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?