On History and Revision: ‘A one-sided history is really no history at all’

“History is written by the victors.” It’s an old truism, and in most cases, it is true (although I could write another column on the exceptions). The “winners” control the narrative – their cause is just, their struggle and loss terrible and yet glorious. However, in that very saying lies the acknowledgement that the “history” we know isn’t the full story. 

Within the last six months, the news has been full of historic events and tragedies that I’d wager you never learned about in school. This year, for instance, marks the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. For 18 hours a white mob burned businesses and residences of the predominantly Black Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The destruction of Black Wall Street, as it was also known, was not only termed the Tulsa Race Riot to displace blame, it was buried so well that even a Black biological anthropologist who’d descended from survivors never knew about it (Anthropologist investigating the Tulsa Race Massacre).

Investigations in Canada have turned up unmarked graves in the hundreds at former boarding schools for indigenous children. Part of a system designed to eradicate Native peoples’ languages, religion, and culture, children were taken from their homes and forcibly “assimilated” into white, Christian culture.  Michigan had three of its own boarding schools, and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate these sites in the United States, with an emphasis on identifying graves. 

And perhaps the most covered event has been the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. On June 19, 1865, almost two and a half years after the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the slaves there were free. Commemorated amongst the Black community as a more accurate day celebrating the end of slavery, Juneteenth has only recently become known to many non-Black Americans.

I could go on – the Tuskegee experiment, Henrietta Lacks, the Potawatomi Trail of Death, forced sterilization of predominantly non-white women deemed unfit to procreate… “History” effectively shoved all these stories and more into a closet and threw away the key. 

But let me ask you this: Has a problem in your life ever gotten better by refusing to acknowledge it and deal with it? My daughter has a book called What Do You Do with a Problem? It’s the story of a kid who runs from a problem faster and faster as the problem grows to a monstrous size. You get where I’m going with this. A history that cherry picks only the rosy parts isn’t real, and as stories come forth that poke holes in that narrative, there will be a reckoning at some point.  

It’s kind of funny. I’ve often been asked as an archaeologist, “What did you find? What did you learn that you didn’t know before?” As scientists, archaeologists are continually adding information to what they knew before, and adjusting their interpretations accordingly. And people often accept that, they get excited even. Occasionally though, you find a couple people grumbling about “revisionism.” More often than you might expect, the people asking the questions are the ones complaining about the answers. 

In researching my own genealogy, I’ve found a number of ancestors who fought for the idea that all men were created equal in the American Revolution, and some that owned slaves. The movement of my ancestors to Cass County was very near to the time the Potawatomi were forcibly removed. Were they involved? I don’t know. Did they benefit? Without a doubt. But just because this knowledge might make me uncomfortable, or challenge how I’d like to see myself, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. When you ask “what did you learn that you didn’t know before?” you don’t get to choose if that knowledge aligns with your worldview. That’s the cost of curiosity, my friend. 

There’s another saying we all know: “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s also true. Within the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, are numerous parallels to public safety measures and peoples’ reactions during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Yet while you can’t learn from something you don’t even know existed, once it makes its way to the light, please don’t look away. Face them, incorporate them into the complex tapestry that is our country’s history, and grow because of them. A one-sided history is really no history at all.

Amy East is a freelance copyeditor, wannabe homesteader, and recovering archaeologist living in Cass County. She loves her family, her menagerie of animals, and her garden, although depending on the day, the order of those may vary. 

Any views or opinions expressed in “Critters, Culture, & Compost” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.


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