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One Small Voice: Let’s give history respect it deserves

“Hey, let’s go find us some monuments and learn us some history!” utterer unknown.

by Lynn Mandaville

I don’t know the originator of the above, highly paraphrased line I scrolled past on Facebook recently.

The line was offered sarcastically, in response to someone’s rabid complaint about the removal of Confederate monuments as an overreaction to political correctness.

And I bring it up because of the tremendous responses to a recent editorial by Townbroadcast mogul David Young titled “U.S. Needs To Hear It: ‘When Will We Ever Learn History?’ “

I can’t believe we’re still beating this dead horse.

Facts about most Confederate monuments:

  • Most of them were erected well after the Civil War by southern women’s groups wishing to honor “The Lost Cause” as the war had been euphemized by the survivors of a treasonous movement, which southern secession was.  (The era of monument construction happened around the beginning of the 1900s, but another surge of monuments occurred around the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Civil War, again to iconize “The Lost Cause.”)
  • Most of them were erected on public sites rather than on private property.
  • The monuments were always a slap in the face to African Americans, whose very existence in the United States was based on the enslavement of their forebears.
  • The monuments stood as “moments in time” where history is concerned, with no context or content surrounding them that could even remotely be described as imparting a fair historical lesson.
  • Monuments that have been removed in recent years have been stored in places unknown to the public (for their protection?), but with the intent to reassign them to open-air museums where unbiased historical context can be provided to visitors.

I personally believe that anyone who claims that to remove Confederate monuments amounts to “erasing history” is being intentionally ignorant, and unacceptably insensitive.

A statue of a man in Confederate regalia, seated on a horse, wielding a saber in a public square is not a history lesson.  It’s more like a highway billboard without accompanying text.  The Marlboro Man on his horse, but with no reference to cigarettes.  Just a guy smoking.

It is the equivalent of finding inside a book borrowed from the library a picture of someone’s child in cap and gown.  Who is this person?  Is this taken at a graduation from high school, or college, or was it a Halloween costume donned ironically by a dropout?  We’ll never know from just that picture anything of the true life of the person captured on film.

History, honest, fair, unblemished and unadulterated, is something we learn in context with the people and events surrounding an isolated incident.  It is NOT that incident or object alone.  And that context must be gleaned from various viewpoints, not a single perspective.  It must be seen from socio-economic aspects, from political aspects, from anthropological aspects.  And, maybe, even from the perspective of some elapsed time during which errors in reporting can be corrected, or new information can be unearthed.

An unfortunate case in point might be the news of the last few weeks, the 100th anniversary of the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, OK.

How many of us had even heard of this terrible chapter in violence against Black Americans until lately?  And how much new information has been gleaned in recent years by those who have been urging the opening of mass graves in Greenwood?  Or what personal information have we learned about the specific men and women who owned and operated the financial concerns of Greenwood?  Or of the day-to-day inhabitants of Black Wall Street who worked and shopped and lived in their own homes in Greenwood?

There has been precious little of that stuff until this year.  But to those of us who wish to know more, this history is only beginning to open to us through the efforts of local historians who are willing to share their contextual knowledge with media people and researchers.

To claim that even now we have a clear history of this period in Tulsa’s infamous past would be folly.

Much forensic evidence is yet to be uncovered.  There are public records to be perused, and the personal recollections of the three remaining survivors to be recorded before they pass.  And more.  So much more.  We can only imagine what else will come to light.

History is an ongoing lesson, one that we should always welcome with open minds and diminished emotions if we are ever to have a true picture.

We should also be willing to view that history through the eyes of others who may not see it the same way we do.  An empathetic view, if you will, so as to eliminate the prejudices and biases we might otherwise assign to anyone affected by that history.

If we are ever to fully appreciate history, we have to be willing to accept new information and view it without prejudice, without taking personally the events that took place.

We must investigate all aspects of a given event or period of time, study it, internalize it, and measure its impact of us, we who are living today.  How should it inform our immediate environment as well as a broader world view?  How does our claim to being a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values modify our responses to a history that has been observed with careful discernment?

A good rule of thumb for us, in these times when political correctness has become a catch phrase for “I’m a victim of [insert your societal transgression of choice],” might be to tamp down our gut reactions and feelings of victimhood, and instead open our view to one of walking in the shoes of the “other side.”

At least for a little while.

Before we latch on to one aspect and dwell on it until it has no meaning at all.

Because that one aspect may actually be of consequence when viewed academically, outside our passionate but misguided visceral impulses.

Instead of us being concerned whether or not history will treat us fairly, maybe we ought to treat history fairly.

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