"History is a giant stone that lies on top of us"

Americans don't tend to see the past in their everyday lives. If they do, it might be because of a personal or ethnic connection, or maybe they hear the president harken back to Sputnik and the Space Race, and greatness of our past. But the average person tends not to feel overly connected to their area's past, nor do they see how history could be valuable in their own lives. Disengagement, you might call it. We have, after all, spent our existence as a nation on a purposeful mission to be constantly reinventing ourselves, getting away from the demons that held down the European ancestors of those early settlers (and with the notion that we were claiming empty land, preordained for us, but that's beside this point). No time for the past.

In an excellent essay (in this book), public historian Michael Frisch talks about this relationship we have with history, using his 1980s perspective to talk about the Vietnam War in our national memory. First, talking about the war was out of bounds because it was current, still present. Then, you couldn't look at the war or its roots because it was the past, an episode that needed to be "put behind us." But what happens then, he points out, is that while we have the living memories, those memories themselves get warbled, people block things out, or chose not to remember. Even films about the war, while providing heroic characters for audiences and poignant stories, keep these figures pointedly isolated from the history of the event, from what it means historically. This puts us at a disadvantage in analyzing our past.

I don't have an answer, nor even a suggestion, about the state of this relationship, or about possible implementations to bring the two, American and American history, closer together. I do hope that some of the projects I want to work on help to bring people closer to their past in ways that are meaningful for their present, for the daily lives now.

Frisch quotes a Nigerian friend who has this to say about Americans and our disconnection from what's behind us:

"What's so mysterious?" he observed.

"Why bother with history when you're rich and powerful? All it can do is tell you how you climbed to the top, which is a story its probably best not to examine too closely. No, you don't need history. What you need is something more like a pretty carpet that can be rolled out on ceremonial occasions to cover all those bloodstains on the stairs. And, in fact, that's what you usually get from your historians."

Then he went on solemnly:

"For the rest of us, its a lot different. We don't have the luxury of ignoring history. History is a giant stone that lies on top of us; for us, history is something we have to struggle to get out from under."

To say that most of American history has been seen through the eyes of the powerful is a familiar criticism, but we rarely acknowledge, as my friend suggests, how profoundly power, privilege, and freedom from historical constraint have conditioned our basic relation to the past.

There was a sense of liberation from the toils of the European past that early Americans felt, and to a large extent, we still run from it today. It is hard to think about bad things in our history. But it is obtuse to ignore them and never face unpleasant truths or critical interpretations of what happened before us (or, more difficultly, during our lifetimes). Taking a deep, contemplative look at the American past does not make anyone unpatriotic. That bloody stairway we climbed? We better know it well, for all its good and bad.

Place: "writing from a place, from a community, from a location in the world"

Part of the profession of writing and studying history demands an indifference to place. One reason for this is the slim chance of finding an academic position in the exact city where you might want it, so we want to be assured that any location is surely a great place to do our jobs. But the other, more significant, aspect of our profession is that we almost always start with something that happened and then look around at the place where it occurred. The location, the city, the larger community, is the secondary thing that we consider, after the initial social or political bit caught our interest.

Local and public history is almost exactly the opposite. For the people living in their home, in their city or town, in their region, they begin with a place they care about and ask what happened there, in that spot that they claim, maybe even identify with.

It might be the disassociation, the impersonal way that we take history and dissect it, interpret it, and polish it up into a book filled with delicious complication and some big words, that sometimes causes our own alienation from everyday people, who consume a wholly different kind of history. While the doctoral works sit in the university library for other noble scholars to ponder and converse over, citizens of my city are consuming history through television documentaries and films, theme parks, mass market historical fiction, facts and tidbits on Snapple caps, and maybe (hopefully!) a museum every now and then. Part of why I find public history so important a field is that we see how both of these types of history are important, and, as Michael Frisch said in his book with the same title, we have a "shared authority." The conversation about history is not only taking place in the university, nor should it. We are not allowed to shake our heads, smiling sadly, at the interpretations of Hollywood movies or History Channel specials if we are not willing to take the discussion to the table, equally set, to have a talk about the complexities and contentions in our past.

And we can talk about community histories together. This is an exciting idea to me, because I am a bit of a product of that American placelessness problem (although I don't see it as a "problem"); I did not have deep connections with particular cities, communities, or regions on a historical level until the last few years, when, either adulthood or my upper division history courses or both dropped me into a strange reality: I cared about where I lived. I don't mean that I never cared about a place, what I mean is deeper, on a historical level: I care about what happened in that place before I got there. That is a significant difference, and it changes your approach.

