Overcoming History

“We have never, ever committed ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation of our history. We didn’t talk about the consequences of a myth that created slavery and because of that, slavery didn’t end, it evolved. We didn’t think about what it meant to terrorize people between the end of reconstruction and World War II. And then we had Jim Crow and segregation and we dominated and humiliated people for decades without appreciating the harm done by that. And now we’re in an era where our failure to talk honestly about race continues to haunt us.”

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

I didn’t learn anything in my grade school history classes. Nothing. Really.

The only things that stuck are flashes of scandalous morsels that appealed to my adolescent self. Karankawa Indians were seven-foot-tall cannibals. Thomas Jefferson was kind of a gross guy.

This is, of course, a mild exaggeration. I must have retained something, or I’d have very limited entry points into my culture and the world around me.

My problem is, I’ve often felt like I’ve had limited entry points into my culture and the world around me. What I “learned” in history classes has massively underserved me in the “real world”. As I navigate my life, my surroundings, and major events like 9/11, the Iraq war, Obama’s elections, the Boston bombings, and Ferguson, I’ve continuously had to re-calibrate the way I think about everything. This has started happening on a much larger scale since I’ve begun graduate school.

Admittedly, I wasn’t ever a particularly good student. But the notion that I had to get a master’s degree to experience a learning environment that really encouraged me to question what I know, rethink how I approach any given subject, and know what other people have to say about something seems crazy! Why am I just learning how to actually find stuff out?

I lived in Massachusetts for two years with my girlfriend while she finished her undergraduate degree. She took a class on poverty, race, and health with a professor named David Williams. This is the description of the course:

This course critically examines the health status of the poor, and of African Americans and other socially disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups in the US. Attention will be focused on the patterned ways in which the health of these groups is embedded in the social, cultural, political, and economic contexts, and arrangements of US society. Topics covered include the meaning and measurement of race, the ways in which racism affects health, the historic uses of minorities in medical research, how acculturation and migration affects health, and an examination of the specific health problems that disproportionately affect nondominant racial groups.

Why do you have to go to Harvard to learn about these things?? Why do I have to get all the way to graduate school to learn explicitly how deeply and disturbingly institutionalized racism and sexism reach back into history? Why is it a thing to have to go out of your way to learn about minority voices in early american literature?

There are, of course, a whole mess of things that go not what people learn in school. And I’m not trying to say that the notion that something feels very wrong is anything new, nor that i have any ideas about what to do about it. All I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be so difficult to learn about one’s own history. Learning a history based on whitewashed talking points does nothing but effectively disconnect people from their roots and destroy people’s accountability as knowledgable, responsible citizens.

What’s great about this Early Minority Literature class is that it commits students to critically thinking about primary texts from systematically passed-over authors and mediums. Instead of learning how to read, say, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in terms of how it is an exemplary piece of African American literature, we are learning how to think about primary texts. How to think about the implications of race, gender, and religion within the contexts of their times, and over the course of history. What did it mean to be an ethnic minority? What did it mean to be a woman? What did it mean to have written something at that time? How did religion factor into all of it? Before this class, it was difficult for me to think of religion objectively. Now, I’m able to think about religion in terms of how it gave marginalized individuals the means through which to gain agency through writing.

Reading the diary of Sarah Kemble Knight (though not super-religious) sheds light on the everyday life of the individual woman, and shows how the act of writing a diary ave her a voice. Reading the spiritual autobiography of Elizabeth Ashbridge and William Apess shows how religion, even if it was used as a tool of oppression, could be re-appropriated by the oppressed to construct an identity and gain agency, even become leaders, in spite of the social constraints of their times, and their writing is a testament to how writing was the most important tool in allowing their voice to be heard.

The problem is that history swallows these voices up, for the most part. What’s remarkable about this class, though, is that it commits us to figure out why these voices are important, and pushes us to do the digging ourselves. This is, without a doubt, the most useful skill I’ve learned in two decades of institutional education.