CHAPTER ONE. HISTORY – WHO CARES?
This chapter has two parts. The first part, Why History? examines why we study History at all. The second part, Remembering American History, delves into the particular ways in which Americans consider and sometimes come into conflict over stories about the American past. After reading this chapter and completing the associated Freewritings and Reflections you will be able to:
- name at least three reasons why studying the past is important
- consider the relationship between History, memory, and national identity
- name at least two instances in which there has been controversy regarding how slavery is remembered in the United States.
- Why History?
I have always loved the study of History – how did things get to be the way they are today? How were people in the past like us today, and how were they different? How could they have believed so wholeheartedly in concepts or ideas which seem foreign, strange, ridiculous, or even abhorrent to us today?
It wasn’t until I began teaching college-level History classes that I really began to understand how many people do not share my passion. In one of the very first classes that I ever taught, I asked my students “what do you find interesting about the past? What would you like to know more about?” A very brave and direct young man replied, “I don’t understand why we need to study the past. If everyone we’re studying is dead, why does it matter what they did, thought, or said?” I suppose I have spent the decade and a half since then trying to answer that question.
I offer these three reasons as to why studying the past is useful and important:
A. History is not writ in stone; rather, each generation re-imagines its past. Once we realize that History is a matter of interpretation, we can begin to question some of the most basic assumptions we make about the world around us. In recent years, debates and discussions about American History have popped up in all sorts of venues and formats. Does it make sense, for example, to continue celebrating Columbus Day in the twenty-first century? At some point, it must have made sense, or the holiday wouldn’t exist in the first place. The History taught in schools today is very different from one or two generations ago. Learning about and actively engaging in these conversations can empower us to re-imagine our own relationship with the past, present, and future.
Relatedly, people in the past thought in very different ways than we do today. As novelist L.P. Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” These differences shed light on the fact that we make so many assumptions about the world around us. For example, just a few decades ago, most people thought that smoking on airplanes was perfectly safe, and that “rock n roll music” was dangerous; now, most assume the exact opposite. Where (and when) did those assumptions come from? What assumptions do we make about the past and how do those assumptions guide how we think about the present and future?
In studying the past, how do we balance empathy with those who lived in the past – understanding their worldview – with the understanding that in order to learn from the past, we do need to acknowledge that some of their actions may have been in the wrong? As my friend and fellow historian Madeline Berry writes, the historian’s goal “is not to ‘rip on’ people of the past or historical moments, but rather to make sense of them in their given context.” On the other hand, as Winston Churchill wrote, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” How can we balance out these two seemingly contradictory aims while making sense of the past in a way that is useful today?
B. Studying History can help us become better consumers of information through critical thinking. “Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusion to which it tends.”1 In other words, critical thinking means being able to effectively analyze how one knows what one knows, and what assumptions one makes about the world. Information used to be contained, limited, and available only to those who could physically access it. Now, the vast majority of all of the information known to humans is available with a few taps on a device most of us carry in our pockets. While some of the consequences of this information revolution certainly seem confusing and even troubling, it also represents a huge democratization of the availability of information. But it is crucially important that we learn to critically think about, that is, to effectively analyze, our sources of information. Historians have been doing this for years and have much to teach about it! We will be practicing this skill as we move through this book and our course.
C. Studying History can help us become better producers of information through the practice of developing and communicating our own original analysis of the past. Once we become better consumers of information, we also become better producers of information. This text contains many Freewriting exercises designed to help students and readers practice both. You are encouraged, as you read, to develop your own analysis of the past using the sources at hand. Practicing this will help you become better at writing. Another consequence of the information revolution we are living through is that writing is a major way in which we communicate – with family through text messages, with employers and co-workers through email, and with friends through social media. So – studying History has more practical applications than you might have realized!
- Remembering American History
Studying the History of the country of which we are citizens or in which we live is not simply a matter of studying History for its own sake. National identity is deeply entwined with how a nation tells itself its own story.
It is particularly beneficial to study American History for those of us who are Americans or who may be living in the United States while completing their college education. If you grew up in the United States, you have likely already taken some American History in elementary, middle, and/or high school. Studying the History of the nation one is a citizen of and/or in which one lives, can help give context to the world today because debates going on in the world today are quite often echoes of issues that have been debated and discussed before. This book addresses those points as well as another, one that I think often goes unremarked in most discussions of History because it lives below the surface: the significance of myth and memory in U.S. History.
Freewriting: “Being American.” What do you think it means to “be American” and how do you think you learned this? What stories may have played a role in this learning process? Consider the definition of the word “myth” above. Can you think of any myths (true or not) that have played a role in your sense of your nationality? If you are not American, you may answer for your own nationality, and/or you may consider this question: what preconceptions do you now or have you in the past had about “Americans” and the USA?
