Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Get This Woman Some Smelling Salts!

NYT's Edward Rothstein gives Presidents House, the newly opened historical display meant to showcase slavery in early America Philadelphia under slaveholder Gen. George Washington, a negative (but informative) review.

And Philly Daily News columnist Annette John-Hall reacts as if Rothstein were some white-robe wearing bigot intent on diminishing the horror of slavery.
Made the mistake of ringing in 2011 by reading a story in the New York Times that felt like a backhand across the face.

That's how much it stung.

Times arts critic Edward Rothstein, in a callous and arrogant piece about the recently opened President's House exhibit on Independence Mall, lamely attempts to argue that my history - truly, all of our history - is too narrow and, by extension, doesn't really matter.
Read it all. Then read Rothstein's critique, which does no such thing.

It does includes this:
Here, though, we get neither a sense of the place, nor a sense of the issues (and much of the year, the open air will be inhospitable). We don’t learn about the differences between Washington and Adams. We don’t learn much about the pictured events. There is no real narrative. Illustrations can also be melodramatically contentious: we see a seemingly disdainful Washington dangling a “peace medal” before a suspicious Seneca Indian leader

As for slave life, it is also difficult to piece together. The video screens that come to life above the fake mantels give the impression of a half-finished 21st-century home. The videos themselves (with scripts by Lorene Cary), in which slaves and servants provide first-person accounts of experiences, at least provide some sense of life. But how do we put these experiences in context? What was Philadelphia’s free black community like? How did white workers and black slaves live together here?

We are told that the President’s House “offers an opportunity to draw lessons from the past.” But what lessons? That Washington was flawed? That slavery was an abomination? Are these revelations? A memorial to the practice of slavery is mounted here, inscribed with the names of African tribes from which slaves derived, but it has no particular relationship to Philadelphia or this site. The need for some such memorial is keen, but here it seems thumped down as an intrusion.
If Ms. John-Hall felt slapped silly by that, she needs headgear and a concussion test before she is allowed to write again.

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