In 2015, I graduated from college with a degree in History. One of the reasons I have always enjoyed the subject is because I realized that every day of our lives we are creating a new history for the next generations to come. In thirty years when the 2008 Presidential election is taught in school, I can sit back and remember the day a Black man named Barack Obama was announced the new leader of the free world. I was a tenth grader excited to see a Black president but still naive to the incredible impact that moment would carry. Just think, now the newest generation of ninth grade students will study the September 11th World Trade Center attacks and many weren’t even alive when it happened.
When we learn about people and events of the past, we have to understand that these real people did not live to be studied in a fifth-grade textbook a few decades or even hundreds of years later, but rather, they just lived their lives to the best way they knew how. Many times their goal was not to create history but make the time they were living in better.
When the “founding fathers” decided that enough was enough and wanted to become independent from Great Britain, they collectively thought about all the possible outcomes. After looking at the pros and cons, they decided that the positives outweighed the negatives and wanted to create better lives for themselves and, as a result, the generations that followed.
They created history, by living their lives.
In a sense, we are lucky to have an insight of what went on all those years ago, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to understand that even with all the knowledge we have about the past, we still only have a portion of each story. As I got older, my understanding of the way history is created (and destroyed) grew.
As a result, I began to ask myself pressing questions that expanded my thinking even further. “What about the countless people that were unable to read or write but had an important story to tell?” Or “What about the people who society at the time deemed unimportant, and cast into the shadows never to be heard from again?”
They all had a story as well, but history chooses to forget, why? I think the better question may be: “Who chooses to forget?”
When we study the past, it is crucial to look at all its aspects and take into account every element of an event. The same story can be told from two different perspectives, and both sides will believe their version. How do we determine who is right? As we peek back into the past by way of history books, documentaries, or letters from first-hand accounts, we also have to consider who is delivering the message as well. Personal biases have to be taken into consideration when trying to understand a source.
The Jewish Holocaust from a Jewish-German citizen and a Nazi-German soldier will differ in tone and significant supporting details (that are often omitted), but at their core, they both will be retelling the same event. If both parties believe they are right how can we as historians decipher the truth when both believe their truth? Whose voice will get drowned out? The answer most certainly will be the one history deemed too inadequate. I believe it all balls down to one key factor, and that’s power. When we recognize the way power and history coincide, we can understand why the past and current events are framed the way they are. That power gives the gatekeepers* the ability and authority to create their narrative by silencing the details they don’t feel are important enough.
*Editors Note: Gatekeepers being the newspaper publishers, book publishers, television stations, anyone that can control a message and dictate how it is spread.
We see evidence of this when the story of the great Christopher Columbus is told to us as first graders in elementary school. At first, we were taught about the brave Spanish explorer who sailed the treacherous seas with his crew in search of a mysterious new land. Then, as young students, we are fed these “accurate” depictions of Columbus getting lost en route and stumbling upon and “discovering” this new land of which he thought was India but we now know as South America.
The textbooks then go on to describe a peaceful encounter between the native people who inhabited the land already and the explorers. Though, it is fascinating that history loves to gloss over the fact that Sir Christopher Columbus and his men were deplorable humans when they came in contact with the native people. He and his crew pillaged the land for its resources and riches, massacred the people, and raped the women in such a vile fashion that it is an insult we even celebrate him in the first place, but I digress.
As a kid in school, I never cared to think about it that much because I was just content we got the day out of school and granted the last piece of information might not be appropriate for young students. However, the problem is that many of the young students who listen to this story grow to become adults who retell it to their children. Thus, the tale of the great Christopher Columbus is yet another fable we have agreed upon, this time because it gives us the day off.
There are also many examples of gatekeepers silencing history in more contemporary times also. Just because an event took place last year, last month, or even last week doesn’t mean it is not history, it’s a past event. Now with media, the people in charge can create the narrative that fits the story they want to tell. News channels employ the use of manipulative tactics to spin stories that fit their own agenda. Instead of getting the news, what we really get are true events shrouded in shadows of propaganda.
For instance, when a person of color loses their life as a result of being on the wrong end of an altercation with a police officer, news outlets scramble for damaging information to the victim’s reputation rather than necessary information on the situation. Instead of important facts, witness accounts, details that are pertinent to the event, we are told frivolous information like, how many times the victim had detention in the eighth grade, or of his juvenile record, even though at the moment he was killed he was well into his forties. This is all done in an effort to protect the new outlet’s own interest. We are given the information they want us to see, so we can collectively agree on the fable that we are being told, that somehow the victim deserved their fate.
We also can see this idea of history being erased or changed when school textbooks deliberately leave out information when they are teaching a topic. A Texas parent once complained that her son’s textbook down played the American slave trade by not calling the Black people slaves. She was upset after she read the book and saw the writers describe them as “workers who were brought to the Americas to work on agricultural plantations.”
When speeches are written, when slogans are created, or when press releases are put out for the public to see, there is a lot of thought that goes into what is said. No word is arbitrarily put in for any other reason than to convey a message. When that textbook replaced the word “slave” with “worker” it softens the blow of what actually happened and creates an image of a person receiving compensation for their work, not chains and whips.
The textbook creators changed history for those studying the topic for the first time.
Malcom X. Bowser is a writer, curator, and founder of Urban X.