ALHFAM President’s Message

Image of James Madison's Montpelier with cabins for the enslaved workers.
James Madison’s Montpelier, Montpelier Station, Virginia

Most of you by now will have learned about the events that have taken place at James Madison’s Montpelier. You can learn more from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s press release

The ALHFAM board of directors wrote a response regarding the events that has been sent to both the Montpelier Foundation and the National Trust. The board statement was also posted on the various ALHFAM Facebook pages and the member-only ALHFAM-L discussion list. You can find the statement here:

In response to the post, one viewer stated, “I am tired of this woke crap.” My thumbs immediately went to my phone to respond, but then I hit delete and decided to sit with that for a while.

What is it to be “woke” and why would someone be tired of it? According to the dictionary, it is the past tense of “wake”—to cease to sleep; to be brought into a state of awareness. My American Heritage Dictionary was published in 1982, so it was long before the current informal definition of “to be alert to injustice in society.” I, for one, am in no way tired of being woke. Why would you not want to be in a state of awareness? I am worn out by a society that is all too often asleep, and I say this as a heterosexual, white, middle-class, grandmother—one of the privileged classes. There is a moral imperative to call out injustice. All people have a right to dignity, and by claiming their dignity and their story, they do not lessen mine. They expand it.  

History is fun, heartwarming, exciting and inspiring, but it is also cruel, heartbreaking and unfair. And all that might be contained within the same event by merely looking at the multitude of voices within that event. In the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

History is large and contains multitudes, and we must work to uncover those multitudes. History should not be a weapon used by the dominant culture to indoctrinate a worldview. It should be a place for discovery, discussion, and understanding. Yes, this can be uncomfortable. Many of us are afraid to reconsider the idyllic view of the past we were often taught, so we have a campaign against Critical Race Theory and attacks on teachers for just teaching history. At the beginning of the semester, my grandson was telling me about his AP History class. He said the teacher told them he didn’t teach Critical Race Theory. As my eyeballs started to roll back in my head, my grandson continued with “I teach history, and I guarantee at some point during the semester each of you will be uncomfortable and angry about what we discuss.” I think I like this history teacher. These are 16 and 17-year-olds. They are ready to discuss difficult topics.

History is often intentionally pasted over and buried so the results can be used to denigrate a segment of the population. I grew up in rural Oklahoma and was always interested in history, but I never learned that Tulsa, Oklahoma was the site of the largest and deadliest race riot in U.S. history until I went to college in the 1970s. The story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was deliberately hidden. The newspaper accounts are missing from the archives, and until recently it was not included in a history textbook. An untold number of black residents were massacred, and the prosperous Greenwood Community was burned down. The area remained blighted. It was pointed to as an example of a citizenry without the motivation to improve their situation in life, but a look at history tells a different story. Insurance companies refused to pay claims to the residents who lived in fear and shock at what had been done. Building codes changed to prevent rebuilding, and loans were denied. The lack of progress over the years was used as a weapon to point out what was “wrong” with the community. The story is slowly coming to light. Archaeological investigations are underway to locate mass graves. The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park has opened. Painful conversations are taking place. After a century of silence, the new Greenwood Rising in the Greenwood district is sharing the story of Black Wall Street and what happened there. The work is far from complete as discussions continue about reparations to descendants for the wealth stolen from them.

I will happily say I am at least trying to be woke. I discover all the time that I have blind spots, but I am willing to dig around in those uncomfortable stories even when they involve my family.

ALHFAM is committed to looking at our blind spots as an organization, to seeking to be more inclusive, and we will not apologize for being woke. It is something everyone should aspire to.

Kathy Dickson, ALHFAM president

5 thoughts on “ALHFAM President’s Message”

  1. Bravo. You are amazing– a great leader and writer. I am proud to know you.

    Xo Lauren

    Lauren Muney Sent from my phone – please pardon typos and autocorrects

    Traditional Silhouette Artist Events, Museums, Programs, Mail-Order “Silhouettes By Hand” 301-210-6161 hm ofc 301-674-7086 cell: emergencies


  2. Thank you Kathy for your thoughtful response and leadership in the field and in ALHFAM. The future is uncertain and can be frightening at times, but we must move forward and continue to strive to be better. Telling more stories does not mean that we are “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” We are just expanding our understanding of the human condition.

  3. Bravo, indeed. Yours, Kathy, is a wonderful response to the criticism of “wokeness.” If the opposite of woke–enlightened–is the Dark Ages, dominated by folks filled with superstitions, conspiracies, and prejudices, as I suspect it is, I am proud to be among the woke.

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