In the beginning of the year, one of the ideas the students and I grapple with is in understanding that history is tricky. We read an account of the explorer, Henry Stanley, describing an encounter with a group of Congoans and the bloody confrontation which followed. We also read Mojimba’s account of the same event and try to understand how points of view and cultural ignorance color what we see and can have such disastrous consequences. We examine the transitional words between the first and last half of Armies of the Night where Norman Mailer plays with the notion that fiction is more truthful than “history,” which can cleverly and ruinously mask its bias. We read an excerpt from a satirical anthropological paper (though the kids on first reading don’t realize it’s satirical), which details the rituals of a seemingly obscure indigenous tribe, the Nacirema, but is actually a description of us, Americans, observed from an outsider’s point of view. We journal in response to quotes like Einstein’s, “The difference between the past, present, and future is an illusion, albeit a stubborn one.”
The intention of this exploration is to get at what history is, what truth is, and how those meanings are constantly being renegotiated and reinterpreted generationally and culturally. It hit home today.
We have been studying Reconstruction, that period after the Civil War when the country worked to understand what the role of people of color would be and play in the post war society and how the south worked to get things back to as close to antebellum ways as possible. We watched a documentary where a Louisiana man was talking about his great grandfather who had taken part in the murder and maiming of “carpetbaggers.” The man being interviewed was cheerful, full of glee, proud how the vigilante efforts of his relative and friends got the Yankees out of the Red River area in northern Louisiana through violence and intimidation. The kids were shocked.
This was on top of their reading of an article about the sesquicentennial celebrations across the south commemorating the Civil War including a “Secession Ball” and a reenactment of the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. These celebrations are to take place over the next 4 ½ years and involve a curious interpretation of the Civil War itself, leaving slavery out of the causal calculus. We also read an article about how some states were considering using “nullification” (what the south used as “legal” premise for secession, and what Governor Faubus used as “legal” premise for keeping the Little Rock Nine out of Central High School in 1957) to fight the implementation of the new healthcare legislation.
The point is that today it was visceral. Many of the students were nearly speechless. Well, not actually speechless, but were stumbling over words, because they didn’t seem to have the right ones to express how they were feeling. They were humbled and angry before what appeared to them to be incomprehensible revisionism. Though intellectually they understand such misinterpretations and misinformation as revealing deep-seated biases, today, deep in their gut, they felt its emotional intransigence.
William Faulkner said it best. “History is not was.” As a southerner, he probably understood this more than anyone.