Crossing boundaries; the difference between ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘appropriating’ Black History

In Maintaining Boundaries, Eric Gable researches how the United States’ largest living-history museum Colonial Williamsburg talks about black history. As a case-study, Gable asks the numerous museum guides how they treat the concept of antebellum America’s miscegenation; the mixing of different racial groups through marriage, cohabitation, or, in this case, sexual relations.

 

In Colonial Williamsburg, history is divided into races, and subjects like miscegenation are treated as marginal; not part of the mainstream history, but of a separate history: black history. It is well known that slave owners sometimes had sexual relationships with their slaves, which for the latter, often happened involuntarily. The white guides in Colonial Williamsburg however, leave the task of telling the story of miscegenation to the black guides in Colonial Williamsburg, who are all part of a separate guide department, the Department of African-American Interpretation and Presentation (AAIP). If we would apply Jennifer Eichstedt’s typologies of presenting black history on this matter, Colonial Williamsburg would fall into category 3: ‘Segregation and marginalization of knowledge’. Gable wants that to change. First of all, miscegenation is part of black and white history. And second: there should not be a distinction between the two histories. Gable wants to ‘mainstream’ black history.

The Museum Weesp does not only include miscegenation to white history; it appropriates it to white history.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Museum Weesp, where there was a temporary exhibition on display called ´Uit de schaduw’. The idea for the exhibition was based on an archival discovery done by Annemieke van der Vegt. Annemieke was doing genealogical research on her ancestors and found out that her ancestor Christiaan van der Vegt, was not as Dutch as his name sounds. Christiaan was an African servant of the mayor of Weesp, who was later freed and renamed, married with a Dutch girl and got ten children. The museum asks its visitors: ‘Do you know who your ancestors are?’ Suggesting that it could very well be that the visitor has African ‘roots’, just like Annemieke. What would Gable think about this? After all, the museum does mainstream the story of miscegenation in a way. It even questions the identity of its white visitors; something the guides in Colonial Williamsburg tried to avoid at all cost.

 

But there is something very wrong with this way of talking about miscegenation. The Museum Weesp does not only include miscegenation to white history; it appropriates it to white history. By telling the visitor that there is a chance that they also have African roots, the museum indirectly implies that the visitor is as white or Dutch as Annemieke van der Vegt. And after the introduction, almost everything told in the exhibition is told from the white perspective. The museum has nothing to offer to black visitors or to those who want to find out more about the life of Christiaan van der Vegt. By making the possibility of African roots for Dutch people the main focus of the exhibition the museum excludes any other visitor groups from the museum.

White visitors experiencing how it feels to have ‘African roots’ in a museum installation in Museum Weesp.

The guides at Colonial Williamsburg treat miscegenation as marginal, black history, Museum Weesp appropriates miscegenation to white history. That is not at all what Gable meant when he wanted to mainstream black history! Where Colonial Williamsburg was a category 3 in Eichstedt’s typology, Museum Weesp falls into category 1: ‘symbolic annihilation and erasure.’ Which leaves me wondering: can you think of a museum that does handle the subject of miscegenation in a right manner? I can not think of any.

 

Or maybe we should not even try mainstreaming subjects like miscegenation or black history at all? Well, that is if we would listen to right-wing politician Theo Hiddema. Last month, in a radio interview, he pleaded for more miscegenation in our society in a peculiar (read: quite racist) way: ‘If all these Moroccans were mixing with Dutch ladies, then everything would be okay. Then you would not need integration clubs and experts (…) Integration between the sheets, isn’t that beautiful?’

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