Why bother studying history?

When I was a kid I became interested in genealogy. Some of my most treasured belongings are these surveys my mom and I put together and sent to all of my grandparents asking them to list their parents, grandparents, childhood stories and other family history information. Some of my grandparents didn’t bother, thinking I really wouldn’t be interested in it. The irony is that the one grandparent who took the most time to fill it out with information and stories was also the one who issued this caution: Be careful of looking in the past. You might find a horse thief.

I think sometimes when people talk about studying history or learning about their ancestors they have this mindset where it’s all about bragging rights. They want to find out they were descended from a president or royalty or who knows what else. They have these rose colored glasses on and aren’t so interested in the stories of five generations who lived in poverty but worked hard or maybe the story about the great-great-grandfather who grew up in a poorhouse and was always bitter and mean from such a rough childhood. They don’t want to know about the grandmother whose husband forced her to drink turpentine to cause an abortion because he didn’t want another mouth to feed. These are stories of real life and, yes, a sample of the things I learned when I began to look at my own family’s history. Is it all warm and fuzzy? No, but I don’t regret knowing it. I don’t regret understanding what they went through that made them who they are and eventually led to me. I’m okay with them not being a president. I’m proud to come from stock that endured so much and managed to carry on.

Also when I was a kid I learned about history from my school textbooks and what movies and books I was introduced to. For the most part nobody in my family had an interest in history (though that developed after I became interested and was constantly rattling on about some historical fact or event I’d learned about). That early introduction to history was… flat. Lifeless.

We learned about Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving… but they kinda scanned over the parts about introducing diseases to the Native tribes and just how those tribes were steadily pushed out of their land.

We learned about the American Revolution… but not about the internal struggle of the founding fathers regarding whether or not to rebel. It was portrayed as this simple decision because of taxation without representation and they didn’t really explain the thoughts of the American Loyalists or what was going on in the British parliament.

We learned about the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We didn’t learn that the states still considered themselves separate and many states like Virginia even specifically stated in their ratification of the Constitution that they reserved the right to leave the union of states if they so desired in future.

We learned about slavery… We learned that the slaves were black men, women and children that had been brought over from Africa. We learned that it was the South that owned them and profited from the trade. We learned that the slave-owners were all rich white people and that the South was full of this huge, sprawling plantations with hundreds of slaves each. Of this paragraph, every single sentence is half-truths.

That’s what we have been taught though. A series of half-truths which give us an incomplete big picture and yet that big picture is what most of the nation judges each other by.

Everyone is being cheated of their heritage. Everyone is being cheated of understanding where they are from, why their family ended up where it was, what made their grandparents and great-grandparents the sort of people they were.

Start turning over rocks and looking at information you haven’t looked at before. You might find your own horse thief. You might find sadness and pain in that history. Then again, you might find something else too. You might find out that your ancestors were survivors, facing terrible odds and coming out of it the other side. You might find that they fought for something you hadn’t known they fought for, or that the reasons for it weren’t the reasons you’d thought they were. History isn’t pretty. Never has been, never will be. It is full of the very best and the very worst of people. It is full of atrocities. It is full of hate and pain and loss. It is also full of joy and triumph and kindness. Don’t deprive yourself of the one just because you’ll also find the other.

What sparked your interest in history? Were there topics you were uneasy with reading about or things you hoped not to find? What changed your mind? (Or has it?)

Freedom or Fear?

When the Europeans came to the New World they brought with them civilization. A funny word because essentially what it means is “our way of life is the right way and you will comply or we will force you because we are right and your differences cannot be tolerated.” The native American tribes had their own religious beliefs, some of which were not far from Christianity but different enough that it was a threat. So over years it was stamped out. Only Christianity could be tolerated among the natives because any other belief is a threat. Fear of their differences won out, even when it was among tribes they were allied with.

I remember when I was about nine years old reading a book called the Witch of Blackbird Pond. That book was one of my favorites and even as I grew older I’d still occasionally read it. It was set in the late 1600s in New England and there was a character named Hannah Tupper who was an elderly Quaker woman that lived on her own. She was suspected of being a “witch” essentially because she didn’t conform to the social norm of her community. Her greatest “sin” was in being a Quaker, a variation of Protestant faith that emphasized the relationship between a person and God rather than putting faith in a central church. To the Puritans of New England this was abhorrent, a threat to them and their faith. They had both been persecuted in Europe but when the shoe was on the other foot the Puritans had no problem persecuting the Quakers because they allowed their fear to rule them.

