The history of history

History changes. One might think that the only updates history books require is an additional chapter every few years to cover the last events. If one thought that, one would be wrong. We continue to learn more about our past, requiring revisions of our earlier writings about history. Consider the following examples:

  • In 2012, a construction project in England unearthed a skeleton that archaeologists and historians hoped might belong to King Richard III. The condition of the skeleton was compared to details known about the king, and careful study of the chemical composition of the bones was conducted; both kinds of tests demonstrated a convincing case that the remains were indeed those of Richard. Further chemical examination of the skeleton and studies of its form provided additional information about King Richard, including information about his diseases, his diet, and the injuries he sustained in his last battle. All this data helped to add details to our understanding of Richard III, of his life and death, and of conditions in England when he was alive.
  • Until recently, history textbooks reported that we can only guess at the number of slaves imported from Africa into the western hemisphere between 1500 and 1800. A team of young historians, aware that the slave trade was a business, went searching for business records. They found them. Historians now can say with confidence that twelve million slaves were sold and purchased from the African coast during those three hundred years—most of them sold by African tribes to European traders—and that nine million slaves were sold in the western hemisphere as part of the same trade. These numbers demonstrate that three million Africans died while being transported across the Atlantic Ocean in those three centuries—and their death was largely dismissed as part of the cost of doing business.
  • During the Roman Empire, a man named Ptolemy created a map and geography textbook of the inhabited world, to the best of educated knowledge at that time. Ptolemy included cities of Germanic groups in northern Europe on his map. For centuries, historians scoffed at Ptolemy’s invention of European cities, since historians knew he never visited that part of the world, and since other Roman soldiers described the German tribes as wanderers with no fixed abode. But when researchers decided to test Ptolemy’s claims, they found that the cities he located on his map were in the same location as some contemporary German cities. They then learned that ancient artifacts had been found in most of those cities. No one had ever considered the possibility that those were ancient German cities, since “everyone knew” that the Germans didn’t live in cities before crossing into the Roman Empire. Now the German heritage, and the early history of those cities, is better understood.

Earlier historians debated among themselves whether great people create history or history creates great people. Would the Christian Church have experienced a Reformation without Martin Luther? Would the American colonies have revolted against the British and later created a Presidency without George Washington? For some historians, history was essentially biography. For others, biographies distracted students from real history. Tolstoy in his novel War and Peace insisted that Napoleon was not a great man, that he was moved by historic forces he did not understand, and that his rise and fall would have happened to anyone who happened to become the leader of France at that particular time.

Current historians favor the latter approach. Recognizing the cliché that “the winners write the histories,” many historians work hard to learn about the losers and about those who were living ordinary lives at the time of great events. More than ever before, history focuses on the lives and conditions of people who never wrote a book, painted a masterpiece, led an army or a government, or sparked a new religion or philosophy. Modern science helps through its study of trace chemicals and of details such as pollen collected from various archaeological sites. Climate change can be traced in its warmer and cooler patterns by observing available crops in different areas, migration of people and of animals, and even studying tree rings. Global warming one thousand years ago made Viking settlements possible in Iceland, Greenland, and North America. When the planet cooled, those settlements were abandoned.

Karl Marx studied history as a battle between economic forces. Many historians today follow Marxist patterns by observing the contrasting economic situations of successful and unsuccessful civilized groups. Many historians focus on groups that were considered unsuccessful at the time. Today there are feminist histories, black histories, Native American histories, and many other efforts to document people who were marginalized in their own lifetimes and were incapable of writing and publishing their own histories, their own experiences, and their own perceptions.

Targeted studies of such groups have great value. At the same time, awareness of minority groups or oppressed peoples cannot fully replace the larger framework of history that has been built over the centuries. In earlier years, and in survey courses, students need to learn about the broad picture of human history. Given that broad picture, they develop an ability to evaluate and interpret the experiences of marginalized groups. Efforts to include these accounts within the basic and elementary presentations of history defeat the purpose of an educated society. Instead of creating a fuller and more accurate picture, these histories of oppression confuse students, distort their understanding of history, and crush their interest in learning more about themselves and their origins.

History of the marginalized and oppressed must continue to be studied and taught, but it must always be placed within the context of fuller history. It cannot be used as a substitute for traditional history lessons. The traditional history, even with its simplifications and other flaws, unites society and gives people a common ground, a place from which they can discuss the detailed nuances of history. Sacrificing traditional history to honor those who struggled and suffered, in the end, serves no good or worthy purpose. J.

