“ICONography” Smartly Dissects Myths and Realities of Historical Icons

A place is not just defined by its geographical borders and its people, but by their memories, histories, and stories—its icons. An icon, real or imagined, is not just a religious work of art, but any person, object, concept, or event that has gained so much strength in its social memory that it becomes inextricably tied with the consciousness about a place, a people, and a time.

Each episode of the Iconography podcast tackles an icon that, in its own special way, has become synonymous with a place. That could be a bridge, a person, a film character, a novel, a painting, even a concept or attitude.

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In ICONography, host Charles Gustine tackles the stories and histories of various icons belonging to a single area every season; so far, he’s covered England and New England, feeding them into each other in subtle ways. Throughout, he weaves in global and local understanding of the icons, using clips from pop culture like movies or music or expert interviews. Crafting this bigger context to create nuance in an hour or less requires hyper-focus on narrative structure, making sure to guide the listener clearly between concepts so that by the end of the episode, they’ve acquired a complete, in-depth, varied comprehension of the icon. Crucially, it also relies on unequivocally stating when reality does not match up to the common narrative.

The line “history is written by the victors” is the idiomatic way to describe the effect of white supremacy and privilege pressed upon society’s marginalized and vulnerable populations and their homes, cultures, and histories. It’s modeled in every aspect of our society and prominently, in the writing and study of history textbooks, which have the power to foster judgmental perspectives as they are officially sanctioned versions of knowledge (Marsden 2001). “The victors” in this idiom are the ones putting forth a unified perspective and framing it as legitimate, using the power structures they have to hand, and “the history” here is a story that disenfranchises and marginalizes people without access to those power structures. Apple and Christian-Smith (1991) called this selective tradition: “it is always someone’s selection, someone’s vision of legitimate knowledge and culture, one that in the process of enfranchising one group’s cultural capital disenfranchises another’s.”

This means it is important to note ICONography is not just about the truth we could find in history, but about myths and how colonizers have built up and deeply seeded those myths into society’s consciousness, enough they are able to capitalize on it. It is about the myth’s existence in an icon in our present day. Take, for instance, ICONography’s episode on John Smith. This episode explores the white savior narrative constructed for him, the reality of the man as drawn from first-hand data like his journals and letters, and the myths we have bought into via uncritical cultural consumption of media like the Disney movie Pocahontas.

Gustine interrogates Smith’s role in the colonization of America, and although I have quibbles with a few of the idiomatic vocabulary choices, “John Smith, Admiral of New England” contains the incisive statement woven throughout all of the podcast: “History is collective memory, and memory is not fact.” And Gustine never shies away from clearly stating that Smith’s work in what he called “New England” were works of destruction. Every city and country name bestowed onto a map by Smith, every instance of claiming “founding” of New England, was part of building the colonizer myth of settling peacefully into an empty, blank slate of a land.

Gustine, aware of his presence as a non-Indigenous man presenting history that has been weaponized to erase the imprint of Native American memory, passes the microphone in these crucial instances. In the episode “Squanto”, Gustine visits and speaks to Sonk Waban, one of the Mashpee exhibit developers who also uses the name Paula Peters, about the Plymouth 400 exhibit “Our” Story at the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, “multi-year, travelling exhibition which began by looking at 1614 and adds a new piece every year”. Here, Gustine is drawing his knowledge mainly from what he learned at the exhibit, a deconstruction of the myths whose seeds were planted in 1620. It’s the perfect pair to the episode on John Smith. This is something else ICONography excels at: structuring stories that face each other and are linked to each other at key points, together forming a more refined picture.

Gustine is a calm, respectful, and confident guide through the narratives presented in ICONography.  Each episode is another block in a balanced and well-rounded approach to discussing something larger than history; ICONography takes on societal, collective memory and the prevailing narrative of the victors. This podcast does not shy away from the dark corners of the past and how we have all continued to allow those corners remain unlit.

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Works Cited

Apple, M. W., and L. K. Christian-Smith, eds. 1991. The Politics of the Textbook. New York: Routledge Roland.

Marsden, W. E. 2001. The School Textbook: Geography, History, and Social Studies. London: Woburn Press.