Histories and Stories of Truth
Previously published, Silver Sage Magazine, September 23, 2019
For many in our generation, the word history has, for the most part, often seemed rather benign. History was a subject taught in schools with battered textbooks and an endless droning of facts and dates. At the time, it did not occur to us that what was being presented was based on anything less than certainty or that there might be alternative understandings of the battle victories, the lands and waters explored, and, in a more general sense, “how things came to be.” History, like science or math, was a subject in school and it was a story of truth.
Fast forward to today, in which outspoken groups are calling for various historical monuments to be removed and for certain institutions to be renamed. What has changed? Simply put, we have come to realize that there is often more than one aspect to history, and that as new information is uncovered about key individuals or events, we must challenge ourselves to revise our previous understandings and reformulate our opinions on them. This process can make people uncomfortable—it is disconcerting to have to re-evaluate those things we believed to be factual and which therefore provided grounding for our view of the world. But we are at the point where we have to loosen our grip on some of the histories we were taught in order to make room for other perspectives. Such reconsiderations may also enhance and enrich the conversations we have about the things we value, without necessarily compromising or undermining the underpinnings of our collective knowledge and belief systems. I am not a historian. I am, however, someone who appreciates the importance of histories and who believes that a conscious effort to preserve and allow the expression of all of the voices that make us who we are is critical to the development of a social conscience.
I have moved from the word history to the use of the term histories, plural. This is because I believe that the other side of the fragmentation and division that I see around me (in our own cultural moment) is the possibility that these many stories and perspectives may contribute to a fuller understanding of who we are and where we have been. Some of these accounts do not align or agree with each other, and it is here that the disconnects, the conflicts, and the disregard of one another takes place. People often attempt to diminish or discredit a narrative that is new to them in order to preserve their own view of the record. I have come to understand that in such circumstances, it is vital to engage and to make time for the awkward and difficult conversations that such competing claims present, in order to maintain the structures of a civil society. These conversations need to be had with each other and, perhaps most importantly, with our children. In this way, our multiple histories can help us to use the past to move forward in constructive ways.
Our comprehension of the past informs the policies, legislation, attitudes, and societal norms that dictate all aspects of our lives. Community histories, in particular, contain the details and stories of life gone by and inform us on how the circumstances of particular times and places had impact upon the lives of ordinary people. By valuing our various heritages, we may come to a deeper appreciation of our freedoms and our capacities for innovation while being able to celebrate our traditions with a greater sense of purpose.
Our multiple histories allow us to see where we come from in context. And whether or not we consider every aspect of these stories to be entirely positive, we cannot fully know who we are without them. In our ever-changing, fast-paced world, our histories are what help us to ground our values and our sense of identity. From them, we gain a greater insight into the connections between past and present. We learn that many human experiences are universal. We come to grasp how the many stories that have created us, as part of a social structure, continue to shape our current political realities. I believe that it is incumbent upon us to wrestle with these challenges as part and parcel of our commitment to improving contemporary life and advancing our society.