The problem with bringing history to life is that – as an individual – doing it well sometimes means not doing it.
A month from today I’ll be in Boston to participate in the reenactment of the Boston Massacre. The Massacre, which occurred in the evening of March 5th, 1770, was an incident between British soldiers stationed in Boston, and a crowd of townspeople and sailors. Initiated by an insult to the soldier standing sentry, and his retaliatory blow, mobs of apprentice lads and sailors rapidly gathered. After some serious heckling, and with no direct order to do so, the soldiers fired into the crowd. A dozen men and boys were shot, several of them mortally.
From a living history standpoint, this is a phenomenal historical event to recreate. It is historically significant, dramatic, and extremely focused. The soldiers and the mob combined add up to less than 60 people, meaning that gathering the correct number of people to act it out is very doable. From the records of the soldiers’ trial, we know the names and occupations of many of the participants. The information from the trial is also supported by an engraving done of the event by Paul Revere. The events take place quickly, in a city square which still exists, in the dark of evening, which helps to mellow the surrounding modernity. On top of this it has cachet, and will therefore draw a crowd.
This sort of well-executed and well-researched reenactment is entirely up my alley. As a living historian, I want to be there. I want to contribute. I want my talented friends to come, and I want there to be meaningful roles for us to play. And this is where I find myself disappointed. Because of course, the “exciting” [i.e. shoot’m up] part of the Boston massacre took place in city streets, in the dark, between soldiers, and sailors, and apprentice boys. Though women were in the streets before the threat of imminent violence became obvious, the mob itself was not a place for women [or hardly a place for them – two were in fact in the front of the crowd]. And so [with those exceptions, making up about 5% of the total crowd] it is not a place for women.
I want to help recreate the events faithfully, but to do that, I should really leave once violence breaks out, just as the women of Boston no doubt did when they noticed armed mobs in their city streets. I should skip the denouement, go home, and reflect on the significance of men brawling over taxes. I should skip the part of the event that actually makes it into the history books.
I come up against this problem a lot, and it bothers me. A lot. There is a part of me that thinks, “to hell with it. Would it hurt to re-write things a little to depict a slightly fairer past?” and there is another part, of equal size, that thinks the idea of falsifying history for some theoretical, ideological “good” is morally reprehensible. I do not know the solution, I just know that sitting at home, wondering “how the boys are getting along at the event” feels like crap, and so does standing around at the event explaining how “as a woman, I probably would not have actually been here”.
I crave a solution where I have a sense of ownership over the parts of my history that my culture values. However, since those parts tend to be dominated by male figures, I fear I may need to get used to disappointment…
6 thoughts on “Massacre the History?”
Yeah, get used to it. And yes, you did luck out.
I struggle, as you know, with these issues. How to interpret the people who weren’t there? How to present in absence, or vice verse. Explaining the [actual] absence of women at an event like the [recreated] Massacre is probably nearly pointless– given what that history is up against [bright red coats & a mob).
I’ve thought about not going, too– thought hard about it– but that feels like giving in. There’s no easy answer, just the wall of documentation and interpretation to keep banging on.
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So much to support and to ponder, here. Let me pick up just two small threads.
“Would it hurt to re-write things a little to depict a slightly fairer past?”
That is exactly what was done with the iconic image of the three firefighters raising the flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center. The actual photograph shows three white firefighters. A widely reproduced memorial image changed the central figure from white to black. It, too, is an artifact of the event, as much of its history (and ongoing historiography) as the photograph that inspired it. In some ways, more so, as it speaks to a need for inclusion and identification with this generation-defining event that was missing in the picture that was captured. One wonders whether the Marine monument that mirrors the (staged and recreated) flag-raising at Iwo Jima might have been similarly altered if our national consciousness and sensitivity to race and inclusion had been different in 1945…
Then there is the iconic image included in this post: the engraving popularized by Paul Revere and initially colorized by Christian Remick. There are two strikingly similar contemporary engravings of the same scene, one of which by Henry Pelham appears to have been Revere’s prototype. It is a masterful piece of propaganda, but I wouldn’t assume that things like the color of Samuel Gray’s trowsers, or even the finer details of the individuals in the crowd, are faithful depictions of what happened at night, on a street covered with a foot of snow, in which one of the individuals killed was of African ancestry (whereas the engravings show all white participants). Later engravings and colorized versions based on Revere further feminize the women he included in the crowd. As for Cripsus Attucks, his memory was reclaimed by subsequent generations and has such a central part in the story today that chances are, his is the only name of any participant that is remembered by the general public.
Interpretation is all. If we use our time with the public to engage not only with laboriously researched and depicted impressions and historic events but also to talk about what is different about us who participate, and our time from those who we depict – including age, gender and gender expression, ancestry, body sizes, etc., it provides a great educational service.
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Thank you very muck for this thoughtful reply. I wasn’t comfortable trying to bring up race in this post, but it is certainly part of the same family of interpretive issues. Your commentary was really valuable.
I hear you. It’s a frustration that I often find myself mitigating not only for myself but for potential new members of this goofy hobby. “Yes, but what do I get to *do*?” It’s funny, sometimes, how we discuss the conceptualization of history and the pragmatism of organizing events as two separate things. Yet, often, it works in our favor when it comes to thinking about how to creatively yet accurately inject non-white, non-male historical presence into events. (<–I know that was vague but I have a point…)
See, we often end up shortchanged on space and time as compared to actual events. "The camp would have been several miles from the field of battle, but see, we only have a couple acres available to us at the site, so…" "The riot occurred at X time and people wouldn't have gathered to talk about it until the next day, but we've got to cram this event into a single day, so…" Sometimes the time crunches and space constraints that seem at first glace to be obnoxious anachronisms are in fact opportunities. As long as everyone is on the same page and clear with the public about changes made to accommodate a re-creation (which will *always* be made to some degree, however accurate we wish to be), we can broaden, in a sense, by accepting and working with this narrowing.
Even when it's imperfect, I do believe that the presence of women in many historical events is important for telling a story that *did* exist, even if it existed a mile or so over thataway. We just have to be intelligent and honest about it, and consider how to do so respectfully and without revising history. This doesn't answer your post about *this* event specifically, but it's kind of my outlook–don't revise history, but work within the constraints to provide information that would otherwise be edited out by space and time constraints.
As for me, I won't stay home (hypothetically and metaphorically speaking–this event is outside my geographic area anyway 🙂 ). But I will portray with honesty the shortfalls.
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