Ignorance can be educated. Of the many reasons for obtaining and maintaining a thorough and unadulterated education, this is the most important. Unlike mathematics, the humanities — which include history — demand repeated and ever-deepening explorations in order to fully understand the why, who, what, when, where, and how. On the surface, some of these questions may appear easily answered. Rest uneasily, they are not.
The true study of history requires more than a mere knowledge of past events. Historical study insists upon a knowledge of anthropology and its subdomains, of the psychology and sociology of the time being studied, of logic and language usage. Even with all of these in place a critical element remains: the individual’s acknowledgement and monitoring of personal, implicit biases.
In short, history is much more than a collection of facts. Even lived history has a tendency to be recounted somewhat inaccurately or chock-full of those aforementioned biases. (A similar issue exists with eyewitness testimony to crimes.)
History — its meanings and repercussions — is at the forefront of consciousness within the United States in 2020. As the rose-tinted veneer of what many believe true about the U.S. burns away, the time comes when all must diligently grapple with our ignorance and work to become more educated.
FOUNDATIONS OF FICTION
For centuries, Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. This was a more convenient history due to its documentation. Even when Leif Erikson’s discovery of North America in ~999C.E. became widely known, the myth of Columbus persisted. Yet, neither man discovered the New World. They simply became the first Europeans to set foot in different parts of civilizations flourishing apart from their own.
When Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal sought to expand their territories across the Atlantic, they wrote history to their liking. The colonization of the Americas wasn’t genocide. It didn’t even warrant being named a struggle against another nation. Centuries of deliberate treachery and the erasure of rich, ancient cultures ensued.
To fully embrace the truth of our nation’s founding is more than many can bring themselves to do. Not only does this make lesser men of the mythical explorers and founders; the truth lends itself to eerie thought experiments. It’s hard to imagine away more than 400 years of history much less oneself if Europeans had taken a different path… or been defeated.
As with the indigenous populations of America, the length of time from the first enslaved Africans reaching the New World to now (517 years) makes understanding “why it still matters” very hard for those not of African descent. By the official declaration of what would become the United States, African slavery in the colonies was older (273 years) than the our nation is today. The living memory of society knew nothing different. Few religions, philosophers, academics, or politicians called for anything different.
Thus, any study of the Revolutionary and Antebellum periods in the United States must be approached understanding that the “masses” truly, deeply, maddly believed lies regarding those of African descent and indigenous populations. This does not excuse genocide, slavery, and their affiliated sins. However, it does frame the long-held states-of-mind and aids in understanding why such ignorance remains to the present.
Lincoln may be seen as the ‘Great Emancipator,’ but personally, Lincoln equivocates on the issue of slavery. His exchanges with Horace Greeley and Charles Robinson indicate a man whose intent was saving the Union — regardless of what happened to slaves. Lincoln favored a continuation of the goals set forth by the American Colonization Society to resettle freed slaves in Africa, what is now Liberia, yet abolitionists in his cabinet talked him down from this position. While some took this stand on moral grounds, others merely wanted expendable bodies available for workforce and military duties.
At least 12 U.S. presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives, this included Ulysses S. Grant — who briefly “owned” William Jones before freeing him in 1859. Also, Lincoln was only the 16th chief executive of the U.S. This means his two successors and no less than 10 of his predecessors owned slaves at some point in their lives, if not during their tenure as president. (The documentation is incomplete, so the exact number of slave-holding presidents is unknown.)
Yet, how do we remember many of these men? How do we judge their deeds? I do not believe in discounting their contributions to the building of our country, but neither do I believe in whitewashing it. If you were indigenous or female or Black or of the “wrong” religion or simply indigent, you’re wellbeing was of little concern. However, we must not mistake prejudices as all being equal. Racism against those of African descent remained far-and-away the most rampant and accepted ‘norm.’
POPULAR CULTURE TO HISTORY’S DETRIMENT
White, heterosexual, cisgender individuals remain the gatekeepers of popular culture. From publishing houses to social media and political platforms to education curricula, the vast majority of decision makers and influencers fall into the aforementioned category. This does not preclude them as automatically bad people. However, their self-perceived “wokeness” or lack thereof often trends to misinterpretations of minority communities and those communities’ representatives.
A delicate case-in-point can be found in the “Own Voices” movement. Birthed as a Twitter hashtag by Corinne Duyvis, the movement rightly seeks to promote diverse books by authors of marginalized and minority communities. The movement encourages publishers to publish, libraries to lend, and readers to read books on the experiences of these communities from the perspectives of members of those communities. On the surface and taken as stated, nothing is wrong with the movement.
Yet, when — as often the case — the decision makers be overwhelmingly white, cisgender women seeking to arbitrate a movement they don’t quite “get”, problems arise. Authors from marginalized communities become pigeon-holed into writing only one type or genre of literature. Allies, who are able to write with passionate clarity on topics involving marginalized communities, are silenced. In essence, the history and experience of all involved is discounted for the sake of popular culture and political correctness. Divisions become deeper. Racism and censorship slot themselves into another arena of history.
When pigeonholing and silencing are expanded to housing, education, and politics, the stakes are much higher. No longer does history accurately inform the present and guide the future. Instead, people consider history as relative as philosophy or religion — your version vs. mine. If American history teaches us nothing else, the lesson should be of truth in nuance and uncomfortability. In short, no one is likely to be happy with a logical, empirical revision of America’s past.
RECKONING WITH NEXT STEPS
The beauty of history lies in the immutable fact of its being immovably fixed. The labor of history lies in uncovering the actual, truest version of the past. The issue lies not in the majority of Americans being completely uneducated about their country. The problem arises from an incomplete or ill-adjusted education taken as absolute truth. Too many find the true truth to be either an inconvenience or so far removed from their personal experience (or beliefs) as to be unacceptable.
As citizens of and immigrants to the United States, we must own the shared, unpleasant history of this nation. Where there are gaps or glaring holes in our education, we must educate our ignorance to fill them. We must come to the realization that the fiction, not the standard, is white, straight, cisgender, or predominantly Christian and male.
We owe it to ourselves and future Americans to attempt success where past generations failed. We will be unable to do this without listening to and working with one another across every intersection of diversity. We can use this unique, painful moment to begin writing a new chapter of American history, or we can once again fail to learn from our mistakes and repeat the past.