Reflecting On Ways to Create a More Empathic Understanding of the Uprising in Suburban Communities

It’s always been helpful for me to use the literary device of metaphor to understand history. Perhaps it’s just too alluring to try and distill some seemingly chaotic historic event into a more relatable and universally knowable context. Of course this doesn’t always work, nor is it always possible or appropriate. If metaphor is applied improperly or insensitively we run the risk of confusing our intentions, misleading our audience, or worse alienating the reader to the personal relevance of the history we are presenting them. However when done effectively metaphors can deepen our understanding of events, and create a profound sense of empathy and connection with the past.

To this point, I’ve been thinking a lot about the appropriateness of metaphor in contextualizing the Baltimore Uprising. Specifically the variations in how different populations perceived the same event in the context of their lives. For example, it might be helpful for some to think of the Uprising as metaphorically resembling a natural disaster, like an earthquake. We can think of the mechanics of a subduction zone and the seismic tension that builds up over centuries, eventually culminating in momentary massive releases of that tension, which in turn lead to physical destruction. In this respect, there are certainly some ostensible connections between the Uprising and an earthquake. For instance, one could easily argue that the violence that occurred in April 2015 was a singular release of tension that had been building for a generation amongst communities of color and police. However this is a problematic representation. For one, comparing the Uprising to a natural disaster negates the man-made factors which led directly to the Uprising. It also implies that there is nothing we can do change the situation.

Antero Pietilla’s Not in My Neighborhood, and the collaborative Baltimore Book, do an admirable job in highlighting the social preconditions for events like the Uprising, and implicating humans directly in creating those preconditions. However for all of its strengths, I found myself questioning how successfully these books reached beyond the receptive ears of academics, progressives, and urban residents to contextualize the event for the broader public. Again, the reasons metaphors can be effective tools in achieving this end is their ability to relate seemingly irrelevant events. Natural disasters are not discriminatory in their effects on populations, and hence function well metaphorically. They are a reality shared by all humans. The Uprising does not lend itself so easily to such qualification and therefore presents a unique challenge in how it is communicated by historians to the public. It is in this void that unfortunately the news media has a tendency to fill the public with sensationalized and ephemeral stories that overlook the true complexity of the event itself; covering the event much in the same way they would cover a hurricane or an earthquake. This media depiction in turn becomes the dominant narrative of the event which is received beyond the borders of the city, in suburban America. To me, this sets up an important question for historians as they tackle how to document the significance of the Uprising: what role can we play in creating a shared and empathic connection with the Uprising for communities outside of the city limits whose only real insight on the event is coming from the news cycle?

This brings me to some of the concerns I have with the other public history projects we have analyzed so far this semester. While I greatly admire the work done by Jessica Elfenbein for the ambitious Baltimore ’68 project, I also believe that the project perhaps underestimated its own sphere of potential influence. By emphasizing the importance of the project to the residents of Baltimore City, the project in some ways diminished its ability to connect the event to the surrounding regions. For example, given that so many whites fled the city in the aftermath of the riots, and that many of those same former residents still to this day mostly associate the city with legacies of African American crime, would it not be worth prying into how those associations are made and reinforced? In the context of the Uprising, I think we could similarly say that rural communities have taken little away from the event beyond a reaffirmation of the image of Baltimore as a dangerous place. It’s certainly worth it for historians to consider probing as to how this narrative has developed. While it is certainly important for us to help the communities most directly affected in remembering the Uprising in a critical and meaningful way, it is also important to not lose sight of how such projects can become detrimentally too tribal in focus and scope. Such projects could benefited from an increased effort in documenting how those far removed from the epicenter of the riots received and interpreted the events? Would that not help in understanding how social divisions are perpetuated? To this point, a central problem I have noticed is how events in the city seems completely inconsequential to those not living in the city, and vice versa. It seems to me that we ought to expand the focus of these kinds of projects to help create a more empathic connection between increasingly divergent social groups.

With all of this in mind, I would like to focus my project on how the Uprising was presented by the media, both regionally and nationally. The news media is certainly the most direct way that rural communities ingested and interpreted the events of that day, and therefore provides us as historians with a unique insight into the varieties of narratives these communities received during the Uprising. Specifically I would like to compare and contextualize these narratives within a more general discussion about how the perspective changes depending on who is presenting it, or the perceived audience. For example, why did some news outlets choose to focus more on looting and destruction versus protest marches and calls for peace from community leaders? What implicit messages can we glean from the boldface headlines circulating on the home pages of the major news outlets like CNN and FoxNews? Was there any mentioning of over-policing or systemic poverty, and if so which outlets adopted this narrative and which didn’t? How long did it take after the event for op-ed’s to appear which actually dug deeper into the systemic issues which led to the Uprising?

I’d also like to analyze whether any historical context was offered by the media during the event itself, and if so how it deviates from the histories we have been reading. I could see StoryMap being a useful tool to this end. My initial idea was to create a digital exhibit documenting the geographic locations actually covered on the various live news feeds throughout the day, and overlay selected excerpts of transcripts from the reporters themselves as they covered the event. I would then offer my own critique and analysis of those perspectives with an eye towards contextualizing their coverage within the historical legacies of segregation endemic to Baltimore. Ideally this exhibit would serve to complicate the one dimensional news media’s depiction of the Uprising, and allow viewers to have simultaneous access to a wider variety of narratives presented. I believe this exhibit could help to elucidate how impressions of the city are formed in suburban communities, and furthermore engage those communities in the processes of perpetuating prejudice. In this way, perhaps the exhibit could aid viewers in ceasing to look for simplified metaphorical understandings of highly complex events like the Baltimore Uprising.