The Past is Political: Race, Cultural Landscapes, and the Case for Community-Driven Heritage in Selma and South Africa

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Gautreau, Abigail Rose
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Middle Tennessee State University
The process of preserving and interpreting cultural heritage is inherently political. Cultural heritage has the power to legitimize the present by grounding it in the physical remnants of the past. This is most obvious when examining the destruction of heritage, whether through casual neglect or deliberate violence. The heritage most often at risk is that which challenges the values and narrative of the dominant culture. The process of preserving cultural heritage requires public historians and heritage professionals to negotiate these competing narratives and ideas, yet these practitioners are themselves influenced by the cultural context in which they live. In the United States, most public historians and preservationists are white in a cultural context that works to render their whiteness both normal and invisible. Public historians and heritage professionals must acknowledge and accept their own personal biases if they are to effectively preserve heritage that reflects the experiences of people of color and marginalized communities.
This dissertation argues that rather than focusing on the outcomes of projects, public historians and heritage professionals ought to prioritize the process of preserving and interpreting heritage, which means creating true partnerships that allow communities to drive the work forward. The role of the professional is temporary in nature, and in order for a project to succeed in the long term (achieve cultural success), the community must be prepared to take over and advocate for the project. Engaging communities requires public historians to cede control, but this process can yield interpretation and material that is rich and rewarding both to scholars and outside audiences.
These challenges are not unique to any particular country, but this dissertation explores them using case studies based on fieldwork in Selma, Alabama and Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. This research examines the challenges of doing heritage in places coping with the legacy and history of a long period of racialization and race-based discrimination.
Apartheid, Civil rights, Community, Cultural heritage, Historic preservation, Public history