Recent years have seen controversies over how American History is portrayed, commemorated, and celebrated in all sorts of realms. Should monuments to the Confederate States of America (“the South” during the Civil War) or Confederate figures such as General Robert E. Lee be maintained in public places, destroyed, or moved elsewhere? How should slavery be remembered in American History? Should the United States continue to celebrate Columbus Day, or rename and rededicate that day to Indigenous Peoples’ Heritage Day? Why wasn’t Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery, more widely known and celebrated until recently? How should the founding fathers be remembered? Is it true that the real date of the beginnings of American History is 1619, the year that the first enslaved Africans landed in what is now the United States, as the creator of the 1619 Project argues? Was 2019 really the 100th anniversary of women’s voting rights in the United States? These are just a few examples of recent controversies about how the American past plays a role in the world today.
Remembering the Confederacy and Remembering Slavery.
Recently Americans have been rethinking how we remember the Confederate States of America and slavery. While Americans have been engaged in these discussions for decades, several incidents in recent years warrant examination. For this section of the reading it may be useful to consider the definition of the term commemoration: “remembrance, typically expressed in a ceremony” and “a ceremony or celebration in which a person or event is remembered.” The words “commemoration,” “memory,” and “remember” are linguistically connected – they come from the Latin word memor, meaning “mindful, remembering.”2
Freewriting: Monuments You Know and See. Sometimes, before we consider a controversial issue, it can be helpful to think about similar occurrences that are not as controversial, to give perspective. Consider the place where you grew up, the place you live now, and/or places you have visited. What are some of the ways in which your town, college, or country publicly commemorate their History through statues, cemeteries, monuments, or memorials? [One example might be our college campus here at Saint Francis University. We have many statues of Saint Francis of Assisi throughout campus. What other statues do we see? Who are buildings or places on campus named after, and why?] What do you think is the social function of these commemorations? Do you think people pay attention to or read the inscriptions on these commemorations? What does that tell you? Do you think these commemorations play a role in helping individuals understand their identity as being part of the community? Explain.
On June 17, 2015, nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study at one of the oldest black churches in the United States, the Emmanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina.3 Included in the dead was the church’s senior pastor, South Carolina state senator Clementa C. Pinkney. The shooter, a young white man, had posted a manifesto online featuring images of him with a flag associated with the Confederate States of America – the government formed by those states which seceded from the Union during the Civil War. The publicity surrounding these images prompted a nation-wide discussion surrounding public displays of the Confederate flag. Following calls from both Republican and Democrat state and national figures, the South Carolina state legislature voted to remove the flag from the South Carolina State House. Many national retailers, including Wal-Mart, Amazon.com, Sears, Kmart, and eBay, announced they would no longer sell merchandise featuring the flag.4
This discussion soon broadened to other symbols associated with the Confederacy, particularly statues in public places. From 2015 to 2018, over 100 monuments and other symbols were removed across the U.S., particularly in the American South.5 In 2017, the City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, planned to remove a statue that commemorated Robert E. Lee, the most famous Confederate general of the Civil War. On August 12, 2017, a rally opposing the Charlottesville statue’s removal turned violent as protesters and counter-protesters clashed. One person was killed and others injured when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters.6 This incident accelerated the ongoing national discussion about statues and other memorializations of the Confederacy in the American South and elsewhere.
As we consider the future of these statues, we might also consider their past. When were such statues erected, why, and by whom? In the years after the Charleston shootings, the Southern Poverty Law Center undertook a study of those questions.7 A timeline that shows when the different monuments and other memorializations were constructed is available at https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/com_whose_heritage_timeline_print.pdf
Freewriting: “Whose Heritage” Graph. Look at the graph linked above. What trends do you see? When were the most monuments built, and why?
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center website, this graph shows two spikes in the construction of Confederate monuments: “The first began around 1900 as Southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise African Americans and re-segregate society after several decades of integration that followed Reconstruction. It lasted well into the 1920s, a period that also saw a strong revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Many of these monuments were sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The second period began in the mid-1950s and lasted until the late 1960s, the period encompassing the modern civil rights movement.”
Do you see the two spikes referred to in the paragraph above? What can you say about those spikes? Notice anything else about them? What do you think of the possible connection between Confederate monuments, the “Jim Crow” era of the early 1900s, and the Civil Rights era of the 1960s?
To consider the issue of statues specifically, and for perspective on how some other countries have dealt with controversial statues about their pasts, complete the Reflection Assignment: “Things to Think About When Taking Down Statues” (at bottom of web page).
While the Confederate States of America only existed for four years, slavery existed in U.S. History for much longer. European colonists began bringing enslaved Africans to the Americas in the 1500s. Native Americans were also enslaved by European colonists and, later, Americans. The first enslaved Africans arrived in what is now the United States in 1619, one year before colonists landed in Plymouth. Four out of the first five presidents of the United States owned slaves, including Thomas Jefferson – one of the most important founding fathers and writer of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, another important founding father who wrote much of the Constitution. Slavery was economically, socially, and culturally crucial in shaping the United States. We will discuss this at further length throughout the course, but to begin considering the connection between American History and how we remember slavery, complete the Reflection Assignment: Remembering Slavery at Brown University (at bottom of page).
