This Thing Called History


The contours of history are best seen from many perspectives.

To suggest I’m a history buff is not unreasonable: I enjoy the subject and have read quite a number of history books over the years. But I am more interested in understanding what it means to be human, which is why, perhaps, I find history so fascinating. History reveals to us the context from which the present moment emerges. In other words, and from a systems thinking perspective, what happened in the past – history – is the stuff that shapes the present. So, in coming to understand history, one may grasp a better sense of how and why things are the way they are.

This month, we celebrate and lift-up Black history. For some, especially those – not unlike me – who grew-up in a middle-class, suburban context and were educated in an overwhelmingly white public school system, Black history may seem like an “alternative” history. In other words, a history that’s somehow not necessarily representative of the “truth”. As jarring as this notion may be (i.e., the idea that there are folks who don’t believe Black history is truthful), it’s not as if all of us share the same perspective about what’s going-on in the present moment. Just look around and you’ll find all sorts of folks who are caught-up in perspectives that – quite literally – have no basis in reality. So, what is it about my perspective, the perspectives we share and this thing called “history”?

History as Story

Let’s start with a definition of the word “history”. The New American Dictionary offers this as its first definition of the word: “A narrative of events; story”. The word history comes to us from the Greek verb meaning, “to know”. To know is perhaps the most vexing of notions: what do we truly know and how do we go about knowing? In a most pressing way, to know is to experience. We come to “know something”, at a deep level, when we experience that something. 

This brings us to the other part of the definition: story. In our day, we hear quite a bit about the importance of story and narrative, which is intimately linked to the credence we give to experience. We want to hear the other’s story: how did one arrive at where he or she is today; what was it like to get here? Story is about the past.

What took place just a moment ago is the past; it cannot be changed. The past, as the saying goes, “is what it is”. But what are we to make of what took place in the past? If we place such high regard on the individual’s experience, and what led that person to the present moment, how are we to interpret the person’s story such that we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and in short, what it means to be human? In other words, if an individual’s story is important, then to what extent is that person’s story relevant to us and our collective understanding of reality? 

There is no way for you or me to understand the other’s story except through that person’s perspective. We could listen to what others have to say about the person, but this isn’t the same thing. It’s the other’s story as told by another. So, if someone relates his or her story, what are we to make of it? One question we ought to ask is this: does the other’s story line-up with reality? The person’s story either has a factual basis (i.e., it is truthful and grounded in reality), or it falls somewhere between what is real and total fantasy. 

Story and Self-Awareness

If I’m to relate an objective narrative of the events in my life, I must have the capacity to reflect on those events – whether they took place years ago, or just a few minutes ago – and place them in a context that lines-up with reality. For a person to objectively reflect on his or her story requires the skill of authentic self- reflection, or introspection. In other words, if my story is to be of benefit to me, or anyone else, I must have the capacity to understand and relate my story in a way that is reflective of what is real. To do otherwise is disingenuous in the least, and delusional in the extreme. 

There is much written about developing the capacity to authentically practice introspection, or pursue self-awareness. This article in Psychology Today, by Tchiki Davis, Ph.D., provides a number of pointers on developing self-awareness, one of which I have found to be quite important: feedback from others. 

Over the years, I have engaged in spiritual direction, which is a form of therapy, and I’ve benefited from secular therapy sessions as well. I’ve also been intentional about participating in what is often called “small group” reflection, wherein a relatively small number of people come together to “wrestle” with ideas, in open, honest and transparent dialogue. What I’ve found through these experiences has been invaluable: I’ve come to better understand myself and the world around me. In other words, the benefit of hearing how my views are understood by others, and in turn hearing their perspectives, has provided me with a deepened understanding of the human experience. 

The point here is not to develop an exposition of what it takes to be self-aware, but rather to grasp what it means to understand self within the broader context of what is real. Many of us either struggle to no avail, or have simply given-up trying to see our life stories and what goes on around us in an objective and self-aware light. There are many reasons for this, some of which are genetic and therefore next to impossible to overcome. Others are the result of a sort of conformity to consumerism, which leads folks to adopt the thinking of others, without ever questioning whether such thinking is valid. Yet, if we do not appreciate the work it takes to understand our own life experiences within the broader context of what is real, how will we ever grasp the complex nature of the history of our nation? This brings us to what we touched on earlier, which is this notion of an alternative history.

Alternative History?

