Another thing I want to do herein is to open up a space for thinking and talking across the various worlds and disciplines that interest and compel me. And hopefully to encourage more collaboration and more dialogue and more experimentation among my various co-conspirators and role-models and inspirations—teachers and performers and scholars and writers and activists and rif-raf of many sorts alike. Also to:
--create some fuel for a real movement to bring critical, engaged, complicated, and comprehensible history into the streets; and to
--consider those places where this is already being done.
Can I be any clearer, you ask? For sure. I'm all about clarity, and anecdote, and specificity. So, now, let me see, what do I got in my bag of tricks?…
OK, here: lets all go to the Circus together, for a minute. C’mon, don’t be scared. The clowns are all very, very, very nice, they’ll buy you a beer if you help them load up the truck… and the elephant is made out of papier mache. The scariest thing about this particular circus is how freaking HOT it is, and how little funding they’ve got.
Those of you out there in blogland whose phone numbers are saved inside my cellphone will know that I’m talking, here, about the great Circus Amok. (www.circusamok.org)
This year, I had the immense privilege and joy of working with the Circus in the role of what Jennifer Miller calls a dramaturg. "Dramaturg" sounds a little too dramatic and a whole lot too turgical, and anyhow, I know very little about any of that. Actually, I was much more of a historical advisor. (If you are reading this post during the month of September 2006 and you’re anywhere near NYC, get yourself to the nearest park to watch the Circus during its one-month all-NYC parks tour. See the website—above—for schedule and details. You won’t be disappointed.) A one-ring extravaganza of the most glittery and grassroots kind, this year’s Circus was organized around the twin themes of immigration and Latin American politics. It was called “Citizen*Ship: An Immigrant Rights Fantasia in 10 Acts.” Miller called me up and said: can you help me figure out some way we can fit something about the history of immigration and naturalization into the Circus this year. And I replied: it just so happens, Ms. Miller, that several square feet of my PhD dissertation was devoted to the history of U.S. immigration and naturalization law. So I actually feel qualified—licensed, even—to speak professionally on such subjects. The result was that one afternoon in—what was it, Miller? June?—of this year, I went over to her place, and we sat around talking history. After that, we exchanged several thousands of emails and I visited Circus rehearsal a few times, and boom, before I knew it, there were professional acrobats and dancing teacups and glittery performers jumping around on pogo sticks and doing flips and standing on their hands to illustrate complicated features of the history of immigration and naturalization law in the U.S. I’m talking about ideas that came right out of books like Ian Haney Lopez’s brilliant work of critical race theory, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. And in no time, audiences in parks from Coney Island to the South Bronx found themselves watching performer after performer step up to a microphone and talk about the racism embedded in the history of U.S. citizenship laws. And it worked—or at least, audiences didn’t stream madly out in frustration and boredom during these pedagogical moments. This, I think is in part because Miller choreographed it, and Jenny Romaine musicalized it, so smartly—and in part because it was wedged between an insanely hilarious fake-Heidi-themed juggling routine and a glittery acrobatics act. And in part because—what? That New Yorkers are ready to hear that the history of U.S. citizenship law was racially coded? I have no idea. But I am studying it. And I am trying to learn how public displays of history of this sort can be so powerful.
Now, I don’t have any illusions. I don’t think that the Circus is going to singlehandedly change the world, or that the brilliant combination of politics and history and entertainment that it features will mean that immigrants won’t continue to be attacked in the streets, at work, or in state and federal legislatures in the coming year. But I did watch something kind of beautiful happen at the Union Square performance last Thursday afternoon.
Because it was the middle-ish of the day, a fair portion of the audience for that performance consisted of West Indian domestic workers—nannies—with their charges, white children, in their arms. The central narrative thread that organizes this year’s Circus’s is a story about a West Indian nanny who abandons the white family that employs her. Lupita, as she is called, has joined together with a group of her friends and created a circus act. And together they have all decided run away to Argentina—where, as Lupita says, “You can be a circus performer and have health care!” It was impossible not to notice, throughout the totally bold scene in which Lupita tells her boss off, the surprised and delighted laughter coming from a section of the audience where a group of West Indian domestic workers were standing. I don’t know what sort of lasting effects this kind of encounter between circus and audience might have, but it certainly felt a whole lot different than it feels to watch some reality TV absently over a beer at the local bar. And ok, yes. It suggested the possibility of alliances across occupation and class and neighborhood in this city that so often feels hard-core and impossible.
And that's what I mean when I say "public history."
Are you with me, my fellow university-trained and -based public historians?