Episode 94

94. Jazz Dottin Guides Viewers Through Massachusetts’s Buried Black History

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About this Episode

The deliberate exclusion of Black history and the history of slavery in the American South has been slow to reverse. But Jazz Dottin, creator and host of the Black Gems Unearthed YouTube channel says it can be just as slow in New England. Each video features Dottin somewhere in her home state of Massachusetts, often in front of a plaque or historical marker, presenting what’s missing, excluded, or downplayed.

The history discussed on Black Gems Unearthed has been left out by conventional museums, which are among the most trustworthy institutions in modern American life, according to the American Alliance of Museums. This trust may have more to do with power than truth-telling — and today, there are many different ways to build trust with an audience online. Shows like Dottin’s might point to where our new relationship with the authoritative voice is heading.

In this episode, Dottin describes how working as tour guide and creating travel itineraries influences her work today, how she came up with the idea for Black Gems Unearthed, and what the future holds.

Image: Jazz Dottin in front of Emancipation in Boston, Mass.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 94. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

There’s a saying among history nerds: always read the plaque.

Roman Mars: “Always read the plaque.”

But of course, the plaques don’t tell the whole story. Maybe a better mantra would be “start by reading the plaque.”

Jazz Dottin: If I see plaques, I have to stop and read them. But with Black history, you know, there's not as many plaques, if any at all that are describing events and people and things that have happened in different areas across the country.

This is Jazz Dottin, creator and host of a new YouTube channel called Black Gems Unearthed.

Jazz Dottin: Hello, my name is Jazz Dottin and I am the host of Black Gems Unearthed, which is a YouTube series where I talk about Black history around the state of Massachusetts.

So I am an experienced tour guide. I develop travel programs and itineraries, and now I'm working in the academic world at a university in Massachusetts.

Dottin grew up in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.

Jazz Dottin: A small town, suburb outside of Boston. 21 miles or however many miles a marathon is where the start of the Boston marathon is. When I was growing up in Huffington, I don't have memories of learning about local Black history. And I was just curious about Hopkinton as I was starting to make these videos and started to do a little bit of digging.

An episode of Black Gems Unearthed describes when she figured out that a stone wall next to one of the streets that she drove down as a child was probably built by enslaved Africans.

Jazz Dottin (from Black Gems Unearthed): “It came up in the research that Africans likely built the tiers that you can see on the grass behind me, you can kind of see three layers, and they also may have done work on the wall that’s behind me too.”

Jazz Dottin: And it just feels eerie to know that there was slavery in this town that is just known for being a nice suburb to live in. That is part of the legacy that people may or may not realize it's like in our DNA.

In episode 42 of Museum Archipelago, we spoke with Freddi Williams Evans and Luther Gray, who in 2018, erected one of the first plaques detailing New Orleans’s slave trading past.

The deliberate exclusion of Black history and the history of slavery in the Amerian South has been slow to reverse. But Dottin says it can be just as slow in the North.

Jazz Dottin: I just think it's the power of storytelling. We've told the stories for so long that the North was the place where people went to be free and it was valued. And we did everything in our power to end slavery. And the South was bad because they enslaved people, but really hello! We were connected in the institution of slavery. So we really need to address the past and discuss it and look at it because it has shaped our communities and the way that we view ourselves, which may or may not be accurate.

The connections to the institution of slavery in the American North come both from a time when slavery was legal in New England, and later when slavery was illegal but pwerful families profited from the slave trade and related buisnesses. Dottin was familiar with some of these connections -- say, a mansion belonging to one of these families -- because she worked as a tour guide for over 10 years.

Jazz Dottin: I actually graduated from Temple University from their Tourism and Hospitality program. I did a lot of work as a tour guide in my undergraduate program, like I used to give tours on segways and then I gave culinary tours. So I was the actual guide, but then I also have experience developing itineraries. I worked for Road Scholar, which is an educational travel company for older adults. And there, I actually pieced together itineraries based on a theme, say, people want to learn about the history of women's suffrage. We would put together an itinerary that had lectures and trips to visit museums and local sites that related to getting women the right to vote.

One of Dottin’s biggest challenges as a tour guide was trying to present Black history to an audience that wasn’t expecting it.

