We’re arguing a lot about history lately, which seems odd to me, at least on its face. After all, history is nothing more than a narrative we share as a culture about what happened in the past. It’s not definitive or infallible, of course, because someone had to write it, actually more like multiple someones, and the agreed upon version based on those narrow viewpoints is what gets spread far and wide to eager students in kindergarten through 12th grade and beyond. And not just here, but all over, in every culture across the globe. Without history, we would be untethered as a people, anchorless, unknown.
So, why all the recent hubbub over our history here in America? It’s just what happened, right?
Years ago, when my elementary school teachers told me that a group of founding fathers courageously broke free from British rule and created this nation in order to give us all the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I bought that narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Of course, those teachers neglected to mention that most of those founding fathers so thirsty for their own freedom actually owned enslaved Black people, considered women second class citizens, and completely wrote off indigenous people along with all other people of color. So, that original brand of freedom turned out to be pretty limited, and it stayed that way for a long time. It didn’t even really include poor, non-land owning white men. Probably would have been worth lifting that up in class, don’t you think?
I’ve always had a soft spot for history, because it’s a story, and there’s little I adore more. As a writer, I think about the mechanics of storytelling quite a lot. As the author, I have complete control over what gets included and what gets left out. This isn’t usually a problem, because folks reading my work understand it as reflecting my unique and admittedly narrow viewpoint. But if I could somehow manage to pass off my subjective judgments about prior events as objective facts that then get taught to millions of impressionable others, what then? Think about the facts I could have unwittingly failed to include, given the limitation of my life experience and point of view. Even more problematically, what if my motives were darker and I purposely crafted a narrative that didn’t even bother to reflect what actually happened?
This is essentially what’s happened in the construction and retelling of our history. When I was growing up, teachers didn’t spend any time discussing the authors responsible for crafting the history they were teaching us. We were simply learning the facts, Jack. No need to question it or imagine historical events told from alternate viewpoints (imagine the glory of manifest destiny told from the P.O.V. of indigenous people; the American Revolution told from the P.O.V. of enslaved Black folks). It was only much later that I wondered how the authors of our shared, agreed upon history were chosen. Had anyone ever questioned their subjective judgment about the events and people “important” enough to get written into the narrative they cobbled together? Because it sure seemed like a lot of Black folks, women, and other POCs fell short of making the cut decade after decade. Why was that?
I’ve written a lot of fiction. In the little worlds I create, I possess godlike abilities. I choose the lens through which the story itself is filtered. I choose the heroes and the villains, the main characters and the supporting cast. I choose what gets included, and what isn’t important enough to mention. But, again, this doesn’t rise to the level of problematic because when you read a novel, you know it’s not real. However, history is taught in a way that discourages the questioning of its authors’ motives. You are just supposed to accept it as what happened. Period.
Since history is a sweeping story of all the things that have come before the present day, it’s natural that material gets omitted. We couldn’t possibly include everything and everyone. So, isn’t it also natural that we are perpetually revising the story to include things that were either omitted due to the authors’ good faith ignorance or, worse, purposely erased in favor of a much rosier narrative? One would think so, unless one were watching the news unfold in the present day. And then one would think that kind of revision is a threat to the very fabric of our nation and wellbeing of our children.
It seems that the story of what happened in America — the good, the bad, the ugly — hurts some (white) folks’ feelings, and they don’t want it to hurt their children’s feelings too. Now, I’ve raised a child, and I can tell you that she never came home emotionally destroyed because of something she learned in history class. Kids don’t really take that kind of thing personally. I’ve also been a child, and let me just say that math routinely caused me undue emotional distress because I hated it and it was hard. Under no circumstance would I suggest we remove math from the curriculum because some students can be made to feel bad about themselves.
To this, some might reply:
This is different! My child is being taught to be ashamed of being white because of slavery or…
Yeah, I let that trail off at the end because it’s such bad faith B.S and repeating it here would just make me tired all over. Feel free to fill in the blanks, y’all.
Let’s get real: the whitewashed version of history, written by white historians, is what we all grew up learning (America is the very best nation in the world and has NEVER done anything wrong), and anything else is a threat to the collective psyche. We can point a finger at the Nazis for the horrors they inflicted upon millions of innocent people, but we can’t accept that our own country imprisoned Japanese people in internment camps during that same period. The systematic genocide of indigenous people is barely discussed. Slavery is mentioned in our childhood history books, but we’re quickly taught that Abraham Lincoln took care of that evil, and the Civil Rights Movement tied up whatever loose ends remained. Problem solved! We didn’t learn anything about the legacy of slavery and how that echoes into the present day, codified in law, attitudes, and culture.
Why is a more robust and truthful version of our history so scary to so many? Why is the inclusion of those that were purposely left out of earlier versions of the story we tell ourselves about America creating such chaos in the modern day?
History isn’t therapy, friends. It’s not a support group. It’s not supposed to soothe your feelings and shore up your self esteem. But it’s also not a personal attack or a value judgment about who you are or aren’t. It should be an account of what happened, and when new events or accounts come to light, we add them to what we already know to improve the accuracy of our shared story.
If what happened in history hurts your feelings, dig into why that is. Because it’s not really about you, is it? Or, at least it shouldn’t be. It’s not about your kids, my kids, or anyone else’s. It simply is what it is.
We really have to ask ourselves: do we want to do better as a nation? Do we want to continue moving closer to the promise laid out in our founding documents? Because if we do, we have to know and reckon with what came before us. There’s no doing better without knowing better. Isn’t that a lesson worth teaching our kids?