yes, Virginia, history does change

Lisa Simpson's face briefly superimposed over a teacher saying Children it's time for your history lesson.

I don’t know what the hell to write, what to say, and so, for this moment, I’m going to write a little about collection development, and reading history, and the importance of understanding—or trying to understand—what came before. We mythologize the hell out of the past, you see. We lie to ourselves, about our families’ pasts, about what made us who we are, about what made our families, and, always, about our country. Our country lies to us, too. I’d like to think we all know that, but I also live in the real world, and have been watching a fascist putsch, and so I know that, indeed, so many people lie so thoroughly to themselves that it doesn’t matter.

In my daytime life, I’m a librarian. I’ve done collection development for a lot of rather distinct areas: hard science and math; education and its corollaries; Latinx Studies; Black Studies; history; music; art—I’ve covered a wild set of topics. Because history falls among them, now and again, I’ve come to realize that a lot of folks don’t see why one should replace history books, or why the history Junior learns in school today might be different than the history they learned back when when they were at Saint Somebody Or Other’s grammar school down the block.

There’s this basic belief that, lo, everybody is dead, and so everything’s the same! And my God, it’s an embarrassingly bad take, people. It’s really, really bad. Between theoretical movements and a slow and lurching progress toward something better (and are we even progressing anywhere but backwards right now?), what we allow ourselves to see of the past not only changes but can become, well, rather different. The past comes into much sharper focus when we allow ourselves to see beyond the great dead men—usually white, usually wealthy—on whom we focused for so long. Those great, dead, usually wealthy, usually white men were never the only people moving the world, not by a long shot. And when we focus on them—from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton and Henry V to Julius Caesar and Simón Bolívar and Rousseau—we lose sight of the world that was, and the world that is, and the world that will be.

Would knowing accurate histories change anything at all, as the far right mounts insurrections? I really don’t know. But I do know that we’ve been peddling falsified tales of our pasts, personal and political and national, for far too long. We refuse to acknowledge the darkness of our heroes, and we deny light to others who made this country what it was. (How many Phillis Wheatleys are out there, unknown and unsung? How many Ona Judges?) Our fantastical vision of Viking marauders leaves no space for what they once were—which was neither all white nor all male. There have been Europeans of African descent for hundreds of years, and maybe longer—after all, the Roman Empire stretched for many thousands of miles, and men from across its reaches made their way into the army, and into its vast empire. (Our visions of Rome are pretty flawed, too.)

Dr. William Darity, in the panel I reviewed for Third Coast Review, discussed the importance of interrogating our family histories, a theme taken up by Matthew Fletcher as well. For many of us, that involves interrogating those heoric myths, and facing the truths of our forebears, both good and ill. We must similarly interrogate our national history, must demand light be shone on its secrets and its horrors, must probe into its myths. This round of terror is not the first time the far right has waged war against other Americans, and it is long past time we stared that history in its face, so we will know and stand against it today, and tomorrow.

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