Teaching Untold Histories: Filling in the Gaps in America’s Past

Students are often taught only one side of American history. This side deals predominantly with the accomplishments of white males and conspicuously ignores the achievements of other groups such as Latinos, African-Americans, women of all races, and members of the LGBTQ community. Leaving out these groups would suggest that they did not play a major role in the history of the United States, but in reality people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds were as essential to the development of our country as the white politicians, inventors, doctors, and revolutionaries we hear so much about.

Virginia Sánchez Korrol touches on exactly this point in In Search of Latinas in U.S. History, 1540-1970. By highlighting the myriad ways that women of Mexican, Latin American, and Hispanic Caribbean heritage have contributed to the development of communities across the United States, she suggests that the other side of American history is just as rich, vibrant, and important as that with which we are most familiar.

 

Emilia-Casanova-1871
Photo credit latinamericanstudies.org

Take for example the story of Emilia Casanova de Villaverde. Moving from her conservative upbringing in Cuba to Philadelphia, Casanova de Villaverde was highly active in the movements for Cuban and Puerto Rican Independence. Not only did she publish essays in local community presses such as American Latina, she was also an active political organizer. As president of the women’s group Las Hijas de Cuba, Casanova de Villaverde became a recognizable figure in the independence movement. She used her standing to gain funds for Cuban soldiers during the Ten Years War, and also spoke before U.S. Congress asking for protection for her father, who was imprisoned in Havana the same time.

Casanova de Villaverde was not alone in dedicating her life to fighting for revolutionary ideas. Luisa Capetillo also spent her lifetime battling for independence and equal standing for those who did not have it. After moving from Puerto Rico to New York City, Capetillo fought for both women’s and worker’s rights, organizing not only Cuban and Puerto Rican, but also African-American, Spanish, and Italian tobacco workers.

Sánchez Korrol chronicles several stories similar to these, and makes it clear that they are

Luisa_Capetillo_wearing_Mens_Clothing
Luisa Capetillo. Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

only the tip of the iceberg when talking about Latina women who have left important legacies for both their ethnic communities, and the American people. Unfortunately, despite their connection to American ideology and our own revolutionary past, these stories are unlikely to receive mainstream attention. This begs the question, who is responsible for writing history, and whose history is being told?

To tell influential stories of immigrants and people of color would upset the status quo. It would require those with power and privilege to recognize the contributions of these individuals, and give equal footing to people who have historically not stood on equal ground. Revolutionary groups like the Young Lords understood this when they argued that “education was the first step to the revolution” [1]. What we teach and how we teach it shapes who we are and helps to create our identity as a nation. A history void of minority populations, or containing only a few token individuals, removes the opportunity for everyone to see themselves in our collective history, and to imagine the leadership roles they can play in our country’s future.

In order to rewrite history, we first have to know what is missing. Museums can play a part disseminating this knowledge, but not perhaps without first acknowledging the role they have played in shaping it in the past. Like other large organizations, museums have been criticized for focusing too closely on the work of the elite, and ignoring that of the working class and/or people of color. When the Young Lords protested for greater minority representation at the Museum of Modern Art, they did so because they understood that the work displayed in institutions like MOMA is representative of our larger cultural values. Therefore, the stories these organizations choose to tell are indicative of what and who is important to our society.

Going forward, museums have a responsibility to ensure that they tell the complete history of our individual and collective past. By sharing this complex story, we can move one step closer to broadening avenues of cultural communication, and creating an inclusive interpretation of history that reflects not one, but many voices.

 

[1] ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York exhibition catalogue. (New York: Bronx Museum, 2015).

15 thoughts on “Teaching Untold Histories: Filling in the Gaps in America’s Past

  1. Kaitlin, I think it’s really important that you bring up the role (and responsibility) of museums within these larger, national, more inclusive conversations. I had never before heard of these women mentioned in our reading but what amazing accomplishments, and stories to be explored! And better yet, museums can be the perfect venues for facilitation and engagement with these incredibly important pieces of American history; a history that has helped shaped American identity.

    1. Very true. If museums are going to be the forums of discussion that we want them to be, they need to bring the conversation in new directions. Bringing up topics that the public education system has ignored is the perfect way to do that.

  2. I loved the question: “who is responsible for writing history, and whose history is being told?” I think this is at the foundation of a lot of the work we will be doing in our careers–if you consider museum work a part of the process of writing history (which seems valid to me, at least in terms of public history). Telling the same stories about the same people is not going to contribute to a better society, or a more vibrant museum field.

