What heritage does and does not do to identity: some answers from an ethnographic perspective

This paper explores how caretakers of slave-era heritage sites objectify and enact what Robert Bellah and his co-authors call "communities of memory" in a racially polarized United States and how the public interpret their efforts at creating what amounts to official history. It highlights the often-vexed encounter between those who are in charge of conveying public representations of slavery and race in the antebellum era in the United States and vernacular responses to such representations. It looks at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, which recently has made great efforts to make slaves prominent figures in the landscapes it reconstructs in on-site maps, tours, and literature. Of particular interest are the various ways that vernacular skepticism and cynicism about public portrayals continues to generate controversy at Monticello, and particularly at how the topic of erasure and invisibility remain enduring themes in the popular imagination of what public history is all about when such history focuses on slavery and race. By interrogating public skepticism about official portrayals of the past, the paper moves towards a performative approach to studying what heritage does to identity production rather than a representational approach. Among the identities that are produced at Monticello (and by extension other antebellum sites) are racial and oppositional identities.

heritage; official history; performance; skepticism


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