Attachment to narratives, modern or historic, is blindness.
There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the many long months since George Floyd was murdered by police in May of 2020. U.S. society has since found itself at crossroads, the nature of which some had long known about and some had only just come to realize with the force of speeding truck.
The utopian post-racial society, once so memorably dreamed of by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., had not been achieved in 2020. America had not yet reached the mountaintop.
The promised land where, as Haile Selassie once put it, “the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes,” remained as elusive as ever it was.
This is a plague on mankind, because Selassie was right about another thing, too: Until that day, there will be war. Unrest, disquiet. Violence. Conflict.
As to how we get there, people have ideas. One of the most central ideas has been education.
Since so many came to the conclusion of educating racism out of the populace- though we must ask what public school teachers were teaching before now- there have been plenty of disagreements regarding how to go about it. Not everyone agrees this is the best approach, not everyone agrees about the urgency of the problem. Almost no one agrees on what an anti-racism curriculum might look like in practice.
In part, the adverse reaction to moving towards this goal, however imperfectly, is due to a certain attachment to the mythos of history, a fascination with the creation story of America.
Here’s the thing: You don’t have to believe in fairy tales to love America anymore than you have to believe you can fly to love your own arms.
The winners get to write history, or so it has been said. Perhaps the purpose of reexamining American history is a collective reflection on just how ugly “history” can be when viewed through the lens of those who didn’t get to write it.
Today, we are a people enjoying the fruits of technology in an Information Age unlike any which has dawned before. We have all of recorded history at our fingertips, from which to learn the sins of past generations- so as not to repeat them.
With this telescope, we can peer back into the ages of the past, pour through old records for a more nuanced, honest view of history; plus, we know how it all turned out.
We know how the story ends. Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Rome fell. The Bolsheviks did in fact execute the entire Russian royal family- in spite of what their defenders in the West naively believed. France’s Committee of Public Safety was anything but as their guillotine made the streets of Paris run red with first the blood of the royals, then the aristocrats, then then landed gentry, then the merchants, and so on.
China’s one child policy was doomed to failure from the start and Alexander the Great didn’t make it past his 21st birthday.
Knowing how so many stories end gives us a jaundiced, one-dimensional view of history.
The problem with this, with the Hollywoodization of history, and with mistakes in fields like Archeology, is an over-emphasis on the very wealthiest people in any given society- a tiny percentage of the population.
They often left temples, palaces, pyramids, royal burial mounds, stone monoliths, marble complexes of breathtaking beauty. Many of these have endured the ages.
These things, as captivating as they are to the human imagination, do not reflect a realistic view of history. The vast, overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived on earth haven’t been kings, queens, princes, princesses, rulers, governors, peers of the realm, aristocrats, the privileged class or even the landed gentry.
Working class people, in every time and age, have molded and shaped societies; not the scant handful of upper-crust toffs who have existed throughout the centuries- most of them fortunate enough to be born into it nine times out of ten.
The viewpoints of the working class upon whose shoulders our entire civilization rests- that is the real human history. Their names have been long forgotten, or were never known. They weren’t famous or extremely wealthy. They didn’t build monuments to themselves, or leave stone effigies or erect great coliseums.
The legacy the working-class did leave us is less tangible but far more important and enduring.
Rulers, elites and robber barons have come and gone. Whatever their successes, and despite their best efforts, their fortunes are almost always gone by the third generation. The working class just keeps on working, growing and prospering.
It is the working class, everyday people, the down-trodden, the marginalized, the impoverished- of every description- who have been shunted to one side, forgotten, hushed-up. Until now.
It doesn’t have to be that way anymore. We can expand our view of history.
The average American, working class person had little or nothing to do with the creation of a new nation during the American Revolution. Most of them probably barely knew about it until long after the fighting ended.
Reexamining American history to see beyond the perspective of the most privileged is not a doing, but an undoing. It is not subtracting from the sum total of U.S. history since the first Spanish explorers set foot in Florida, but adding. It is only natural: Expansion is the nature of the universe.
“And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to Blossom,” wrote the poet Anais Nin.
That is the crossroads in which U.S. society finds itself; the risk of remaining tight in a bud has indeed become much greater than the risk it might take to blossom into Martin Luther King’s dream.
The working-class people’s history is the real history of any country, not the elites, not the ruling classes, whatever their accomplishments.
Isn’t it time we learned a bit more about it?
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)