    1. I agree whole-heartedly Kate. I think museums play a huge role in the recording of history, especially current history. I wonder, with the museums that have done exhibits on it, how the Black Lives Matter movement will go down in recorded history and what role those exhibits will have in the story that we teach future generations.

  3. I loved how you discussed the role Non-WASP Males have played in the history of the United States, Kaitlin! It is so sad that the historiography of the US has ignored the tens (if not hundreds) of millions of individuals from Asia, Africa, South and Central America, whom built this nation. Scholars such as Sánchez Korrol have provided readers a wonderful, short introduction to the contributions of those outside of the mainstream. Thank you for blogging about this subject, as it is critical to understanding the TRUE history of the United States.

  4. I loved this post. I totally agree that museums have a responsibility to search out lesser-told histories. It’s important to remember that just because a story is not recorded by historians doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As evidenced by our reading this week, stories of minorities, the working class, women, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants doing incredible things are out there, they just might require a bit more work to dig up. This post reminds me of a project I learned about just this week called the Digital Transgender Archive which brings together resources from institutions and individuals to tell the story of trans history, a story often ignored in traditional history and museums. I love the idea of this archive, and would be thrilled to see more resources like it.

  5. I really loved how you connected the stories of these pioneering Puerto Rican women, the Young Lords, and the role of museums in it all. All of these stories are incredibly intertwined and it can be easy to forget that. What I would like to know now is if the MOMA, MET, and other cultural institutions have incorporated more art created by Latino artists into their collection. It is important that we continue the legacy these amazing women and the Young Lords began.

  6. Loved your post! Like we’ve talked about many times, a more inclusive interpretation of history will not only be more accurate, but will allow everyone to have the chance to see themselves in our collective past. I like that you point out that museums need to acknowledge their role, and more especially their actions in the past that have contributed to shaping history. Only by recognizing the need for change is when we can take steps to change.

  7. I loved this. All of it.

    I think in order to explore more complex and historically forgotten narratives, museums need to change the way they work. I think the solution rests in partnerships, like the partnership between the Young Lords and el Barrio, with community groups, individuals, and artists. The people who have been largely left out of historical narratives should be given the opportunity and venue to share and explore their own histories/stories.

    1. Absolutely agree! This post is great, Kaitlin. Your post really highlights the need and importance of reaching out into communities and using community resources when creating partnerships and exhibitions. These forgotten histories are only forgotten because people don’t talk about them, museums need take responsibility for bringing these stories to light.

  8. Wow! Really great post! Great stories on people I never knew about, which is the whole point of your blog. This sums up so much of what we’ve been learning in class. I love how although you focus on Latinas, your address much broader ideas and have an amazing call to action. And yet, you don’t just say “let’s rewrite history!” You actually address the complicated issue surrounding this need and why there is no easy solution. However, museums can help make the first step.

  9. Amazing post! You are right, US history is filled with gaps missing amazing individuals that not only served the communities but the whole as well. It is interesting to think the idea of who writes history and along side that who get to tell history. Place placing stories like these in text books and museum incorporating these notions of what in fact is history and who is it for can not only have a deeper narrative but also breed and expand understanding of the different cultures that many tend to ignore.

  10. I think it’s so important that we have stories about specific women, named women. So often, people are categorized as just a member of a group (perhaps a racial group or a gender group) and their names and individual identity are lost. Museums must play a crucial role in preserving the work and accomplishments of these individuals, like Emilia Casanova de Villaverde and Luisa Capetillo. Providing a name to a story makes it that much more real, and that much more significant.

  11. Kaitlin, I love your discussion of how museum’s need to be willing to acknowledge the gap in the historical record and deal with it honestly and with enough perspective and forbearance to acknowledge the factors that contributed to this gap. Too often, in practice, there is that tendency among museums to only speak to what we know, and to epoxy over the train of historical narratives to make them more complete, to impart what we know. But what we do not know and the challenge of countering the forces that contributed to this and exploring unanswered question is a significant part of what makes history meaningful, and should be something museums should explore, not in spite of, but because of the challenge of building up from “incomplete.” And to do this, museums can and should engage with a greater variety of resources and excursions with atypical sources and locations to explore the multifaceted ways the historical narrative can be fleshed out and dealt with more honestly in the process.

  12. I really like how you bring in how museums can help teach this missing part if history. I think it definitely the responsibility of institutions to jump in where curriculum fails. Museums can present information that might not be the status quo in a way that more of this missing history can be found.

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