When we’ve had an experience we don’t want to repeat, we might say, “Been There, Done That”. The reasons we may not want to repeat an experience range from “It was boring, I don’t want to do it again”, to “I tried that before and it didn’t work out or it was painful.” It’s shorthand for my personal story, my history: a chronological record of significant events often including an explanation of their causes. Do I sometimes feel “uncomfortable” when I think about some of the things I have done? Absolutely! For fun, or at least for my edification I’d like to pick apart this definition because “history” seems to be quite the controversial topic lately.
Chronological: arranged in the order that things happened or came to be . We often think of history as looking backwards, but history is actually created by going forward in time from one event forward to the next. As I lick the spoon, I think this chocolate sundae is really good, but what’s the history behind this sundae? If I made this sundae, the very first event in the sundaes’ history is my thought, “A sundae sounds good, I think I’ll make one.” And then I got the ice cream out of the freezer and the chocolate sauce …. One action led to another and Bam! a chocolate sundae! I wanted a caramel sundae, but I settled for a chocolate sundae, because I was out of caramel sauce. This explains why the sundae was chocolate, but who would know this other than myself. Much of the controversy around historical events often centers on the question of causation. Of course, my example is simplistic, but worth considering when we look at the causes of significant historical events like the Civil War. What came first? Just remember the last time you tried to explain the plot of a movie to a friend, and you had to backtrack many times to keep things in order and making sense.
Record : to write (something) down so that it can be used or seen again in the future; : to produce a record of (something). First, remember not all history is recorded in writing. People record what they perceive and experience, and of course, people differ on what they perceive due to physical, cultural, and social factors. Obviously a slave would write a different history of slavery than a wealthy plantation owner. Neither record alone tells the whole history, but each record is an equally important point of view. Are the lashes on the slaves back any less relevant than the slave owners “papers” of slave ownership? Are you uncomfortable yet? I can spin my personal stories so I come out smelling like a rose, and may get away with it unless someone from my past speaks out and questions the truth of my story. On a larger cultural basis the powerful can spin history as well. Who do we believe? Whose record is most valid? To pretend that all voices are treated as equal is folly. We tend to believe the stories we hear from people most like us. We also disagree on what is “significant”. Women feel differently than men about the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. In fact, often women have been left out of the history of significant events because much of history was written by men with blinders on. What matters to an individual determines what significance to give an event.
What a mess we make when we attempt to record history, but the biggest morass is created when we attempt to explain the causes of historical events. It is so much easier to assert that the War of 1812 happened in 1812, than to explain what caused the war itself. It turns out cold hard facts aren’t so cold and hard . For myself, it is so important I know who is writing a piece of history so I can factor in bias. It is just as important that I know my own bias. Am I hearing from all the parties involved? Whose voices are the loudest? History is very, very complicated and nuanced. The story is never as simple as we wish it were. I have to remain open to adding new understanding of historical events. Perhaps if more adults understood how to face the facts and truths of history, our children could too. Denial of historical facts and the depths of causation means accountability and culpability are not addressed. If we and our children can no longer learn from our history, aren’t we “doomed “ to repeat it. Going forward, what history will we write?