Monday, February 06, 2006

Wesleyan University Class Shares Insights with the GTRC

At Wesleyan University, in last fall's History 358 course, "Contesting the Past: Historical Memory in the United States," Professor Renee Romano and her students explored the ways in which "representations of the past play a critical role in our present-day world." The course syllabus begins:

The great southern writer William Faulkner once remarked, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Faulkner recognized the importance, the immediacy, the presentness” of the past in contemporary southern, and indeed, American culture. Representations of the past play a critical role in our present-day world. These representations can influence the construction of personal and national identities; they can become ammunition in political arguments about contemporary policies and events; and they can be used both to legitimize the nation-state and to critique the myths around which nation-states are built. In this upper-level seminar, we will explore together the significance of various representations of the American past. By examining public monuments, visual images, films, museums, theme parks, and commemorations, we will explore how historical “truth” and “authenticity” are constructed and how memorialization is itself a process, and often a contested one.

The class looked at the events of November 3, 1979, and the work of the GTRC as one case study in their research and prepared group proposals to the Commission for ways that we may recommend Greensboro commemorate, or not, this tragedy. One assignment, as described in the syllabus, was:

Throughout this course, we will be examining the many ways in which the past is brought alive and communicated in public sites and popular culture. Students will also be participating in the process of remembering and memorializing an event from the past themselves in their group projects. As a class, we will be exploring one particularly contested historical event—the Nazi/Klan killing of five members of the Communist Worker’s Party at a march in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979. The city of Greensboro remains divided to this day over who is to blame for the killings, whether the city bears any responsibility for the deaths or for the trials in which the shooters were acquitted, and how this event relates to the history of activism and racism in North Carolina.

Students will be divided into small groups of four or five, and each group will be given the task of remembering the events in Greensboro in a different medium. One group will plan a museum exhibit about the 1979 event; another will design a monument. A third group will write a children’s book about what happened in Greensboro, and fourth will develop a curriculum guide for teachers. Other possibilities include developing film or art projects related to Greensboro. All of this work will then be made available to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC), a group that is seeking to find the truth about the events there and to promote healing and reconciliation.

Even though not all of the groups presented proposals for how the event could be commemorated, they did all present several issues that the Commission should consider as we generate our recommendations. One group shared a report outlining the general issues the Commission should consider as it makes its recommendations about commemorating this event (read that text here). Two other groups wrote about the pros and cons of creating a monument (here) and writing a children's book (here) to commemorate the event. Finally, the last group wrote about the pros and cons of creating a museum exhibit to educate community members about the tragic events and created a proposal for what that exhibit could look like (see it here).

The GTRC appreciates this time, study and input from Professor Romano and her students and will include these submissions in its
archive of material gathered. Commissioners will also read these documents as they are considering the recommendations for their final report.

posted by Jill Williams, exec. dir.


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