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Data/Visualizing the Past

History or His Story

This week’s readings were quite interesting to me, as they seemed to portray a common theme that I have noticed within history: perspective (or opinion). Often times, historians seem to make trivial conclusions regarding spotty details, which can be seen in the reading that concerning the 2 photographs in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. These types of trivial conclusions are not always even important (depending on who you ask) to set the scene for the historical event. For example, in reality, how does the landscape of this battlefield really impact or inform one’s thinking of the picture? I’m not claiming that whether the cannons were moved doesn’t matter, however, it isn’t pivotal for most people. The website containing the collections of maps is something that most would find to be more accurate, which it possibly is, but it is only as accurate as the technology used to gather the information. Remember, at one point, philosophers thought that the Earth was flat and to sail towards the unknown would make you fall off the face of the planet. Maps can however, tell a story about location. Though the land doesn’t physically go anywhere, invisible lines/boundaries/roads can always change and affect the way the tract of land is perceived.

The personal connection that I have made with this reading is regarding my views about white-washed history but also regarding my hobby as a genealogist. Often times, the narrative that we assume to be correct is only due to the viewpoint of the individual(s) telling it. For example, how many times have we thought that the famous 50s hit, Hound Dog, which is associated with Elvis Presley, but in reality, it was a hit stolen from Big Mama Thornton. Even within my genealogy research, there was prominent story passed down through the generations regarding an ancestor being the first Black man to own land after slavery. Well, there were things about that story that were correct, but some such as my ancestor being sold that was a little shakey. (Finding the RIGHT Tom Taylor, shameless plug: YoungBlackGenie). I say all of that to say that it is imperative that we are critical of facts in an effort to ensure that we are telling and interpreting history not making it his story.

2 replies on “History or His Story”

The overall theme of utilizing facts is an important case you make in your post. The piece concerning the controversial cannonball photos is a good example of how facts can easily be distorted by bias and assumptions. To make matters worse, the advocates of the”fake” theory were actually correct. I can imagine this leading to a reinforcement of poor methods and ideology. As the author explains, the advocates for the photo being fake were right but for the wrong reasons. This is a good piece to warn against placing bias into history, or anything really, when solid, indisputable facts are available and have yet to be explored.

I definitely agree with your idea that really, desperately trying to find out what Fenton’s intentions were behind the two photos, and if he fabricated them or not, might be less important than simply what the photos represent, which is a landscape at war. Making the research into the photo all about Fenton and his character/intentions focuses the story on him and on his morals and viewpoints, and less on the importance of what the pictures say about the landscape and the events happening at the time. This is how we often treat our founding fathers and other “great people” in history.

This is for sure part of how white-washing happens, because focusing in on details like whether or not Thomas Jefferson “loved” Sally Hemmings, or whether or not enslaved people were treated kindly by their white masters silences the viewpoints and experiences of the enslaved, and glosses over the more important fact that, regardless, they were treated as property.

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