as an eighteenth-century woman, and not a 'born-before-her-time' women's libber. She was in debt and had four young children. Fortunately, she was well suited to the task." A modern woman might choose to be a mechanic as an occupation, but an eighteenth-century woman might have had to pick up a hammer or work a press to make ends meet. Perhaps the notion of "choice" is where women's roles have changed in the workforce, but no matter what century it is, women have always done what is necessary to provide for themselves and their families."
It gives me great pleasure to bring the stories of these individuals to life through reenacting and storytelling and few things irritate me more than seeing someone take a rather holier than thou approach to how they view our predecessors. That is why I find it very rewarding to tell someone of Elizabeth Glover, who in 1638 founded the first printing press in America. Or share the amazing story of the partnership between Harriet Tubman and John Brown as they fought to free slaves, which ended in Brown being executed (something that Tubman is said to have agonized over). Or how about Elizabeth Thorn, who ran her family's grave digging business while her husband fought in the Civil War? I find it rewarding to see that person's face shift to an expression of being pleasantly surprised and then want to know more. I am also happy that historical sites like Colonial Williamsburg, that are even more prominent than the one that I do work for, can do the same.
As I always say, I think that there is more in history that can bring us all together than divide us. There were many incidents where women, men, and people of different races and ethnicities came together to fight adversity. There were many that did great things that can and should bring pride to all of us today. There were also terrible things that happened, incidents that we can learn from so not to repeat it. But it was also during those terrible times that people did come together to create a certain unity. And - as it is today - it was the media along with some in power that fought to rip that unity at the seams and put people against each other, which sadly many fell for, though many also did not. By Living History, I hope to tell of these individual's whose stories are on the verge of being lost forever only to be replaced by a simplified, altered version that does nothing but divide, conquer, and shame.

I will close by giving the last words to Jas. Townsend.




'Til next time.

*****


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