Many folks are angered by what is broadly characterized as the “re-writing” of our nation’s history, or the putting forth of alternative histories. The New York Times 1619 Project is a case in point. A number of those who claim to be scholars of history are so out-raged by the project as to challenge its legitimacy. What are we to make of this?

There’s an analogy here. If we undertake introspection, or reflection on our life’s experiences, without the benefit of feedback from others, we may run into problems. But there’s also a problem with gaining feedback from others: It’s not as if just any other person, or group of persons will do. This, of course, is one of the most pressing problems of our age: The feedback loops created by social media, with its incessant drive to “stay on platform” and continually consume content that appeals to us, much of which is produced by others who think the same way we do. It also leads to our purchasing stuff we do not need, which is how it exists.

The key to feedback is to be open to things we do not necessarily want to hear. These things can be jarring, as in the first time I was told, by virtue of the color of my skin color, that I am privileged. When I first heard the term “white privilege”, I was immediately inclined to reject it as not applicable to me. I’m not privileged, I thought to myself. Yet, after some time, and thoughtful dialogue with African Americans, I have come to see more clearly what is meant by white privilege. I am now aware of the term – in an experiential sense – and how it affects my worldview; I am now more aware of my context within the human experience. Does this mean I’m immune to how white privilege shapes my perspective? Not necessarily. I will likely always carry with me the long-lasting and detrimental effects of white privilege (it’s almost like PTSD). Nevertheless, I have developed the capacity to be aware of how white privileges affects my worldview, which means I’m better equipped when it rears its ugly head. 

And herein lies the analogy. My experience of being jarred by feedback occurred in the present moment, and now that it has passed, the experience is part of history. Yet, how can I deny the truth of the term white privilege? I cannot. The point is, in the present moment, various perspectives are “alive”, and if we are open to them, we have the opportunity to become more of what it means to be human. The same holds true for history: A multitude of valid perspectives is far better than the echo chamber of my own thoughts, or those of others who think just like me. 

History is What it Is

So, there’s actually a fallacy to this notion of “alternative” history: History “is what it is”. But we can look at history from different perspectives, and in so doing, arrive at a clearer perspective of what is real and truthful about the past. This is why The 1619 Project is important and why we ought to be reading historical works by writers such as William Appleman Williams, Howard Zinn and the host of Black scholars, such as Dr. Cornel West and James H. Cone who provide us a perspective on what is true. These scholars are not putting forth “alternate realities”, but realities from other perspectives. They’re using the historical record and lifting-up perspectives that have been long buried – for reasons that are becoming all too clear. 

In a recent New Republic piece, writer William Hogeland makes the case for why a “consensus view” of history is not something to which we ought to aspire. 

Shortly after the end of WWII, the US found hegemony – with the exception of the Soviet Union – among the world’s powers. Because tensions between the US and Soviet Union were beginning to intensify, there emerged a sense that the US ought to be seen in the proper context around the world: as a nation predicated on the loftiest of human ideals. The idea was to put forth an impression of US imperialism as being rooted in only the best of intentions. What followed was a concerted effort, among history scholars, to arrive at a consensus view of history, one that would, in essence, paint the US in a most glowing light. 

This work not only served overseas propaganda, but also led to a higher level of control here at home. With all of us being taught that our past is singularly defined by the pursuit of such things as equal justice under the law, it would be much easier to maintain control over the “masses”. In other words, this singular narrative of history would ensure citizens bought the American Dream and dutifully went off to work to pay for it.

Many of us, because of the work of folks who’ve too often been overlooked, are beginning to wake-up and grasp how our understanding of this system has been manipulated by the way in which our nation’s history – our nation’s story – has been handed down. We are beginning to see more clearly the contours of history, and the ways in which power and privilege have been used to manipulate us into believing a singular perspective of the past, a perspective designed, not to enlighten and pass on knowledge, but to keep us under control. A manipulated and controlled human experience is antithetical to what we are created to be. 

The Arch of History

For me, at least, understanding the perspectives of others, whether the other is standing in front of me, or is coming to me through scholarly works, is foundational to becoming the human being I was created to be. If we are to live-out our humanity to the fullest, we must understand the other, because in doing so, we overcome ourselves and our limited view of reality. This is a lifelong and never-ending thing.  

As we recognize and celebrate Black History, let us do what we can to objectively view our nation’s history. And may we forever remain aware of the one truth about history that has endured the test of time, for it is from this truth our hope springs eternal. Rev. Martin Luther King articulated it best when he wrote, “The arch of the moral universe bends toward justice.” We are seeing the bend toward justice in our day; may we join forces and increase that bend.

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