The Fiery Trial: Eric Foner and Public History

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr. Eric Foner at the College of Charleston on his recent book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner has an admirable presence and discussion style as a historian, the kind that reminds me of why I ever became interested in the academic profession (deep in the throes of the PhD process, and in this job market, I have to dig deep at times to remember). Foner has the remarkable ability to present historic subjects as complex as slavery, Emancipation, and the Civil War in a steady, clear, and even humorous manner. You feel comfortable, rather than desperately confused, following him through each point, and by the end you not only feel like you have a better grasp of the whole tangled mess of Civil War and Emancipation history, you even have a totally new perspective of a historic figure you thought you already knew, such as Abraham Lincoln.

I actually saw Foner present twice yesterday, to a workshop group of K-12 teachers and public historians (organized by Dr. Brian Kelly with CLAW and the After Slavery project), and to an auditorium full of historians in town for an academic conference. Perhaps the best demonstration of Foner’s ability was that his presentation style and subject material changed very little for these two groups. I don’t mean to imply Foner didn’t bother two write two presentations– my point is he didn’t need to. As a scholar who studies public history, I find this admirable because too often the complex issues and nuance of history seem to get locked up in academic journals and publications. Tour guides and schoolteachers, particularly in Charleston and  throughout South Carolina, often seem left with more superficial interpretations of history for their students or tourist audiences. This may be their own choosing, but I also believe the resources for developing clear frameworks and language for articulating history in the public realm seem painfully limited, particularly surrounding complex subjects such as slavery.

One of my great, potentially idealistic, hopes for APLA is that it will help make some of the more complex aspects of the history of antebellum and colonial slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry more comprehensible and accessible to a wide range of user audiences. But I am increasingly finding that historic clarity is hard work. In the next couple of posts I will try to untangle some particularly difficult points from this history, to help me think through how to write up this information in the exhibition text. Watching accessible, yet still very challenging and historically rich discussions like Dr. Foner’s presentations yesterday was a great inspiration.