Who are you calling racist?

I recently came across a four-page document meant for use in the classroom. Entitled “A Contemporary Glossary: Definitions of Racism,” it was published in 1983 by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Most of its source material dates to the early 1970s. One professional educator (now retired) looked at my copy of this document and declared it badly outdated. However, I suspect many people my age were taught these definitions and still believe them. Moreover, I also suspect that they have passed along these definitions to younger generations of students who also believe them.

The document opens with a dictionary definition of prejudice: “Unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason.” It follows with a certain person’s definition of racism: “Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices through the major institutions of our society.”

I do not object to an effort to define prejudice as an opinion or feeling and racism as practices based on prejudiced opinions or feelings. I fear, though, that a focus on power and on major institutions of our society presents a distorted view of racism. Indeed, the rest of the document makes its premise clear. “In the United States at present, only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values… blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racist.” It also says, “Racism and white racism mean the same thing….” And, “All white individuals in our society are racists. Even if whites are totally free from all conscious racial prejudices, they remain racists, for they receive benefits distributed by a white racist society through its institutions.”

I see no benefit and great risk in the statements that only white people can be racist and that all whites are racist, even if they have no racial prejudices. But I do understand why certain individuals, certain statements, and certain actions have been labeled “racist” even when I could find no racial prejudice in what the target of the label said or did. If every white person in the United States is assumed to be racist—even defined as racist—then it is easy to put a racist spin on anything a white person says or does.

I acknowledge that racism still exists in the United States. Some managers, sifting through a stack of resumes that are virtually identical, are more likely to arrange an interview with Jennifer than with LaKisha. In some workplaces, white English-speaking people are more likely to be promoted to higher-paying positions than black people or Spanish-speaking people. Black individuals are more likely than white individuals to be denied a loan for buying a car or a house, and if they get the loan they are likely to pay more than white individuals with the same income. These things happen. They are morally wrong. They are also illegal. When persistent patterns of racism in a workplace or other institution can be revealed, those guilty of making racist decisions are penalized.

But in schools and workplaces, black people and people of other minorities have risen to positions of power. They can hire, promote, or fire employees. If they should favor members of their own minority over whites, would that not be racist? And is anyone willing to go out on a limb and say that such things never happen in America?

Maybe it is true that the handout I found is outdated and no longer relevant. My questions are: when did things change, and what changed them? Was there a time that every white person in America was racist and no black person in America could be racist? When was that time, and what brought it to an end? Was it ended by court decisions and legislation? Was it ended by the Civil Rights movement? Was it ended by education, such as the document I found, which taught students about racism and so brought it to an end? Or, since racism can still be found, is it still true that every white person is racist and no black person can be racist?

I teach college students. I have had white students that did well and white students that did poorly; I have had black students that did well and black students that did poorly. Since I teach history, race and racism are mentioned in the classroom. I make the point that, biologically, all humans belong to the same race. Modern racism, as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a result of evolutionary theories, assumptions that people are different because of the traits they inherited from their ancestors. Racists assume that strength, intelligence, endurance, and other qualities differ from race to race. But DNA tests do not bear out those assumptions. A white student and a black student in the same classroom might have more DNA in common with each other than either of them shares with a brother or sister of the same two parents. That’s simple science.

A student once asked me why we still talk about racism if there are not different races. It was a sincere question and a good one. I think the label remains useful to discuss prejudices based on the perception of different races, even though different races do not exist. And if someone—black, white, or any other appearance and culture—has the power to treat other people differently based on those prejudices, I say that misuse of that power is racist.

All people are sinful. Prejudice is one aspect of human sinfulness, stronger in some sinners and weaker in others. Humanity has developed many different cultures, and I believe that all of them are worth celebrating. Irish, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Arab, African, Hispanic—they are all good. Each member of a culture should have pride in his or her cultural identity—pride, but not a sense of superiority. In fact, as we celebrate our various cultures, we should also take note of the celebration of other cultures and learn about our neighbors from their celebrations. By itself, that attitude will not eliminate prejudice and the possibility of racism, but openness to cultural diversity is better than automatic labeling with the word “racist.” Or so I believe. J.