Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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History Is the Stories We Tell

This essay talks about the disconnection between black people and the Civil War, largely caused by whitewashing of history.  The version told in most history books and other sources is not a version that resonates with black people.  It tends to de-emphasize slavery as the fundamental source and conflict of the war.  Granted, there were other issues at stake, quite serious ones -- the questions of sovereignty and economics and so forth.  But the linchpin of all that was the idea that it was okay to own and abuse other human beings.  Gloss over that, and large parts of the history cease to make much sense.  And of course, pointing out that the book is wrong or incomplete tends to get you kicked out of history classes (although it's a great way to learn more about actual history).

So then, if you don't like the way history is being told, you can let it stand or you can do something about it.  Black people often say it's not their job to "explain" being black, or black history.  But if the people doing most of the talking aren't talking about the whole picture, it's unlikely to get told unless somebody else steps up and fills in the rest of the narrative.  Everyone's perspective matters.  It's an individual choice whether or not you have the time, the energy, the knowledge, etc. to contribute to telling off the history of your people, whoever you consider them to be.  Collectively, however, somebody had better do it right or the very expensive lessons will be lost. 

It's hardly fair to blame people for being ignorant and uninvolved -- the black students who don't connect with the Civil War, the white students who idolize it -- when the relevant information is absent or obscured.  If you want people to understand history fully, then it has to be written and filmed and discussed fully.  All of the perspectives need to be represented and compared so that the complexity of the situation carries through.  Of course that can be difficult and unpleasant; humans are messy creatures.  But it's less messy to learn from history than to repeat it.

So here I am, an eclectic, with heritage from all sides of this fool conflict.  Ancestors are only human; they've all made mistakes, sometimes ghastly ones.  There's no point hiding from that or pretending that anyone's family tree is free of rotten fruit.  I can love the Southern part of my heritage without thinking it was right  about slavery.  I can love the Northern part without thinking it was right  to compromise over cannibals with forks.  I can love the little threads of black and Native American heritage even though clinging to those got me dissed by a lot of folks who think that looking  white means being  white.  My ancestors' choices don't have to be my choices.  I can look at the past and the present, and choose which ideas I think are the most promising for the future.

Both my parents are retired teachers.  I grew up in this very house, which is lined with books.  I got into some very hardcore history books at a very young age.  I've long been fascinated by the way these different threads weave together, and how different people tell wildly different versions of the same story.  I've always wanted to look at things upside-down and backwards. 

But I can point to a key experience that hooked me on the Civil War and black history in a major way, because we just ran across it recently: Roots.  That miniseries did a splendid job of portraying slavery as an atrocity, its impact on black people, and some hints about the wider impact on white people and Africa and America and what-all else.  My parents and I talked about the episodes after watching them, or sometimes during them, and what they meant.  I was fascinated by Roots, and that got me looking at some other stuff like black rebels, the Underground Railroad, similarities between the oppression of blacks and of Native Americans, famous black poets and other personages, etc.  It was an early experience in compound vision, seeing history told in different ways, learning how to identify what was probable truth, what was propaganda, what was outright falsehood, what was partial truth slanted to someone's advantage. 

So when my_partner_doug and I found an anniversary edition of Roots, we grabbed it, and we're going to watch it over suppers after finishing the latest season of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  We'll probably watch the extra features too, which talk about the impact the series had.  Just looking at the package in the store brought back all kinds of memories of my first encounter with it, the conversations, the explorations it inspired.  And none of us would have that if some folks hadn't sat down and decided to tell that side of the story, chains and floggings and soul violence and all.

History is the stories we tell: true and false, glorious and disgraceful, collective and individual.  It is all our ancestors' mistakes and discoveries, triumphs and corrections.  History is what the present makes of the past, and what the past makes of the present.  It is our experience and exploration of what has been as we try to figure out where we are and where we want to go.  The more complete the maps we have, the better our journey is likely to be.  The more perspectives we have going into the making of said maps, the more accurate they are likely to be.  So if the book is wrong, or incomplete ... try to fill in the gaps.  It makes a difference.
Tags: education, entertainment, ethnic studies, history, networking
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