Subject Matter Expertise: Historians and Documentaries

Last month, I was approached by Joseph Hill, documentary filmmaker, about his current project on the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. He was coming to Nashville to film at Fort Negley, and a few other sites related to enslavement and the USCT and asked if I could serve as a subject matter expert. He interviewed me on camera and asked some incredibly complex and insightful questions. The whole experience was thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Filmmaker Joseph Hill and I in Fort Negley’s archive room, 2019.

This was because he knows his audience, and knows that they enjoy grappling with the complexities and intricacies of history that I live for. Mr. Hill didn’t just want to know about the history of USCT, he wanted to explore it in the context of global enslavement, and why his topic mattered so much in this particular moment in time.

As director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, I’ve been able to interview two descendants of the USCT, Mr. Gary Burke and Mr. Bill Radcliff, and have gotten to know them over time through the events at Fort Negley that bring us together multiple times per year. We’ve spoken a lot about history, legacy, enslavement, freedom, and race. I bring to the table the historical source material, and they their lived experience and family histories. They have been generous with their observations, and with me when mine have been off. These conversations have been crucial to my own development as a person who shares the history of a topic that has left its mark on the country today. They have helped me understand how to balance what I know, with my own identity and with how I explain what I know, to whom I explain it, and why.

Freezing at Fort Negley with Mr. Radcliffe (left) and Mr. Burke (right), two descendants of the USCT, 2017.

Being aware of the stakes of what I’m saying has made a huge difference in how I engage with my subject matter. I think history is so incredibly cool, but more than that, it is crucial for helping us reframe our own understanding of the self. When I tell people that I study slavery, they often respond that it’s the type of history they wish they had learned more about in school. I always get insightful and creative questions about it. The motivation behind these questions is often very personal- people want to know exactly how enslavement contributed to the problems and processes of the world in which they navigate. These questions from the public aren’t the same as the types of questions I get at conferences with my colleagues, whose main concern is with the advancement of the field of history. They are questions that force me to think across a wide range dates, places, and cultures and translate knowledge produced by and for academics into ideas that can be synthesized into the public’s understanding of the world.

This is the most important thing about being a subject matter expert: not knowing everything about a topic there is to know, but knowing how to explain it to the audiences that want to know it. That often means intuiting why people want to know it. Questions about enslavement in the US- a former slave society plagued with racial injustice- aren’t value neutral. People are asking because they are reevaluating their own relationships to the historical process of enslavement and its modern legacies. The descendants of slaveholders, and the descendants of the enslaved naturally relate to this information differently, as do the descendants of white people who did not own slaves, but still benefited from being white in a society that depended on the enslavement of black people. People are asking questions about enslavement in a time of widespread white supremacist ideology in politics, national discussions on reparations, and in a place where social justice language has filtered into the general dialogue about anti-black bias in this country. People of all types are doing a lot of soul-searching and processing about their role in society and how to feel about it, and what to do about it. Sometimes, they look to the historian to help them navigate it.

Questions about enslavement in the US- a former slave society plagued with racial injustice- aren’t value neutral. People are asking because they are reevaluating their own relationships to the historical process of enslavement and its modern legacies.

So much of being an effective subject matter expert comes down to audience: how well can you explain something so that someone can truly hear it? Especially when it comes to a subject that touches on people’s unhealed trauma and elicits a wide variety of strong emotions, from sorrow to shame to guilt to denial and more? And how well can you operate when people direct their emotional responses to your answers at you? Are you comfortable with helping others observe and process their feelings? Are you good at setting boundaries with how much of that work is yours to do and how much is theirs? It’s a fine line sometimes, and one that I find moves a lot.

My subject expertise is a fraught and complicated one. But I’m far from alone in these experiences. Every good subject matter expert is really an expert on their audiences as much as or even more than their subject matter. It’s a work in sociology, in translation, and in navigating modern systems. It’s a challenge that is ever-changing as our society evolves. It’s also what drew me to the subject of history in the first place. I have a burning desire to know why the world is the way it is, and serving as a subject matter expert always shows me that I’m far from alone.

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