It’s been 241 years since Elizabeth Freeman won her freedom. Events this weekend prompt reflection on the telling of Black history
Elizabeth Freeman’s legacy in the Berkshires has sparked a celebration, as well as soul-searching and reflection about how Black history is told and who tells it.
History can be, at once, illuminating and hidden. That’s not a contradiction but an indication of what history offers us and what is demanded of us if we are to meaningfully reckon with it. In that spirit, a slate of events this weekend will celebrate the life of Berkshire County historical icon Elizabeth Freeman. Those events include a play, a “Freedom Walk, a statue unveiling — and a conversation.
Four scholars will take a deep dive into “The Telling of Black Stories,” analyzing the historical portrait of Elizabeth Freeman — the realities and myths — as a case study springboard into a broader discussion of the ethics of retelling history and how Black Americans have heard their own history recounted.
History is always complicated and seldom pretty. While truth is neutral, that neutrality is inevitably eroded by the pat and often biased narratives that can frame our historical understandings. The limitations of those narratives disproportionately fall on communities who have been historically underrepresented and oppressed — and the residual impact of that reality can be true even when celebrating historical figures from those communities.
That tension is real and shouldn’t be ignored by anyone attempting to grapple with the whole truth of history. In fact, that tension played out in the pages of this newspaper earlier this year when Berkshire NAACP President Dennis Powell penned an op-ed critiquing what he saw as a lack of Black voices initially involved in the project to create the statue that will be unveiled this weekend. That statue looks different compared to its original design, which was a result of having more voices reflect on what it should look like — a fitting example of the sometimes subtle but always critical difference when all communities get a seat at the table in the broader conversation of how we frame the tapestry of our shared history.
Looking with clear eyes at history — and how it’s told — can be uncomfortable. After all, so much of our history is. Ms. Freeman’s heroism stems from the fact that she pursued the vaunted value of liberty in a country that broadly promised it but often refused it to so many of its children. And that’s far from the only example in our Berkshire backyard. Last year, some Williamstown residents were shocked to find the language of racial covenants still lingers on some property deeds, evidence of a systematic 20th-century effort to marginalize and push out the region’s Black population. Meanwhile, this land’s first inhabitants had to struggle mightily just to preserve their own history and traditions in the face of centuries of erasure and removal — a reality that is finally just beginning to see a real reckoning through reconciliation between the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians and the region’s current population.
Some might argue that this is too divisive and merely highlighting the darker corners of our history. But for others, it is simply casting more light on the chapters of history where they see themselves — chapters that have too often been diminished, distorted or ignored. Yes, we can and should celebrate our shared history’s many high points, but we must grapple with all of it and be conscious of how we recount it. That goes for Berkshire history, American history or any history that includes the stories of individuals and communities who in the past have been systemically locked out of how their own history is told. “We’re trying to get all the stories out there,” said W.E.B. Du Bois Center board Chairman Wray Gunn. “And all the stories that we tell — they all have a glitch in them. We’re moving forward.”
That “glitch” of simple, limiting and often motivated frames forced on the whole complexity of our shared past is not unique to Berkshire history. This weekend’s events, though, especially the historical roundtable discussion, offer a uniquely Berkshire chance to begin the work to repair that glitch. We look forward to learning from the start of this conversation — and we do hope it’s just a start.