Jazz Dottin: Most of our itineraries were European-centric. So you're seeing allhese sites that are well-known tourist attractions, but where is that black history? And so that might have meant including a lecture about the fact that there were people that were enslaved that work here, or including maybe a music presentation from a group that's from the area that could weave together their story of how they came to live in the area. So it always felt like I was just sprinkling in a couple of fun facts. The itineraries are never specifically about Black history. At least the ones that I was working on. It's just the reality of developing itineraries for a primarily white audience and an older adult audience is just that wasn't necessarily what they were we're looking for.

Dottin first came up with the idea for a video-based guided tour focusing on Black history in Massachusetts in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd.

Jazz Dottin: Yeah, it was a result of George Floyd's murder. I was just very upset. Seeing what happened and just realizing that so many people were shocked by what happened when this is something that happens on a regular... Black people are murdered regularly throughout the United States for, for small issues and for no issues whatsoever.

So I was very upset by what happened. And I was upset by the reactions that companies had. Some that did not want to make statements. Some that did make statements that just didn't feel like there was any action behind it. So I decided, you know what, now's the time I'm going to make videos because I have a smartphone. I am going to get Adobe Premier and the software. I need to be able to make this.

I had an interest in creating walking tours, but I just realized, you know, we're also in the middle of a pandemic. Why don't we just focus on making videos? And it'll help me learn the information better. And perhaps people will enjoy watching it too.

By making and editing the videos, Dottin has complete control over the topics and what is being presented. The format is effective: every video features Dottin looking right at the camera on site somewhere in Massachusetts -- often in front of a plaque or historical marker. Her well-researched narration, supplemented by historical photos and passages from documents, presents what’s missing, excluded, or downplayed.

The episodes weave together multiple stories, all tied together with a strong sense of place.

Jazz Dottin: I'm researching the topic and then I'm hunting around for photos that are relevant. That's probably the hardest part. Where can I find photos, pictures, and items that I can include, then actually making the video.

Dottin says it takes about a month to make a video. The research buttresses Dottin’s effective presentation style, which features genuine excitement and subtle sarcasm -- it builds trust, and as a viewer, I would prefer to listen to Dottin explain something instead of another tour guide if given the choice.

Jazz Dottin: So you know what? I do watch a lot of videos on YouTube also as another way to learn history as I'm making videos too. And sometimes the videos are a little dry, so I try and make the videos sound like I am talking to friends because I wouldn't talk to friends in the same way I might deliver information in more of an academic setting. Just trying to kind of change the energy around how information is presented. The American Alliance of Museums often says that museums are the most trustworthy institutions in modern American life. And the statistics are remarkable: some surveys indicate that museums are the second most trusted news source after friends and family. We’ve argued before that this high level of trust might have more to do with power than truth telling. But today, there are many different ways to build trust with an audience online, and shows like Dottin’s might point to where our new relationship with authoritative voice is heading. In this model, the museum becomes the middleman. The plaques become the setting. Given that museums have excluded Black history from their halls for so long, it’s appealing that projects like Black Gems Unearthed allow people to go directly to the source -- a personality that’s trusted even more than museums.

Jazz Dottin: So I have been reading books for a long time on Black history, and I've kind of pinned down where people have lived and where events have taken place. So I figured, you know what, why don't I just make some videos about this because more people than just my friends that happened to be with me could benefit from knowing this information. Black history is kind of hidden. It's not in clear sight, but then I was also thinking about how Black history is so important. It's really valuable. And I was talking to my partner about it and he was like, “oh, gems are formed in bedrock under a lot of pressure.”

And I was like, yeah, you're onto something. There’s Black Gems! And we're Unearthing them! Yes, this is the name: Black Gems Unearthed.

You can find Black Gems Unearthed on YouTube by searching for Black Gems Unearthed. The project also has a website at blackgemsunearthed.com. In every episode, you’ll see Dottin in front of a plaque somewhere in Massachusetts, telling a much deeper story than what’s printed.

Jazz Dottin: I'm very hopeful for the future of the museums in Massachusetts and in Boston that they'll keep sharing information about Black history and just history from groups that have not oftentimes been showcased.

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For a full transcript of this episode, as well as show notes and links. Visit museumarchipelago.com. Thanks for listening. And next time, bring a friend.

What is it like giving a tour on the segway?

Jazz Dottin: Exhilarating? Oh yeah. I mean, all of your senses are coming together at once because you're riding the segway. You're talking about what's around you. And you're also keeping an eye that all of the participants are staying in line behind you and are not going into traffic or having any other issues...