Acknowledging history is not rewriting it

posted by Jeff | Monday, October 12, 2020, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

Here we are, another federal holiday for Christopher Columbus, and again we're reminded that he was a huge dick who didn't discover anything. The history about this is fairly non-ambiguous, in part due to Columbus' own writings. But the feds decided in 1968 to make his arrival (it sure wasn't discovery) in the Bahamas a national holiday. That's the odd part about it, that this mistake is not even rooted in centuries of tradition.

These are weird times for a lot of reasons, but among them is an obsession with celebrating the parts of American history that should not be points of pride. The thing making the headline the last few year is the desire to remove statues of confederate military figures. I'm not entirely sure why that would be controversial, as the confederacy existed to preserve slavery, which is not something we should take pride in. These were dudes on the wrong side of history.

This brings up a lot of discomfort when you go further back, too. Some of the most revered figures in American history were complicit in the persistence of slavery. What do you do with George Washington? He led the revolution and became the first president, all the while he was a slave owner. Historians believe that he would ultimately fall on the right side of the issue, but on the issue of abolition, he kicked the can down the road as president, and did not free his own slaves until he died. Thomas Jefferson also owned hundreds of slaves and spent more time skirting the issue, and ultimately did little to move toward abolishment. I'm not sure what we do with this. Can our founders be simultaneously recognized for their achievement and held accountable for their role in our greatest sin?

American history is an extraordinary contradiction. The nation's founding was based on the principles of freedom from tyranny but built its foundation on the backs of people who were owned. More than 250 years later, we still have a system that does not treat people fairly. We rightfully focus on race, but it's true for gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion and ethnicity.

What we see happening right now is not the desire to erase or rewrite history. It's literally the opposite: Most people want it acknowledged so we can accept that it's problematic and change how we behave as a society. American history has largely been white-washed and wrapped in this odd sense of patriotism. I'm all for celebrating the achievement of the great democratic experiment, but only if we're willing to acknowledge its shortcomings and missteps. Improvement is rooted in self-awareness.


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