As some may know, I’ve recently returned to school for a double degree in Public History and American Studies. Where I once had a vague sense of history and historical fiction/romance existing on somewhat different planes, I now have a strong sense of this theoretical statement. And each day, each quarter, spent in various courses in both disciplines expands my vision of what history (and memory and place and literature and identity) actually is, and how it can be applied to writing historical fiction.
In a nutshell, Public History takes history out of the ivory tower of academia and is also an act of social justice. It is the process of engaging the public with history–museums, historical societies, cultural events, all the way down to a monument or plaque to a public hero/ine. If you take a look around your city, you will likely find evidence of public history at work.
Public History also works to address memory and the meaning of place, particularly with regards to those whose history has been destroyed or hidden or misinterpreted. American Studies seems pretty self-explanatory, but where it was once the creation of “myths” about American identity, it has transformed over the past few decades into an interrogation of these myths and the various facets of what it means to be “American” (United States).
Over the past few months I’ve worked on a project focused on a local Chinatown, whose site has been reclaimed after decades of legal wrangling. Over the past four months, I–and others–have been holed up in the nearest branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, combing through boxes and boxes of files dedicated to the Chinese Exclusion Act in search of the people who lived in this Chinatown and other Chinatowns in the region. Needless to say, this research has been illuminating.
Each file I’ve opened has sparked so many thoughts and ideas–academic and for fiction–and increased my awareness of the stories untold. It has increased my awareness of the people wedged in the crevices of what we think we know and what we produce from that “knowledge.” My research for this project has made it impossible to not see this story from the inside out, to hear the story of this period in US history through the voices of the local Chinese-American population of the early 20th century.
At the beginning of my involvement, the files meant little to me; the photographs of the Chinese immigrants placed on their certificates were just men from long ago, and their lives were filled in with my vague knowledge of Chinese-American culture based on trawling through San Francisco’s Chinatown. This four month project also yanked other stories into the picture: white Americans who were against the Exclusion Act, who vouched for immigrants; kinship; entrepreneurship; marriage and gender; education; religion; legal history.
There is public history theory, of course, but I spend most of my courses doing public history, whether it be speaking to the city government about historic preservation, or observing community activism, or attending historical events (and speaking there too–eek!). And when I forge connections with other public historians and integral voices in the community, I get chills over the history out there locked in someone’s attic or in their mind.
As I stated in my previous post, this is not easy history to find. You can’t walk into B&N and easily find a shelf groaning with books on Chinese American history the way you can about the Kennedys. You can’t type a few words into Google and come up with tons of websites and blogs about daily life for African Americans in Los Angeles the way you can for daily life in, say, Victorian London (and that is problematic in and of itself, since these sites usually erase Brits of color from the landscape). What you can do is look in the margins:
1) Oral history projects and transcripts.
2) Special collections at a local library.
3) Visit a branch of the National Archives to use their access to Ancestry.com and newspaper archives.
4) Historical societies and niche museums.
5) Veterans groups.
6) Check the schedule at the local university’s history department for talks by visiting historians–believe me, they welcome the public.
7) JSTOR if you have access–and some articles are free.
8) Conduct your own oral history projects with family and friends.
9) Research for whom buildings in your city are named and why.
10) Email historians in your topic of interest! They love discussing their work and field.