Monday, June 10, 2013

Why History Matters

   
In recent years, a sentiment and a complaint has arisen that black people should forget about the injuries of the past "in order to move forward".  Just a quick survey of the blogoshpere and you'll find headlines and comments such as - "Black people should forget the slavery issue. It seems to be stunting their growth, thinking they are owed"; "It's Time for Blacks to Get Over Slavery"; "Why can't black people let the past go?", etc.  


There are also observations such as:

"In America we try to obliterate the past. You don't often see the lasting impact of slavery discussed in American society. Fox News and MSNBC ain't talking about how the legacy of slavery continues to affect us today. Instead, we are told to forget the past."
~ Slavery & The Writing of Black History, Blogspot.

In fact, the whole post-racial idea seems to stem from a deal where black people will recieve future rewards in return for letting go of the, often ugly, past.  In the February, 2008  New Yorker article by Peter Boyer, which first coined the term "post-racial", we find this quote: "[t]he wish for a post-racial politics is a powerful force, and rewards those who seem to carry its promise." He goes on to say, "the post-racial era, as embodied by Obama, is the era where civil rights veterans of the past century are consigned to history and Americans begin to make race-free judgments on who should lead them."

The idea is that in order to fully immerse ourselves in a future that includes technological advances, business synergy and complete political integration, we have to move on and forget the past.
But who else does this? What other (healthy) people intentionally up and forget their past? Where else is this ever done? Does any history matter?
Of course it does. In Washington D.C., we walk along the national mall and can't help but notice the huge marble buildings; the Lincoln Memorial,  the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the World War ll Memorial, etc. Why are those buildings there? So Americans don't forget their past -and loose their way.
Look in any science textbook discussing Quantum Physics and you are sure to find a history explaining how scientists got there theoretically- from Newton's universal law of gravitation to Einstein's theory of relativity. How would it even be possible to know what future issues science needs to resolve without knowing the questions still unanswered from the past?
Imagine Great Britian moving forward and forgetting it's past. It would have to forget Shakespeare, its long monarchy, its courageous stand against Nazi Germany's blitzkrieg and the fact it has never been conquered by any foreign force. Great Britain's past is part of its identity, part of its pride. It is intricately intertwined with them, as is ours.

If the past can be so easily discarded and dismissed why is there no statute of limitations on murder? Why can't the perpetrator say, "oh that was in the past...let's forget about it."  If the way forward is based on forgetting the past, why do we even have history departments and history professors in every university?  How compelling could a movie be if we don't know the events that motivate the main character- his backstory, his past?
History is inextricably intertwined with identity, self-awareness- and the present.

Yet, we are being told to forget slavery. Maybe we do need to forget slavery, considering it only comprised a small fraction of our whole past. We do have over 6,000 years of recorded history wherein we built our own idependent societies and civilizations. In fact, we did try to forget slavery - directly after emancipation. That's what the Reconstruction was! It was supposed to be over then. We were willing to let bygones be bygones but Southern whites didn't want us to forget that we were slaves. And after 1877 the North let them beat, starve, torture and terrorize us until we deeply remembered.

Now, 100 years later, we are supposed to forget again. Of course, any psychologist worth his or her salt will assert that letting go of past injuries is essential to enjoying a healthy future; but those injuries have to first be consciously acknowledged. We don't even know the nature and full extent of slavery, because it has been glossed over in schools and usually given an apologists narrative elsewhere. We generally don't know about the seasoning, or 'breaking-in' period that took place in the Carribean before slaves were shipped to the North American Colonies; we don't know much about the cold blooded, arbitrary murders of children, or the psychological tactics slave owners and the society used to sow seeds of mistrust, dependence and fear within us (many of which are still in use today).

Also, if we don't properly understand our past, we will end up participants in the ultimate cover-up of our own ongoing suppression. Maybe this is the source of the problem. The problem may be who, exactly, is suggesting that we forget our history. It may very well be that it's wise to let go of the injuries of the past, but that's not for those who inflicted those injuries or benefitted from those injuries to determine. That's the same as if someone punches you in the face, then 3 minutes later tells you, you need to let go of the past. That's not for that person to say even 3 hours later or 3 years later - if the harm has never been adequately redressed. This is the source of the absurdity...the injuries have never been adequately redresssed. But that's another blog.
Our history was wiped away once when we arrived on these shores, now we're being asked to forget it again. But this is not how any civilized people proceed.

So what we need is to take ownership of the narrative of our past in general, and slavery in particular. The more we know about our ancestors, the more we'll be able to recapture their hopes and their dreams and we'll realize we cannot fail them - in the future.




"In this great future, you can't forget your past,
 so dry your tears, I say. "

~ Bob Marley, No Woman No Cry.

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