James Loewen: Interviewed about historic sites and history





James Loewen is the best-selling author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. His most recent book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, details the practice of American communities that kept out blacks and other groups through intimidation and violence for decades—and some that still do to this day. He has been an expert witness in more than 50 civil rights, voting rights, and employment cases, and he is Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. He will be a keynote speaker at the 2007 NAI National Workshop in Wichita, Kansas, November 6–10.

What are the “lies” you have discovered at historic sites?
Sites don’t want to say anything bad about themselves. For example, James Buchanan was homosexual. To many people, that’s bad. When I went to Buchanan’s birthplace, the site not only did not mention anything about that, but when staff members were asked directly, they denied it.

Something that sites do even less of is historiography. They almost never talk about how they used to present their past. Most sites tell you what happened in 1863 if it’s a Civil War site, but they don’t suggest that what they are saying is anything other than the eternal truth. That’s too bad, because visitors don’t understand that what we say about the past may not be the past. They don’t get any sense that a historical site should get critiqued.

What’s the difference between the lies at an interpretive site and the lies in a textbook?
The advantage of textbooks over historic sites is that they’re still available after they go out of date. It’s hard to get a 1970 interpretation of Gettysburg at Gettysburg, but it’s easy to get a 1970 edition of Triumph of the American Nation, the predecessor textbook to Holt American Nation. An enterprising teacher can collect textbooks for 50 cents each because they’re the slowest-selling books in used book stores. This makes for fascinating projects when students compare textbooks that were written in 1950, 1970, 1990, and 2007....


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