What About History?

There’s been much talk about history lately. From doing family history research for over forty years to being a history major in college and having history as my minor field in my doctoral work, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to the subject over the years. In this piece I’ll keep things short and simple.

It’s important to know that there are multiple ways to use the word “history.”

The first use of the word “history” is probably what ordinary people first think of when they hear the word. In this sense, “history” is simply “things that happened.”

The second use of the word “history” is for the stories we tell about “things that happened.” Obviously there is a connection between the stories we tell and the “things that happened,” but they are not the same thing.

The third use of “history” points to the use we make of our stories of “things that happened.”

When we look at history in the first sense, considering it as “things that happened,” I’d say we’re dealing with things that are the way they are whether we like it or not. I can dislike the fact that the Portuguese ran my ancestors out of the Dutch colony in Brazil in the 17th century, but I can’t do anything about it. I didn’t learn this bit of history when I was in school. Sure, I knew that Portuguese was the dominant language of Brazil, but it wasn’t until well after I’d finished school that I learned there had even been a Dutch colony there, let alone that some of my ancestors had been there. When I started researching this history some of the sources I found were in Portuguese, some in Dutch. I’d never studied either language, but since I’d taken Spanish in junior high and German in high school, I could figure out some bits of each. Through careful effort I was about to learn a little bit about the “things that happened.”

The thing is that I’ll NEVER know EVERYTHING that happened in that bit of history (or any other bit, for that matter). Oh, I can tell you stories about the “things that happened.” The stories include pirates and the hardships of a poorly paid missionary pastor. This second use of history is ALWAYS selective. When we tell the stories that we call “history” we have to choose which “things that happened” that we’re going to talk about. We have to interpret them and tie them together. We have to make hypotheses about causes and effects. Since the events I mentioned happened over 350 years ago, we don’t even have access to all the details of the “things that happened.” That history – history in the sense of the “things that happened” – cannot change, but we only have limited access to that kind of history. History as the STORIES well tell about the past, well, that changes all the time. As we learn more, possibly by finding new sources, by giving more weight to some sources and less to others, by a different selection of details (and there is no way to get beyond selecting some details and excluding others), or by having new audiences, we tell the old stories in new ways or tell new stories entirely.

The stories we tell are always open to criticism. One side of my wife’s family tells of an ancestor who came to America as a pirate with LaFitte. Another side tells of the ancestor coming to America with LaFayette. To my English-speaking ears (forgive the image), I can imagine how LaFitte and LaFayette can be confused. We can tell the story of the immigrant ancestor either way, fitting into early piracy along the gulf coast or of heroism helping in the American Revolution. Attention to evidence of “things that happened” can give us reason to believe one account or the other. Well, as things stand so far, my assessment of the “things that happened” doesn’t give credence to either story. This particular ancestor was born in France in 1795 and came to America in 1807, settling in Maryland. As a 12 year old, he likely came with parents, but I’ve yet to find any data on them. In this case I continue to look for evidence of “things that happened” so I can tell a better story. For me – as for some of you, I bet – a “better” story is not just one that is more entertaining or one that connects our ancestors with famous people, but one that is more likely accurate, more likely in line with “things that happened.”

What about the third sense of “history” that I mentioned above, the uses to which we put our stories of the “things that happened?”

I spent several years teaching at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. If you’re trying to think of where you may have heard that name, mentioning that it is the school featured in the movie The Great Debaters may help. That movie was based on “things that happened.” Wiley College has existed since 1873. One of the “things that happened” was that Professor Melvin B. Tolson became coach of the debate team. Though the subject of the film is the performance and triumph of the debate team, many other “things that happened” are depicted in the film. Early on we see a lynching. Of the “things that happened” in our country lynchings were one of the most disgusting. Maybe even more disgusting than the lynchings themselves (if such is possible) was the fact that they were often treated as entertainment. People who looked like my ancestors would have postcards made of themselves and their children gathered around the “strange fruit” hanging from the (not just southern) trees, the hanged and mutilated bodies. Some would even take home body parts as souvenirs.

I’m getting carried away – back to the story. As I recall, the lynching theme is very subdued in the movie, and only displayed once – and quickly at that. The thing is, the main characters had seen it. They didn’t talk about it, they didn’t protest it. They knew it could have been them. Or their father. Or their mother. Or their child. Throughout the film they struggle not only with becoming skilled debaters, but with life in a society that could turn on them and kill them at a moment’s notice.

When we compare the movie – a story about “things that happened” with the actual “things that happened,” we see some differences. The story was essentially accurate, but merged & modified some characters. Also, the climactic debate for the national championship, was depicted in the movie as a debate against Harvard, but was, in the course of the “things that happened,” a debate with USC, the reigning national champion at that time.

How was this story used? Some tellings of the story of Professor Tolson and his team’s victories could be used to show racists that African Americans were fully capable of academic work and scholarly argumentation. The story of those “things that happened” could also be told to encourage young African Americans to believe in their potential, against the Jim Crow prejudice of the age. More recently, the story of these “things that happened” was used to restart the heritage of debate at Wiley College. I had many of these later day “Great Debaters” in my classes, and I happily continue to cheer them on as they advance in life.

I’ve heard talk about “erasing” or “removing” history. As a historian, I don’t care for that idea. As a philosopher of history, I stop and ask in these contexts, “Which sense of history are we talking about?”

We cannot erase or remove history in the sense of the “things that happened.” We can burn a courthouse (as a family history researcher I lament that so many have burned through the centuries) or documents (I heard a story of one family that had a old family trunk full of old family letters and documents from the 1850s; they kept the trunk and burnt the papers, since they couldn’t read German). We can work to forget things that we don’t like. Though some who talk against “erasing history” sound like they mean “erasing the ‘things that happened.'” I don’t think that’s what they’re pointing at.

What I believe they are primarily pointing at is the change in the stories we tell about the “things that happened.” Those stories are not themselves “the things that happened” but they are how we understand and remember the “things that happened.” When I tell a person who’s heard all his life that the there’s no evidence that the ancestor came to America with LaFayette – or served in the Boston Tea Party – that can be disappointing, even offensive. It’s the story they’ve heard all their lives – maybe even a story that’s shaped their sense of identity.

There is also change in the way stories are used. The use to which we put stories is twice removed from history as “things that happened.” The stories we tell, as I mentioned above, are always selective. We can’t tell everything. Not only do we not know everything, but telling everything fills too much space and would be exceedingly dull. We choose some details, omit others. We weigh the details and come to an interpretation – or more often, sets of interpretations. We then deploy these stories to some end – often an end we have in mind before we even started composing the stories. The famous 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke spoke of history’s job as telling it wie es eigentlich gewesen – “as it actually was.” Sure, that’s true. Sort of. To some degree. By why this story and not that story? Why this interpretation and not that interpretation? We may have “objectivity” at the level of “things that happened,” but our stories and the uses to which we put them are inescapably subjective.

So, what does all that do for our current arguments? I’d encourage people to slow down. Think things through, whether those “things” be tearing down statues or condemning people. I know there is plenty of righteous indignation on each side. Each side will likely think I have my head in the clouds (or in the sand?) and am stuck in an ivory tower. That may be. But history is worth thinking about slowly and carefully, whether it’s our study of the “things that happened,” the stories we tell about the “things that happened,” or the uses to which we put our stories about the “things that happened.”

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