And now, a few words about history

In CNN’s reporting on T***p’s remarks yesterday, this, among other choice bits, would have made me laugh if I weren’t so angry and heartbroken about what the man is doing to our country:

On Tuesday, though, Trump defended his 48-hour delay in denouncing white supremacists, arguing that he took his time because he didn’t know the facts.
“I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement,” Trump said, calling his initial comment a “fine statement.”
He added: “I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement.”

 

But I’m just going to leave that there and instead address this portion of his remarks: “‘You are changing history, you are changing culture’ by taking down statues to past leaders.” [He was referring specifically to the dismantling of statues of Confederate leaders.]

A) If by “history” you mean the actual facts of the past, well, they don’t change, although they can be discovered, buried, overlooked, newly revealed, etc. Here are a few actual, pertinent facts about US history: our nation was born from invasion, genocide, kidnapping, oppression, and abuse. The Confederate leaders were not US leaders; they were (self-evidently, one would think) leaders of a polity that rejected and violently turned against the United States. Whether or not you think the Civil War was about slavery, the Confederacy was clearly enabled by institutionalized white supremacy–which existed in the rest of the country as well and has yet to be laid in its grave once and for all.

B) If by “history” you mean the way the facts and events of the past are interpreted and retold, well, this is changing all the time as new facts come to light, new ways of looking at them become possible or relevant, new methodologies allow data to be analyzed in new ways, and so on. As historical awareness shifts and grows, why wouldn’t a consensus arise that, for example, the leaders of a violent movement to destroy our nation should no longer be regarded as heroes? That doesn’t mean that we forget the events of the past–it just means we tell them in a way that makes sense given our current knowledge and understanding.

C) Given that our nation began with war crimes and wholesale human-rights violations (see A above), ‘changing culture’ has become part of the American fabric. Our nation has been on a fairly consistent (though not steady) trajectory to expand and ensure human and civil rights to ever more people, embracing differences of every kind and recognizing the commonality and fellow citizenship of all Americans. Events like Charlottesville remind us that we still have a long way to go, but they also remind us of how important it is that we continue to strive to be better than our beginnings, and of how many people remain committed to the ideal of an America that embraces all–even if our so-called president isn’t one of them.

Imagine the American Dream

One of my hobbies is genealogy, and one of the cool things about genealogical research is the variety of information you can get from census records. Not only can you learn facts such as who was regarded as the head of the household, what your ancestor’s occupation was, where her or his parents were born, and what each family member’s first language was, but, because the census takers went from house to house (or flat to flat) in order, you can see the same kind of information for your ancestor’s neighbors. In 1920 my mother’s great-grandfather Henry Lupton (whose father was an immigrant from Yorkshire) lived on West 5th Street in Elmira, New York. His next-door neighbors were a Syrian couple and their Canadian- and American-born children; the census taker lists every family member’s “mother language” as “Syrian,” which may have been Assyrian (or, of course, Arabic). Next is a Pennsylvania family, then an Irish widow, then another Irish widow, her son, and two lodgers, a couple from New York. Down the street are two or three Irish-speaking families, with some family members born in Ireland and some in the United States. Then comes a Swedish family, the parents born in Sweden and the children in Pennsylvania, all speaking Swedish. The final entry on this census page is a man from Germany. The majority of the people on this multicultural street own their own homes, and most of them (women as well as men) are employed. The range of occupations is fascinating: owners of a shoe repair shop (the Syrian family), lineman for the water company, machinist, railroad car inspector (the second Irish widow’s son), salesman in a butcher shop and saleslady in a candy shop (the widow’s lodgers), railroad brakeman, nurse, milliner, hemmer at a knitting mill, carpenter, guard at a factory, stenographer, telegraph operator, railroad section boss (the Swedish father), bookkeeper and telephone operator and teacher (the Swedish daughters, ages 25, 22, and 20 respectively), and inspector in a factory. Imagine visiting this street, hearing English, “Syrian,” Irish, Swedish, and German; imagine the pride these people took not only in their own homes but in their neighborhood. Imagine how they must have supported one another’s businesses and other endeavors; imagine how they must have asked after one another’s children and looked in on the elderly and the ill. Imagine how they saw and heard (and perhaps even appreciated) the differences among them, but no matter what respected one another’s work and contributions to the community. Imagine everyone in this neighborhood was part of “us” and there was no “them.” Imagine the American dream.