We are shaped by the stories we tell, by the unspoken plotlines that seep into us. Individually and collectively, the histories we know and the ones we don’t turn us into a specific kind of people. What do we choose to know? Why do we choose to remember?
I’ve always loved history, especially American history. As a northern transplant, I’m coming to appreciate the way the South describes the years 1861-1865. I always thought it was a joke that it wasn’t called The Civil War, but let me tell you, it’s not. It’s the War Between the States, The War of Northern Aggression, and my new favorite, ‘the period of strife between the states’. I appreciate these phrases because A, it was most assuredly not civil, and B, it gives me insight into a perspective I never knew.
I also never knew that you probably can’t drive more than 20 miles in the South without bumping into a street or statue named after a hero of the Confederacy. I don’t remember such a focus on Union heroes in the North, probably because winners don’t have to memorialize to remember; winning is the trophy. Those who win don’t have to think about the damage done. They just write the narrative, slicing and dicing the story into good and bad, assigning the labels however they see fit. The nuance of reality is lost when winners write the history.
I enjoy visiting battlefields because I love seeing history up close. We follow the movements of armies with our car; the tension is palpable, the ground feels sacred, and all those blue and red arrows on maps start to make sense. Oyster shells and tall grass delineate where the picket lines were, and the change in landscape from bombs and earthworks has been preserved. But the violent bruises that transformed our sense of geography have not faded.
Concrete slabs on the battlefield are dedicated to the U.S. Colored Troops, but some bodies are abandoned, the black cemetery an embarrassment to the city who ignores it. And yet, of course, the white cemetery across the street is taken care of; it even has a new flagpole complete with southern flag. It is so easy to install a roadside marker; so much harder to invest the time and resources in maintaining a burial ground.
When we write the words for those ‘two-legged memorials to the laws of happenstance’, how are we framing them? The neighborhoods we live in and the attitudes we have come from the histories we’ve inherited and the way we tell those stories.
Are our labels and monuments, cemeteries and battlefields just trophies to our strength? What damage do we do when we ignore the downsides to our history? When we don’t acknowledge the discriminatory ways that shape our present?
When we can sum up a region or a generation with a label, such as ‘the South is racist’ or ‘The Greatest Generation’, we distort history. The Greatest Generation might have killed some Nazis, but they also interred Japanese, refused Jewish refugees, and bombed and rioted to keep blacks out of their white neighborhoods in the North. It is so easy to kill enemies overseas; so much harder to embrace the neighbors who are different. What does it do to our collective humanity when we mangle our view of the past?
The underside of history will probably never be federally funded and preserved. The demographic make-up of a city will never be explained on a stone monument. It will always be incumbent on the individual people of a society to seek out the unknown and unheard, to challenge the dominant story we tell ourselves.
Systemic racism does not drop out of the sky. It comes out of a system that people build and support. It comes from individuals being unaware of history and having no desire to change their status quo. The effects of discrimination multiply over the generations as decades upon decades of histories pile up and overflow.
There was, is, no non-racist part of the country and to pretend otherwise is to mute the sins that still reverberate. A white-washed history that views the North as heroes and the end of Jim Crow as reason for blacks to stop talking about race allows us to ignore, for example, the weekly killings in Chicago.
When we assume that the histories we’ve been given are the right ones, and the past has little to no bearing on the present, we effectively silence and reject the ‘losers’ of history, forcing them to remain marginalized, oppressed, and abandoned. We need to know our full history, because it is a mockery when a prominent Southern Baptist stands up to seriously invoke Martin Luther King Jr. The sins of the past echo loudly.
When we shoot off fireworks, acting as if liberty and justice for all is a given, our celebration of America is merely a celebration of power. If we view history through the lens of the victors, we forget the lack of freedom built into our laws and the work still needed to change them.
We need to repent of the ways in which we’ve silenced and oppressed people in the name of patriotism, religion, and fear. Passing resolutions mean nothing if they are not backed up with the hard work of choosing the margins.
When we distort our history, we deny our common humanity. If we cast people as all good or all evil, we don’t acknowledge the tendencies towards both that we all have. We dehumanize ourselves and depersonalize those who lived in the past, turning them into nothing more than statues or names carved on a stone.
How we recognize the past matters. Does the history we choose to know shape us into fearful people who desire power, or does it guide us into empathy with the forgotten and abandoned? If we can embrace the pain, we will be able to pass on a truer, fuller story that creates the potential for a reconciled future.
The great thing about America, of course, is that our future isn’t set in stone. It’s wide open. But only if we are honest about our past.