On Museums and History: The Case of Clarence Thomas

Whenever a museum recording the history and culture of its subject opens, we are eager to see the stories they tell, in large part because musums are more than the mere display of artifacts. Museums, like books, tell stories, and all narratives are inherently interpretive and represent choices with consequences.

Not everyone will agree with the result, as we saw at Gettysburg when the new visitors center and museum opened several years ago. I understood and sometimes agreed with the critics of the museum, although I think some of those criticisms were overstated. At the same time, I knew that the museum was tasked to do something more than to recount the events of July 1-3, 1863, and November 19, 1863, in isolation, bereft of any context. Yet I also knew that the context would represent interpretive choices that would be open to analysis and criticism.

So it comes as no surprise that some people are not too keen on everything they’ve seen in the Smithsonian Institution’s new museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of especial note is the claim made in some corners that the museum more than slights the career of current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, supposedly, one infers, because of Thomas’s conservative political views.

You know what’s going to follow this report: whining about political correctness and the supposed political agenda of supposedly left-wing academics made by right-wing scholars, buffs, and “observers” (advocates) who claim that their adherance to their own political points of view is an expression of their dispassionate objectivity about the American past. We’ve seen that exercise in projection all too often.

Having not yet visited the museum (I haven’t been to DC since it opened, but it is first on my list for my next visit), I can’t testify as to the particulars of the case. Nor do I know how the museum treats other divisions among African-Americans over time, whether it be Frederick Douglass versus Martin Delaney, Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. DuBois, or Martin Luther King, Jr., versus Malcolm X, all of which have been traditional (and overused as well as sometimes distorted or misunderstood) ways to view aspects of African American history. And that’s just for starters.

That said, one hopes that in recognizing the diversity of the American past through focusing on the African American past, the museum also embraces telling the story of the diversity within the African American past … and present. Part and parcel of that discussion is an exploration of black conservatism as demonstrating that African Americans are far from a unified bloc when it comes to many issues. At the same time, one should not make more of something than is appropriate … we’ve seen that in the discussion of whether Africans Americans served in significant numbers as soldiers in the ranks of the Confederate army. I note that when it comes to that issue, those gallant defenders of historical accuracy often shed their disguises to suggest that, regardless of what Confederates themselves said at the time, such people were soldiers and should be recognized as such … a position that reflects their own presentist attitudes and political agendas. Others just let that issue go unexplored lest they offend their fellow travellers.

Not that we’re about to hear those storied critics of political correctness hold themselves to the same standards they demand of others. No way. Otherwise we might have heard a reaction to this.

So let’s actually visit the museum before we pass judgment. Otherwise we’re little more than a clipping service bound to our personal prejudices.

4 thoughts on “On Museums and History: The Case of Clarence Thomas

  1. Helga Ross October 17, 2016 / 2:36 pm

    Hi Brooks,

    (In truth, I didn’t expect to be back so soon!) 🙂

    These two statements, by these two notables, ought to carry the weight.
    (They, each/both prove you/we need not be overly concerned with ” whining about political correctness and the supposed political agenda of supposedly left-wing academics made by right-wing scholars, buffs, and “observers” (advocates) who claim that their adherence to their own political points of view is an expression of their dispassionate objectivity about the American past. We’ve seen that exercise in projection all too often.”

    1. THURGOOD MARSHALL served with great distinction until his retirement on June 27,1991. He was replaced on the bench by neo-conservative African-American judge Clarence Thomas.
    This choice did not sit well with Marshall. Shortly before he died, in 1993, he (Marshall) warned against “picking the wrong Negro,” adding “there’s no difference between a white snake and a black snake. They’ll both bite….”

    2. “He [Clarence Thomas] is the most conservative justice to serve on
    the court, I think, since the 1930s….much more than Scalia. I was at a
    synagogue where JUSTICE SCALIA was giving a speech not too long ago and
    someone asked him to compare your judicial philosophy and Justice
    Thomas’s, and he talked for a while, and he said, `Well, look,
    I’m a textualist. I’m an originalist, but I’m not a
    nut.’ And I think that sums up a little bit the difference between
    the two. Justice Thomas believes that much of the New Deal is
    unconstitutional. Justice Scalia doesn’t.”
    CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show


  2. George Combs October 18, 2016 / 7:55 am

    Dr. Simpson,
    I managed to have two pre-opening tours of the museum – a perk of being located DC adjacent. The museum is huge, as befits such a large and diverse subject. I think it unfair to judge the whole by a snapshot of is presented in the first days of what must be viewed as a “work in progress.” The museum world is dynamic and ever changing. Displays and coverage will change over time as facts and materials are discovered and made available. I am not fit to judge a sitting justice’s place in history, maybe none of us are until a bit more time has elapsed. However, i do believe the treatment of Dr. Hill held up a mirror to America in the ’90s that showed how badly women had fared in the struggle for equality and fair treatment. And that may be more important than the history of a single jurist. Anyone coming to DC should have this museum high on their to do list. The collection is huge and almost overwhelming and so worth your time.

  3. Mike Musick October 19, 2016 / 1:31 pm

    As an early donor of artifacts to the museum, I and my wife had the privilege of a tour recently. Mr. Combs is right to emphasize the large size of the undertaking. We simply could not see everything in one visit. The many visitors, generally enthralled by it all, ranged from keenly interested elderly women in wheelchairs to young students who seemed less engaged, but who rushed toward anything electronic or audio-visual. Some such recognition as the NMAAHC represents was first urged by USCT veterans in 1915, so seeing this fruition of their dreams was deeply moving. Many, many topics and perspectives are included. I’m not sure what the definition of a black conservative is, but there was a general’s complete uniform with the name badge “Powell.” Also in the Military Gallery was a broadside announcing a “Lecture. John Parker….On the War, With Slavery Connected,” which is associated with a black man compelled to serve a Confederate artillery piece at First Bull Run/Manassas, and who later escaped to Union lines. That seemed about it for black Confederate soldiers. I was thrilled to see that the description of this item included the words “In Memory of Sarah Dunlap Jackson (1919-1991),” since Doctor Jackson was my mentor at the National Archives. Tickets are hard to come by at present; the timed ones are accounted for through December.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 19, 2016 / 4:30 pm

      Ah, Sara! She was truly a wonderful person and a committed scholar. She was of great, great help to me as a young scholar. I miss her.

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