As we study American History, we must consider that our perceptions of that History are irrevocably shaped by the times in which we live. The very questions we ask about the past, not to mention how we answer those questions, cannot help but be shaped by our perceptions of the world around us – and those perceptions are shaped by the world we live in. For example, since September 11, 2001, for example, historians have taken ideas about nationality and national identity more seriously than before. Similarly, Hurricane Katrina spurred new questions about how natural disasters have shaped world History. The Covid-19 pandemic prompted many to reconsider the role of disease in human events. The Black Lives Matter movement and associated discussions of the relationship between race and policing in the U.S. have prompted new interest in African American History. My approach to History is informed by the following two quotations:
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” – James Baldwin
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner
Reflection Assignment: “Things to Think About When Taking Down Statues”
Steve Coll, “Things to Think About When Taking Down Statues,” The New Yorker, August 31, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/things-to-think-about-when-taking-down-statues (pdf on course site)
Read the article cited above and answer these questions:
1. What is Coronation Park and where is it?
2. Why did statues associated with British colonization become controversial in India?
The following questions are for your reflection; there are no right or wrong answers. Uncomfortable answers are okay.
3. How are the controversies associated with these statues similar to and different from controversies connected to American statues of Confederate figures?
4. Could something like Coronation Park work for controversial statues in the United States? Explain your answer.
Reflection Assignment: Remembering Slavery On Campus at Brown University.
Recently discussions about how slavery in American history is remembered have been making headlines on the news and in social media. Since this is a college class, it may be helpful to consider this issue as it relates to universities and college campuses. Here we’ll examine a famous instance of just such a conversation at a university in the North.
Brown University is an Ivy League university in Rhode Island. Brown was founded in 1764 as Rhode Island College, and is the seventh oldest institution of higher education in the United States. It was renamed Brown University after donations from a local wealthy family, the Browns. By the middle of the eighteenth century, about ten percent of all Rhode Islanders were enslaved.8 In 2003, the university’s first Black president, Ruth J. Simmons, commissioned a committee of faculty and students to study the connections between Brown University and slavery. In 2006, that committee issued a report whose findings included the following: One of the Browns was an abolitionist who broke with the rest of his family, but much of the Brown family’s wealth came from slavery, either directly through the slave trade, or indirectly, as the Rhode Island economy of the mid to late 1700s was based in the slave trade. Rhode Island “served as a northern hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, mounting at least 1,000 voyages that carried more than 100,000 Africans into slavery” in the 1700s.9 While many Americans think of slavery as a Southern phenomenon, this history helps remind us that slavery existed throughout what is now the United States in the 1600s and 1700s. Although the colony of Rhode Island did have laws on the books that banned “black mankinde” from being forced to serve a master “for longer than ten years,” after which they would be “free, as the manner is with English servants,” these laws were not enforced.
In response to this report (which may be found at https://www.brown.edu/Research/Slavery_Justice/documents/SlaveryAndJustice.pdf), the university established a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice in 2012 and in 2014, as part of the school’s 250th anniversary celebration, dedicated a new memorial highlighting the school’s past ties to the transatlantic slave trade.10 In the spring of 2021, the Brown’s undergraduate student bodies voted in favor of a proposal that the university should offer reparations to the descendants of enslaved people who worked on the college campus. The student body president who organized the vote, a Political Science major who is descended from enslaved people, told a reporter, “We treat our main green as this beautiful park. People walk their dogs, they play frisbee, they do homework there. And they’re sitting and lounging on the places where slaves literally stood. And there’s these untold horrors that exist right where we lay around really just ignorant of that.” He also said, “The murder of George Floyd [in May 2020] influenced everything. His passing, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence over this past summer, rocketed Black issues into the mainstream in a way where it really wasn’t before.”11
Reflection Questions. The following questions are for your reflection; there are no right or wrong answers. Uncomfortable answers are okay.
- Consider the words of Jason Carroll above. How do you think the “current events” referred to by Carroll connects to how he and other students at Brown think about the past?
- Can you think of other examples of situations in which current events have shaped how you or people you know think about history? Explain.
- For each point of view below, imagine that you agree with that point of view and write one or two sentences in support of it:
- a. Brown University should pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people who worked on the college campus.
- b. Brown University should not pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people who worked on the college campus.
1Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941, quoted in “Defining Critical Thinking,” The Foundation For Critical Thinking, https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766
7“Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” February 1, 2019, Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy
8 “Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice,” (2006), p. 9, https://www.brown.edu/Research/Slavery_Justice/documents/SlaveryAndJustice.pdf
10Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, https://cssj.brown.edu/; Bill Van Siclen, “In iron and stone, Brown University acknowledges slave ties,” Providence Journal, September 20, 2014, https://www.providencejournal.com/article/20140920/ENTERTAINMENT/309209994
11Randi Richardson, “Why Brown University students say it’s time for the school to offer reparations,” NBC News, April 2, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/why-brown-university-students-say-it-s-time-school-offer-n1262927