Teaching History to Captain America

I started thinking about this post in 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger came out. The movie came out the summer before I started my PhD program, and Clio Wired in particular made me think about how digital tools could make history education more accessible on the move.

It was a sort of thought experiment: how would you catch Captain America up on the years he missed, when he’s presumably constantly running around saving the world? Assuming S.H.I.E.L.D. would fill him in on the basic geopolitical and military information, how to do you get across the facts of the national and global social and cultural changes of the second half of the twentieth century in a way which is both relatively bite-size and captures the nuance of current historical interpretation?

At the time, I was inspired by the work of my colleague Richard Hardesty, whose project that semester looked at the intersection of baseball and civil rights activism in Baltimore (he probably would say this better). I wondered about the possibility of doing the major events of a decade built around baseball as a video, allowing for responses and remixes, all of which would be on YouTube or some other public platform.

Three years later, we have the second installment of the Captain’s story. One of the things which delighted me about Captain American: The Winter Soldier was Captain Roger’s list of “things to look up,” and moreover the fact that the film had different items depending on which the country of release. This choice by the directors and/or designers shows an awareness of the different important cultural moments for different nations. K-pop or the Beatles? The World Cup or the Superbowl?

What do you think? What would you put on that list for Cap? What podcasts or blogs would you tell him to check out?

 

Old Haunts, New Views

This summer I’m working on a project which has to do with the history of the National Mall. It has been fun to learn more about a part of town with which I’m so familiar. Although I’m not a DC/Northern VA native, members of my family have lived in and around DC since the 1960s and we used to come visit at least once a year. I have fond memories of climbing on Uncle Beazley when he sat outside Natural History.

Today, despite the record-breaking heat, I ventured down to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It was the first time I’ve been down to the Mall since starting work on the Mall history project. Knowing what had come before made the very familiar landscape of flat, dying grass and beige gravel paths interesting again.

I metroed to Archives/Navy Memorial (to avoid crowds at Smithsonian and to get coffee at the Starbucks in the gold-domed insurance building on 7th) which obviously put me out near the National Archives. Or, in my new thinking, the site which once housed Center Market, where generations of Washingtonians bought produce, meat, and groceries. And, apparently, played billiards.

Then I wandered down the Mall towards 14th, passing construction just across from the sculpture garden which is, I think, roughly where there used to be temporary government office buildings.

I tend to see history wherever I go. Today I had more information and the memory of the many photos I’ve seen over the last month, making the past more vivid and certain than usual. I may have been to the Mall hundreds of times, but today it felt new.

Historical Hypochondria

I have begun to wonder if historians, or at least history students, don’t suffer from a similar problem to that experienced by medical students. Medical students often start to self-diagnose with various ailments during the course of their studies, especially when confronted with list after list of symptoms. They find themselves ticking off symptoms and suddenly thinking they have this or that strange disorder. (( But never lupus ))

Sometimes as I am reading about historical groups or events, I find myself thinking “Gee, that’s awfully similar to X or Y.” Occasionally these are happy similarites, but often they are not. This semester I’m taking a course on the South since 1865, with an emphasis on race and gender, which means I’m reading accounts of voter suppression and white supremacists’ efforts to control the public lives of women, white and black.

Continue reading “Historical Hypochondria”

History in Films: X-Men First Class

Tonight I saw the movie X-Men First Class. What follows are some thoughts about the use of history in the film, all put behind a tag so that those who haven’t seen the film can keep themselves spoiler-free if they want to.

Before the cut, I want to state for the record that I am, or at least have been, a comic book geek. From 4th grade until maybe 8th, I was a huge fan of Marvel Comics; I still read Marvel trade paperbacks (collected issues) on occasion, for particular authors or storylines. I have, however, tried to keep the comic geekery in this post to a minimum, focusing on history geekery instead.

Continue reading “History in Films: X-Men First Class”

11 September

This day had a huge impact on my undergraduate life.

2001 was the beginning of my sophomore year of college, in New York State, only about 2 hours by train from New York City. My parents and sister were in northern Virginia. When I finally understood the scale of what had happened, I knew it was going to be one of those events my children would ask me about, decades in the future.

This date, 11 September, was also the basis of my undergraduate thesis. 11 September 1973, the day the Chilean tradition of democracy was dealt a blow from which it took seventeen years (or more) to recover.  I wrote about the coverage of the coup by US newspapers; partly because my Spanish is limited to what most Americans pick up, and partly because the events of the two intervening years had made me curious about how openly critical newspapers had been of our own government in the past.

(In January 2003 my mother and I attended a celebration of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hosted by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and attended by people from all religions and backgrounds. Following the service we walked down Massachusetts Avenue, intending to gather in a prayerful vigil for peace in Lafayette Square – but due to “security concerns” the police stood on horseback, preventing this crowd celebrating nonviolent protest from getting too close to the White House. Later that year, friends at William and Mary who were also studying in the UK were told that they would lose all credits and might be expelled if they joined in anti-war protests in Britain).

I spent the fall of my senior year of college reading book after book on the coup in 1973, the imprisonment of thousands in the National Stadium, the torture and killings – and all this in a nation which had been very proud of its democratic process. It was disturbing reading, and I only got through it because of the breaks imposed by college life, and by self-imposed breaks with a box of 96 Crayola crayons and a coloring book. Still, I’m glad  that I know about that tragedy in the history of a nation not my own.

September 11 is a day, for me, to remember the power of democracy, the importance of human rights, and that the power of fear and anger and hatred can be overcome.

My Grandfather

My paternal grandfather died on Saturday. He turned 87 at the beginning of this month.

I’m doing my best not to focus on the loss, on the fact that (more than likely) whoever I marry will never have met my wonderful grandfather, and think instead about what time I did have with him. After all, my maternal grandfather died when I was about four years old, and my memories of him are limited to an impression of pale plaid and beige, of the smell of pipe tobacco, and an overall sense of being loved. Which is wonderful, but different from the memories of a man who I knew for almost thirty years.

My grandfather was a living connection to the events of the 20th century. Not just for me – a few years ago he sent me a clipping from his local paper, talking about the travelling portion of the Vietnam Memorial Wall and how Vietnam vets were talking with the junior high kids, helping them to understand the reality of that history. My grandfather was named in the article, and his picture was there too. I have that clipping somewhere. He loved talking about history, whether it was his, our family’s, or the world’s.

Continue reading “My Grandfather”

One man’s past is another man’s present

The last two days I have heard things on the local NPR station which very clearly brought to my attention how things I consider to be very much The Past are still The Present for others.

The first was not a full story, but the lead for a story later on (which I didn’t hear). It was about politicians in some state running for office and in the sound clip one of the Republican candidates was railing against the evils of Socialism. The second was about a group of people of faith, Pastors for Peace, who go to Cuba in violation of and protest against the ban on travel. The reporter mentioned that there is legislation to try and soften the embargoes, but that an Anti-Communist lobby group is fighting to keep things as they are.

From a purely logical standpoint, I understand that the reasons behind the concerns. I know that the Baby Boomers and those before them, who make up a great deal of the “Powers That Be,” still carry the emotional weight of the Cold War. For me, however, that war is history, the past, something to be learned from, not something to be continued. Continue reading “One man’s past is another man’s present”