Op-Ed: We Need to Learn the Forgotten Stories in Our National Parks

Editor’s note: On June 29, the Mellon Foundation announced a $ 13.4 million grant to the National Park Foundation to fund 30 humanities postdoctoral fellowships. These roles expand on a pilot program of four fellows that began in 2017. During their fellowship, scholars will educate the public about the complex history of national parks. Their work will support the NPS’s multi-year effort to commemorate the United States’ upcoming half-century festival. Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation and the famous poet at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009, shares her thoughts below on the value of national parks and the importance of telling the diverse stories in them.

Our national parks are the places of everyday excursions such as class excursions, and extraordinary trips such as country excursions. From the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to Everglades National Park, they give us opportunities to get outside, get outside ourselves and explore the wild wonders that occur in our public lands.

When I was a kid in Washington, DC, an afternoon at Theodore Roosevelt Island was an opportunity to adventure among the tidal swamps of the Potomac, listening to the dozens of bird species visiting the island’s wetlands. As a young woman, I went with my beloved grandmother to the Assateague Island National Seashore, where I experienced the magic of a precious childhood storybook that comes to life, Misty of Chincoteague. It was by snorkeling in the Virgin Islands’ Coral Reef National Monument that I saw how our national parks help preserve the revelations of the natural world underwater. And it was with my own children that I went for a walk in the forests of Acadia, peeked into the Narrows at Zion, and marveled at the old rooibos in Muir Woods.

But our national parks are not just where we go to cherish the beauty of the outdoors or to get acquainted with our country’s remarkable natural landscapes. They are also one of the few places we visit that immerses us in the stories of American history.

Maybe it was the drive of the Rio Grande into the Big Bend National Park that gave you a different perspective on the 174-year-old border between Mexico and the United States. Or maybe it was time spent in the rooms of the Medgar and Myerlie Evers Home, a National Park Service site commemorating the difficult parts of our history, enriching your knowledge of our country’s civil rights movement. Maybe it was time spent at Denali, or in the Great Smoky Mountains, or at the African Burial Ground, or at Valley Forge, or in the Petrified Forest – maybe it was at any of these NPS national parks, monuments and historic sites where you learned something new about who we are, and who we were, as an enormous and extremely complex country of over 332 million people.

Last year, NPS sites alone received 297 million recreational visits. And this year, at the beginning of another busy summer season, many of us will soon be vacationing, backpacking and day trips throughout them, not only to enjoy the beauty of the natural world, but also to learn more about our country learn and linger. that learning – to learn more about the country itself, to reflect on our shared history and to see first-hand our historical sites.

These are the reasons why the Mellon Foundation has just granted more than $ 13 million to support 30 humanities postdoctoral fellows at National Park Service sites across the United States. The goals of these societies, which will be held for two years by humanities scientists from across the country, are simple but soaring: to illuminate the stories and history present in our national parks, and to tell them in full.

As I spent more time exploring our country, I appreciated how new voices and new perspectives could enrich and expand our experience of our National Park Service sites.

Equipped with the unique skills and expertise that the humanities allow, these scholars will do original research, develop new educational materials, or even create new public programming, all with the goal of broadening and deepening what we learn at NPS sites. They will ask questions such as: What stories in these places have not been told — and how can they be lifted? What complexity is missing in the history that these sites teach – and how can it be transmitted? How can new voices and new perspectives be better incorporated into the stories we learn and tell in our national parks? Questions such as these in an earlier community pilot program provided documentation of new oral histories at César E. Chávez National Monument, new environmental justice programming related to Martin Van Buren National Historic Park, and new research outcomes at Stonewall National Monument.

As I spent more time exploring our country, I appreciated how new voices and new perspectives could enrich and expand our experience of our National Park Service sites. A visit to the Bandelier National Monument was made even more powerful by the chance to see the transformative paintings of Native American Pueblo artist Pablita Velarde within Bandelier’s own beautiful natural surroundings. A tour of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site was made even more revealing by the interpretations of a National Park Service staff member who had a graduate degree in African American Studies, and who shared those insights and teachings with visitors. The 30 new humanities societies funded by Mellon will open up the range of voices and perspectives we encounter and help us learn more about the unique stories and complex history they bring together when we visit special places like these.

The experiences we have when we spend time in our National Park Service sites are irreplaceable. And because our national parks commemorate and convey the significance of the historic record of the United States, the stories we learn about our collective history in these areas are also invaluable.

This landmass and its islands, these waterways, these extraordinary pieces of wilderness, this land — it’s incredibly large, and it’s incredibly varied. What a gift it is that holds us together: the chance to learn more about our history, ourselves and each other, all in our national parks.

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