Thursday, May 17, 2007

400 Years

Considering all the fanfare and media attention that usually accompany anniversaries, perhaps it’s no surprise that last weekend’s “America’s 400th Anniversary” festivities at Jamestown saw the Governor of Virginia playing harmonica alongside Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs and soul diva Chaka Khan. It’s unclear exactly what this eclectic group of musicians has to do with the founding of Jamestown, the first “successful” English colony in what is now the USA, but the collision of pop culture, politics and promotional hype surrounding the birthday seems to me to embody our approach to the past. Whereas once upon a time an anniversary like this would have merited a few speeches, and maybe a short play dramatizing the events being remembered, nowadays any great event seems to be marked by a pop concert, a group hug, and a televised special. (Coming to a CBS screen near you—some time between Memorial Day and the 4th of July!)

This apparent lack of connection between the recent celebrations and the original events is fascinating, and speaks volumes about how we as a nation choose to reconcile the past, present and future. Thanks to the wonders of the web, we can all look back and learn how Jamestown’s anniversary was remembered in previous years, and the changes are pretty revealing, especially since one of the major figures, Queen Elizabeth II of England, whose predecessor Queen Elizabeth I had encouraged the founding of Jamestown way back in Shakespeare’s day, has played a major role in two very different eras. On the last big anniversary, back in 1957, the Soviet satellite Sputnik had just orbited the earth, Queen Elizabeth was welcomed by a Governor of Virginia who was fighting to preserve segregation in the state’s schools, and Jamestown itself was recreated by historians and craftsmen, who built a full-size reconstruction of the original fort, which still stands today as the “Jamestown Settlement”, one of Virginia’s “Top Ten” most popular tourist attractions (whose online presence sits under the question-begging motto "History is Fun".)

The contrasts between 1957 and 2007 are intriguing to say the least. In place of all-white ranks of boys and girls in heroic settler garb (and a lone white female playing Pocahontas) who greeted her in 1957, the Queen this time was met by a phalanx of actors dressed up as aboriginal Powhatan Indians. Speeches told not of some Manifest Destiny of Anglo-Saxon achievement, but instead concentrated on the sacrifices of the many victims of Jamestown’s colonialism--struggling to convey these as deeds that eventually helped make America into the great multicultural melting pot it is today. While I personally can co-exist quite happily here in the non-judgmental middle of the road, the levels of touchy-feely “political correctness” on display at Jamestown have riled activists at both ends of the political spectrum. New generations of 1960s radicals like the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers have loudly objected to celebrations of the anniversary, while conservative pundit Pat Buchanan said (perhaps a little too proudly…): “Jamestown was no coming together of civilizations, but the opening of a war of imperial conquest by self-confident Christians who defeated and destroyed the pagan Indian tribes, drove them westward, repopulated their lands, and imposed their own faith and laws. When we came, the Indians had the land. We took it."

Just as we look back on 1957 as a sort of lost world, I’m sure that people in 2057 preparing for the 450th Anniversary of Jamestown will look back with astonishment (and a few giggles) at what people thought was appropriate way back in 2007. And rest assured, questions about who gets to write history -- and how -- are unlikely to disappear.

(If you are still interested in all this, one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the situation came from a local Virginia newspaper. )

Next up from me: my fave historic pageants and living history celebrations...


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10:26 PM  
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6:01 PM  

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