AHA Member Spotlight: Marty Blatt

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected by AHA staff or nominated by fellow AHA members. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Julie Nkodo.

Marty Blatt is chief of cultural resources and historian for the Boston National Historical Park/Boston African American National Historic Site. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has been a member of the AHA since 2000.

Member-Spotlight_Blatt

Alma mater/s: I earned my PhD from the Boston University American studies program.

Fields of interest: public history, focusing on African American, Revolutionary War, and Holocaust

When did you first develop an interest in history?

I first became interested in history while an activist against the Vietnam War. I became interested in studying radical movements in the United States—how they succeeded and how they faltered and/or became co-opted. This led to my PhD thesis topic, a biography of the 19th-century free love anarchist Ezra Heywood, which I reworked into a book.

What projects are you working on currently?

My most recent project, which ran from May 2–4, 2013, involved working with a wide variety of partners in the Boston area. The overall program was called Freedom Rising: The Emancipation Proclamation and African American Service in the Civil War. All the events were free and open to the public. The program included a talk by Eric Foner at the African Meeting House followed by an all-day symposium at Harvard featuring a wide array of scholars.

The culminating program, which I conceptualized, was Roots of Liberty: The Haitian Revolution and the American Civil War. We presented this historical pageant in Tremont Temple, the historic location where the Emancipation Proclamation was read in 1863. The focus of the program was the importance of the Haitian Revolution to black and white abolitionists and to black Union troops and the fear that it instilled in many whites in the South and the North. We used primary sources as much as possible and presented the texts in the context of a story of a young Haitian American girl writing a high school assignment and learning about her own roots. The pageant featured actors and actresses, music, Haitian dance, and a choir. A major outreach effort yielded a highly diverse audience including significant numbers of Haitian Americans and African Americans. Special guests included the actor Danny Glover, the writer Edwidge Danticat, and the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. All of these activities were filmed and will be available soon on the website of Boston African National Historic Site.

Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?

During graduate school, my interests began to focus on public history and away from the notion of earning my PhD and then seeking a tenure-track position. Along with Jim Green and Susan Reverby, I organized the Massachusetts History Workshop in the context of working on the National Endowment for Humanities-funded project, Life and Times in Shoe City: The Shoe Workers of Lynn. I eventually went to work for the National Park Service, first in Lowell and then in Boston.       

Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc., that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

While I was working on Roots of Liberty: The Haitian Revolution and the American Civil War, one film came up several times and that is the one that I would like to recommend. Burn is a 1969 film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and starring Marlon Brando. It is an excellent feature film that honestly explores the nature of 19th-century European imperialism in the Caribbean.

What do you value most about the history profession?

I value most about history/public history is that well done exhibits, films, and public programs examining history can lead many people to change their thinking about the past and the present. History can profoundly influence people to act in more ethical ways by applying the lessons from the past to their contemporary concerns.

I also think it is important for all historians to recognize how contentious the story of the past can be and historians should be prepared to engage in a struggle over interpretation. This is true in academic history as well as public history. I will provide one example. Currently the National Park Service (NPS) is marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. A few years ago the agency drafted a Vision Statement that omitted any mention of slavery, a grotesque step. How and why this happened needs to be researched and brought to light. The Vision Statement was modified to include slavery as the principal cause of the Civil War but not without a major struggle.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?

I recall in 2007 presenting on a panel with my then NPS colleague Louis Hutchins about the NPS traveling exhibit we produced on the history of the Gulag, done in conjunction with the Gulag Museum in Perm, Russia; Amnesty International; and the scholar Steve Barnes.    

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

I have a real passion for the theater and serve as board president of the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to two resident companies: the Underground Railway Theater and the Nora Theatre Company. I am also devoted to following several sports, including soccer—the Boston Breakers in women’s professional soccer, La Liga, and the Barclay’s English Premier League—as well as basketball and baseball.

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