A majority of the courses I took to earn my bachelor's degree were on world history. I know a lot about Chinese history and politics, India and South Asia and their politics, West Africa, Central Asia, even a bit (though only a bit) about Europe. But not being from any of those places, there is only so much I can ever hope to know about them, and I may never understand them fully. That leaves me knowing not very much about the larger world, but even less about my own history. I learned a lesson, I grounded myself and thought headily about how much I need to learn about my own complicated past (and how it relates to all the other ones I've studied, which fold back into each other in beautiful important ways.) Wouldn't you know, the American history and public history courses I did take had some of the most profound impact on me, and my career path.

The deeper I get into history though, I need to have my areas of expertise, of core interest, the parts of history whose facts I know, like the professors who sometimes amaze me with thee breadth of their knowledge. (I rest more easily when I remind myself that they've had a lot longer to learn all these things.) I don't officially have my list yet. I don't know what I want to study, maybe because there are so many things I would like to study.

Usually I'll ramble off something about the immigrant experience in America, as that is an area I am extremely interested in. Regular readers will know I have an ongoing fascination with the notion of nationality and identity, and what happens when you are too many of those things, and what point in the spectrum garners you a hyphenated identity. It has been interesting recently, for example, to read of the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, the strict Chinese mother (living in the U.S.) who has raised her children markedly unlike the American counterparts around her. But in China nowadays, Chua's is an old guard of parents, a generation past. To Chinese people, the controversy is surrounding an American mom; she is an American mom to them. So who is she? What is she? That is just juicy, good stuff. So, that is one area I really do hope I get to work in. There are so many stories from so many countries that become part of our American history as soon as they enter our country. Some have been here a long time, others, not so long. They're all important stories.

Anyway, this week I read historian David Glassberg's Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life and it was brimming with quotable and thought-provoking observations and experiences in the minds and matters of the public and their past, and what it means. His concluding remarks were both a revelation in combining emotion and a study of the past, and in reveling in connectivity and separation at once, a challenge and aspiration for historians to tackle today. But he also spoke right to newcomers to the field, and reassured me that I have talents and ideas to bring to the world yet, and I'll figure out what they are before long.

The distancing from life, the quest for perspective that historians learn in graduate school as the core of the historical enterprise must be balanced by a recognition of our personal needs for the past. Our own experiences, our own families, our own communities, can be the source of historical insights, not because we assume that everyone is like us, but because we can establish who we are only by writing from a place, from a community, from a location in the world.

So what will I tell my students wanting to become historians? Certainly to learn the history of the profession, and the skills necessary to earn a living doing history, whether through teaching or any number of other pursuits. But also to find a place from which to write, and to cultivate a humanity within yourself that allows you to connect with others in that place. To help the residents of your community to see the value of the ordinary places where they live. To help your neighbors to expand their time perspective beyond a generation or two. And perhaps most difficult, given the tendency Americans have to make histories that exclude others from their life-stories and neighborhoods, to help your fellow citizens to expand their social perspectives beyond their immediate families, so that they discover in their quest for a history and place that they can call their own, that they are part of a larger society and environment.

I have been sitting on an idea for my own historical and creative endeavor that I can hopefully turn into my larger capstone project for my master's degree (that class will be next spring). And I can tell you that reading this passage makes me want to jump out of my seat and go start it right now. So many good discussions to have out there... so much amazing history, wrapped up in people's lives and surrounding them every day. Since the day I decided I wanted to be a journalist, in high school, I've had the urge and the need to share stories that illustrate the grandness of human drama, and to show people the larger perspectives and how they fit in. That urge is at the center of everything I've been doing since then, although it has taken many positive twists and turns from that title "journalism." It's really writing. Telling stories. That's what I do, have done, will do.

Why I love what I do:

Finishing up the semester next week, and I've got one major paper left. The class is Issues and Interpretations in American History, and without being to prosaic, the professor has decreed that our final assignment is to consider and reflect on the twelve books and three articles we've read during the last fourteen weeks and use them to consider the issues and interpretations we face as future historians. So easy, it's hard.

I'm writing on the meaning of race and class in American history and the relationships of those social constructs to the notion of republicanism--which has been a foundational theme in our class. This is the opening to my paper, and the reason I love what I am doing:

Since the advent of history as a profession in the Unites States, beginning around the time Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed and discussed the effects this would have on "the American,” the historian has essentially waged an ongoing battle against a teleological past. That is, we have spent several hundred years constructing a history along a singular line, often blatantly leaving out many of its complications, in an attempt to tell a clean narrative. Then, around midcentury last, we realized our error: the din of missing voices was to loud to ignore, and we began again, reinterpreting our past, doing all we could to stave off that urge to make the past into one nice, clean history. Our natural compulsion leans toward a teleological storyline, and so we continue to teach schoolchildren—and sometimes, even undergraduates—from textbooks that grandly sum things up, so that they can walk away with a set of “the facts.” But the best thing about history is the din of all those voices, every interpretation and perspective, and the elementary truth that in order to tell the whole story, history can neither be simple nor short, nor known by any one person—ever.

