I’ll just admit it up front: I’m not a big fan of historical reenactments. I always tend to look at them the way this Monty Python sketch portrays them. That being said, reenactments are not innately bad, just very hard to do well. In a pure sense, reenactments are another attempt at understanding the world of the past, just as academic scholarship should attempt to do. The problem seems to be in execution. Bad reenactments can innocently allow specific details, like clothing, to overtake the importance of understanding the meanings of the event being reenacted or, more sinisterly, whitewash history with patently wrong interpretations of history. With an admittedly pessimistic view towards reenactments, I breakdown three main categories (in my experience) of the types of reenactments:
Reenacting the plainness of the everyday
Certainly, these demonstrations sanitize history by rarely showing the ugly side of the everyday, but I am still call this category, on average, the least harmful reenactments, though also the least useful. In this category, I am primarily thinking of the places that have “living histories” of the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. Grade school kids often go and see a man working at a blacksmith shop and a woman making clothes and have a sack lunch outside. That has been largely, my experience with these types of reenactments.
However, even everyday activities can horribly mangle the historical record. The Golden Era Society A group that celebrates the “dress, music, manners and lifestyles” of the 1920-1950s “Golden Era,” at best ignores (at worst cherishes) the rampant racial, class, and sex discrimination, not to mention places the Great Depression, within the “Golden Era.” This sort of ahistoricism, even when restricted to a small group of people obsessed with very small slices of the past, endangers the historical memory–keep in mind that while it may seem silly to call the 1920-1950s a “Golden Era,” many people do not object to calling much of the same time period home to the “Greatest Generation.”
Reenacting the ugliness of the everyday
While attempting to tackle the ugliness of the past is a tricky assignment, these reenactments hold the potential for the most benefit. Tanya Roth has a great piece about a recent reenactment of a slave auction in St. Louis. Understanding the impossibility of truly reenacting a slave auction, the event opened with a historical framing and ended with an open forum, which likely helped guide those in attendance to a useful educational experience. In her piece, Tanya raises the important point that while Civil War reenactments are frequent (see the next category), reenactments of the ugly side of the Civil War Era (i.e. slavery) are few and far between.
The slave auction last week was imperfect in its execution, but I think it drew important attention to an issue that seems to be getting buried in the politics of popular culture. We’re about to embark on a four-year commemoration of one of the most popular events in American history: sometimes it seems that everyone’s a Civil War armchair historian.
As we spend these four years remembering our past, where will slavery fit in to the narrative – and what will the placement of slavery in that narrative tell us about modern America?
Another somewhat recent event that I would place in this category was the sixth grade class in South Carolina that “simulated” the discrimination of Jews in 1930s Germany. Though reportedly, it was conducted well, I am still have my reservations. I am sure reading “No Jews and Dogs Allowed” is eye opening for a middle-school student and I am sure these students understand discrimination better after the exercise. However, the dehumanization and persecution that Jews experienced was nothing near what you could (humanely) simulate. Good teaching should try and cover this gap between reality and experience, like the slave auction’s introduction and forum. I just worry that the gap is not being covered in every classroom that may try a similar exercise.
Most revealing, however, is that the South Carolina school simulated 1930s Germany when teaching the Jim Crow South would have been a more powerful lesson. Removing the problem of discrimination to another place (and frankly another time) obscures the United States’ large history of dehumanization, discrimination, and infliction of terror. To be fair, I am sure there are valid reasons in choosing 1930s Germany, among them the fact that I doubt parents would be alright with the activity if it had been Jim Crow South that was being “simulated,” even though the activity would have proceeded in essentially the same way.
I am sure there are plenty of good groups of upstanding citizens reenacting battles for good and educational reasons, but reenactments of war are the most common example of reenactments and provide the richest example of bad reenactments.
The details battle reenactors often cherish (uniforms, guns, supplies) are better suited in reenacting the everyday, not an extraordinary circumstance that is primarily about killing, maiming, and other not-so-nice intentions. Too many of these groups are not educational, but only concerned with guns and clothing, as if that wearing the same clothes and carry the same items some how replicates the experience of war (I’ve never been in war, but I would imagine some sort of fearing for your life is included in the experience). Instead of accurately representing much of anything, too many of these groups obscure large issues behind war (like imprisoning or killing people based on race), which only disservices society (and its history).
My rant being somewhat complete, commemorating war is still a very common phenomenon in countries across the globe, but how some of these groups commemorate war only butchers history. I will point you towards this group of Italian reenactors of a Louisiana infantry division, partly just because I found it so strange–The group’s homepage asks you if you want the Italian version of the site (with an Italian flag) or the English (with a Confederate flag)
Like I said in the beginning, historical reenactments are not innately bad, but when the “HISTORY OF THE REAL 14th LOUISIANA INFANTRY” only lists the battles in which the group participated, it is fair to call the reenactments bad history and a negative educational experience (sorry, history is much more than names, dates, and numbers). An even more appalling example was the Congressman who served as a Nazi reenactor. At best he completely misses the historical reality of the SS (which raises the question of whether this man is intelligent enough to help lead the country) and at worst tries to use “history” to cover up bigotry (which prompts the same question).
A final disclaimer and conclusion
I will repeat it once more as a disclaimer, though I may have already lost any pro-reenactments readers, historical reenactments are not innately bad. Reenactments are another way people try to replicate the historical experiences. Just as the words of historians attempt to understand and convey the historical experience, so do these reenactments. The problem of reenactments comes when the present day experience of reenacting becomes more important than the message being sent to the audience. Reenactments need to understand and acknowledge they are not perfect and seek only to convey the important aspects of the history they are representing. The meanings of the Civil War are important, not the guns used or clothing worn.
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