The Past Isn’t Dead – It Isn’t Even Past

Two Harvard University researchers announced Friday that they have found a second parchment manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence in a tiny records office in southern England. bostonglobe.com

This news gives me a bit of a thrill. History is fascinating and important. Sometimes it puts America in a good light and sometimes not.

I recently listened to a panel discussion on Book TV by three authors who have written about terrible crimes wrought on Native Americans by the American government and people in the 1800s – the word genocide applies. Meticulously documented using contemporary written sources, this horror was no secret at the time. The atrocities have slipped from our national consciousness.

Every nation and people have horrors in their past. Whether we “should” teach the bad as well as the good depends.

  • Why do we study history?
  • Why teach it in school? At what age and in what detail?
  • How should good and evil be balanced?
  • How should we portray people from a different era, with different beliefs?

These aren’t simple questions. I might add a question about beloved tales. George Washington chopping down the cherry tree is not true, but it’s a lovely story many of us learned and want to share with today’s children. Should we? Some citizen committees who review textbooks have said yes.

There are more important historical issue:

New Orelans began the process of removing statues erected to honor the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” by taking down the Battle of Liberty Place statue:

First Statue Erected to Honor Members of White Supremacist Organization Who Killed New Orleans’ Racially Integrated Police Force; City Announces it has Secured Private Funding for Removal…

Other monuments slated for eventual removal include the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard. In each case, the statues were erected decades after the Civil War was over as part of the “Cult of the Lost Cause” and to demonstrate that there was no sense of guilt for the cause in which the South fought the Civil War.

History raises intense emotions.

Because of the security risk and threats placed on contractors seeking to do the work, details about future statue removals will not be provided to the public.

Maybe I am a proud American because I was, mostly, taught about American greatness in school. By the time I learned our dark side, nothing could change that feeling. But I’m glad I’ve read more deeply. I understand my fellow citizens better now, because I can see how they live with the aftermath of terrible events.

For example:Patterns Of Death In The South Still Show The Outlines Of Slavery

I didn’t participate in those terrible events, but I benefit from them. I live in New Mexico, a land conquered from Native Americans, from the Spanish, and then from the Mexicans.

What do we owe the past? Am I, as the beneficiary of past crimes, willing to give up anything to descendants of the victims? Maybe that’s the real question. I suspect the answer is… it depends. If direct victims are still around, reparations feel reasoable – for example, Japanese Americans placed in detainment in WWII. For truely massive crimes like slavery or genocide, extending aid to today’s decendents of those victims also feels right – but it’s more complicated. I realize many (for example) poor whites don’t feel privledged and therefore resent programs like affirmative action. The farther in the past a crime was committed, the more complicated attempts at restitution will be, and the more care must be taken to ensure new victims are not created – a much easier task during time of general prosperity, and a more important task when times are bad. But ignoring the past is never an answer.

This commentary’s title is a quote from William Faulkner. I’m not making any money on this post, so please don’t sue me.

2 thoughts on “The Past Isn’t Dead – It Isn’t Even Past

  1. The most important thing to remember about the way we look at history is context. It’s okay to teach new generations about the sins of the old as long as we include the footnote: “This sounds horrific today, but it was accepted as moral and even as moral imperative at the time.” Slavery, for example, has been a human institution for thousands of years, as often as not practiced without regard for race, sex, age or class. It is still practiced today by cultures which we are often admonished by learned academicians not to condemn under the doctrine of cultural equivalency. Today one can easily argue that Southern aristocracy should have known that owning other human beings was monumentally wrong, but try making that case in 1840 to a population totally dependent on slavery for its economic survival. Toss in the prevailing religious teachings of the time and the overarching belief of “Christian” whites in Manifest Destiny and our despicable treatment of Native Americans and blacks should be, if not forgiven, at least better understood. The trick for history educators is to find the right balance between pride and shame as they reveal and review our past.

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