Around the late 1700s and early 1800s there was discussion about Islam. Many of the slaves brought into the country followed that faith and this required some careful thought on the part of those Christians already established here. Some founding fathers were opposed but many including George Washington actually either found merit in the Muslim teachings or at the very least supported their freedom to continuing practicing that faith. After all, had we not just fought a war for freedom, to create a country where we could have differences but still work together?

Into the 1800s, forgetting how we had worked together to gain independence, the divisions in the country once again began to fester. Tariffs unfairly targeting certain sections of the country, no matter that we had objected against unfair taxation practices from King George. It festered and it festered and when things came to a head with secession fear was once again used to control the populace. The Union, as Lincoln admitted, was terrified of losing the tax revenue from the South if they successfully seceded since they had been financially supporting the majority of the federal government as well as subsidies to many industries that didn’t wish to take a financial hit (the early days of our crony capitalism). The South was afraid of losing their autonomy as they lost more and more power within the government while their share of the taxes seemed to only get higher. For some there was a fear of abolition, though that was far from the only fear. In that war, terrorizing others became a favorite tool. Rarely did the Confederate armies attempt to cross into the Union but in the South civilians, both free and slave, were being targeted by the Union armies. All food was stolen, homes burned to the ground, women were raped, black men regardless of whether they were free or slave were forced into leaving and joining the Union army, graves of the newly dead were desecrated on the off chance that civilians might be attempting to hide supplies. Fear and destruction were the tools to obtain compliance.

Following the war came a period known as Reconstruction which is somewhat glossed over by the history classes. Immediately after abolition of slavery the southern legislatures had passed laws of their own volition, modeled after laws in the north, in order to make sure the newly freed would have no trouble with their rights to travel freely, etc. However, soon after more and more started migrating from the north to buy up land and take political power. There began to be laws and policies meant to divide the races, to keep everyone as separated as possible to keep the south weak and ensure the northerners maintained control. Fear was the order of the day. Whites, fear blacks. Blacks, fear whites. Worry about each other and don’t look over here at what we are doing. The racial tensions from that still rock us to this day.

Over the next few decades the world continued to turn and life went on. Technology was developing quickly and there was so much going on in the world. Wars happened, as they always do.

Fast forward to World War II and the Nazis were quickly gaining control in Europe. We knew Jews were being persecuted but that wasn’t on our doorstep and it was easier to say we didn’t want them here. After all, they had money. They could figure something out and it wasn’t our problem. Besides, we were just coming out of the Great Depression so we really didn’t have the resources to be helping foreigners… If millions died, well, we had to protect our own first. Why didn’t the Jews do more to stand up to the Nazis if it really was so terrible? And there could have been Nazi agents that snuck in with them had we accepted the refugees!

We helped our allies from a ‘safe’ distance but that sense of safety wasn’t to last. Pearl Harbor happened and our fears skyrocketed. We had so many Japanese immigrants already, what if they turned on us too? If they didn’t agree with what the Japanese had done to us, why weren’t they doing more to speak out against it? Keeping our borders safe and preserving our culture was the most important thing, so we rounded up all the Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps to make sure they couldn’t act against us. Though, if they wanted to serve in our military we would let the young men out and arm them with guns and planes to go into battle. The women, children and elderly though? They were scary. They needed to stay in the camps so we could feel safe.

Now, in 2015, we have forgotten the threat of the Native American faiths, the Quakers and other dissenting Protestant faiths, the Japanese… but some fears we still cling to. Why? Are we better people for allowing our fears to rule us?

Yes, we are told to fear the Syrian refugees. We are told we have enough economic troubles as it is, that these are Muslims who hate us, that they could do something else and don’t need to come here, that there could be agents of ISIS among them. If they truly oppose ISIS, why haven’t they done a better job of standing up to ISIS?

My question is, “Why are a people who claim to cherish freedom so quick to cling to fear?”