So to embark upon a discussion of the issues and interpretations in American history is to admit that there is inherently no crisply-drawn right and wrong in the art of argument, and that all we can attempt to do is add to the historiographical conversation that began long before, hopefully in a constructive way, and come out with a better understanding of our past and the historians who have collected it.

And I plunge from here boldly into the complexities of those stubborn demons we like to muddle, misinterpret, reinterpret, deconstruct, reconstruct, and at times, ignore or pretend do not exist. Race, class, America.


Me & the thirteenth colony: finding "my" history

Hello, Georgia!I may have alluded to this at least once before, but I'll say it again: I am only now discovering the breadth of colorful and amazing Georgia history there is to explore. As a novice historian, the past several years of my college education has been a journey in finding my spot within the field, locating the elements that pique my interest and doing the work to become "an expert" in whatever I spend the most time researching. Since declaring my major, I always knew I was more interested in world history, particularly that of the Asian continent, than in the American past. Founding fathers, Civil War, industrial revolution, world wars, OK, got it. I love world cultures and the way I saw it, I had no time for American history when there was so much outside this country to learn. But this summer, I stumbled upon a weakness of sorts within myself. I spent the first eleven years of my life in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan (1987-1998), where my fourth-grade teacher taught a paltry Michigan history; at least, it's paltry in my mind due to my minimal memory of anything that happened in Michigan history. I know Lewis and Clark passed by and the U.P. was a stronghold of iron mining (and I believe it still is...). Enough "Northern" was in me, I'm afraid, to consider Georgia history inferior and mostly see it as a compilation of idiots' doings and praise of the Confederacy. Right as my family arrived (1999), the state flag had sparked controversy and the notion of "southern pride" seemed, to me, the ramblings of the ignorant. I didn't understand Georgia's past, nor did I care much to learn it. I was from Michigan, I didn't need to know. By the time eighth grade rolled around, I was enrolled--along with every other public school eighth-grader--in Georgia History. Three years in the state had not improved my outlook on the relevance of Georgia's past. I knew the state had been burned by that nobleman General William T. Sherman, and he gave Lincoln the city of Savannah as a Christmas present (I lived in Savannah during these years, and Savannians love to tell that story); I knew John Wesley landed in this state and spread his new philosophy across it (what would become Methodism, the denomination of my upbringing). I knew that modern-day white people loved to talk about their beloved Confederate battle flag, a topic I found boring. These were the basics in my mind, and this was enough for me to declare it a waste of time. It did not help that my eighth-grade Georgia history teacher was, for some reason, thought to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I cannot remember one ounce of information or reasoning backing this statement up, and looking back he seemed to be just a quirky guy who wore transition shades, but you know how schoolchildren are-- the rumor stuck, and I disregarded a lot of the things he said. (I feel bad about that now, and I feel worse the more I think about it. I can't think of one piece of evidence against him.) The KKK was a scary, historical image in my young head, another testament to the horrible past the South had, and another reason why it should be disregarded.

I am far beyond that, obviously, high school and college have smartened me slightly, and I do not have such a myopic view of southern history. But I must admit that I have spent three years in college avoiding American history classes; until this summer when a course I took was focused on post-Civil War and Reconstruction. As it turns out, there are endless subjects in Georgia history to examine, and a trove of colorful characters who participated in the state's amazing story.

Turns out I was dead wrong all those years. And now in a bit of a sticky spot.

I had now spent eleven years as a resident of Georgia (1998-2009). I can really no longer hold on to any idea of myself as a "northerner," since really, my memories of Michigan are of childhood and subsequent return visits. Not only that, but I have no adult perception of life in my chilly childhood state, and know none of its history. So I don't know Michigan history because I've lived in Georgia so long, but I've resisted learning about Georgia because I excused myself as "northern." And I am a... historian?

Not to mention the fact that I am going to be graduating from an American university--a Southern American university--and taking my career into the wider world, a world that expects me, as a historian, to be educated on my own region's past. If I venture into a global community of historians and start to chat about their histories but know none of my own, what good am I to the field? What kind of respect will I expect to earn with such an embarrassing lack of insight on my own state's history?

My last year in school, however, has started to build my education in this critical element. The summer class really sparked a desire to learn more about the amazing history there is to study in Georgia. My senior seminar, in which I write my senior thesis, is on Georgia History. Some of the articles we read in that class blew my uninformed little brain: Stone Mountain's history, anti-suffragist women, the Lost Cause, the state flag change of 1957--I never dreamed of the complexity and intrigue wrapped up in all the issues in the state's history, and how these elements still linger in the present. My museum studies class has taken me to several museums in the area that I'd never before visited. And my own new-found interest is encouraged by personal endeavors: reading books I pick out and visiting places I've yet to see for myself. Learning about my city, my region, my state. Eleven years later, I've made a discovery: the thirteenth colony is pretty darn cool.