If your history teachers were like mine, they made it sound as if history is unchangeable. If it’s in the history books, it is the correct and only version of what happened, right? Not so fast.
History is never that simplistic. History is a written account of what happened. Until the 19th century, only the rich and powerful were literate. They ensured history covered only what interested them, which was themselves. As a result, history was primarily an account of kings, dynasties and their wars. We learned almost nothing about the ordinary people whose work made possible the great lives told in historical accounts.
This traditional approach to history broke down in the 19th century when European and American governments decided that literate workers would make better factory workers. Mass literacy brought fresh perspectives. Ordinary people wanted to know about the lives of ordinary people from the past.
By the 1920’s, stories of ordinary people were in vogue, how they lived, worked and died. It’s still a popular subject given the number of Americans researching their family genealogy and getting DNA tests to learn “where we came from”. But the closer we look, the more we realize how much was airbrushed out of American history books because the facts didn’t fit the preferred narrative of a good and righteous nation.
Black people were brought here solely for the purpose of being slave labor. They were prohibited from learning to read and write because illiteracy was the easiest method to control them. (Today, the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan and they will again ban literacy for females.)
Chinese men helped build the cross-continental railway, one of the greatest engineering feats in U.S. history. Those Chinese laborers could not bring their families because the U.S. government didn’t want them settling permanently in the U.S. They endured pogroms by anti-immigrant whites who saw the hard-working Chinese as job and wage threats. (San Francisco’s Chinatown now offers tours of their escape tunnels.)
American Indian tribes were hunted to the point of extinction and forced onto reservations. Once on the rez, they were routinely starved and denied healthcare. Their children were kidnapped and placed in government-sanctioned schools in pursuit of forced assimilation. (Canada recently apologized for their forced assimilation programs. The U.S. refuses to do so.)
These examples give a flavor of the countless facts of American history that were airbrushed from our history books. History is often ugly and unpleasant, particularly in hindsight after social and political attitudes change. Future generations will certainly take issue with things we do now as they uncover our unfortunate facts.
Acknowledging these unfortunate facts does not diminish our country’s achievements and is not a rejection of our country’s history. It means that we are mature enough as a nation to accept everything done by our predecessors.
As uncomfortable and unpleasant as it is to acknowledge past moral and legal wrongs, it would be so much worse to pretend they never happened. We can never move forward until we acknowledge the good and the bad of our past. Call it a 12-step program for the history wars and teach the kids the ugly stuff along with the glorious stuff in history class. Ignorance is justice denied.
About Norma Shirk
My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps small businesses create human resources policies and risk mitigation programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy. To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see the HR Compliance Jungle (www.hrcompliancejungle.com) which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my history blog, History By Norma, (available at http://www.normashirk.com). To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (www.hersavvy.com).
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