Monday, March 17, 2008

A Thought on My Journey to Becoming a Historian

There's no real point, just sort of an observation here as I reflect on some things that got me interested in history when I was younger.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I visited the Alamo. I fell, hook, line, and sinker, for the romanticized, heroic version of the story that was presented to me. I mean, I cried y'all!! And I was totally enthralled with the history of the place, could imagine the siege, and (what I believed to be) the mixed feelings of hopelessness and determination.

Then, my junior year, I went off to the Louisiana School, and got a somewhat more nuanced picture of the Alamo. "Sucker!" I called myself for accepting "one side" blindly. I promised to be more sophisticated and skeptical in the future.

Our history trip that year was a "civil rights" tour of the South. We traveled to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to see some historic sites. My best friend and I had whipped ourselves into a frenzy thinking about going through Mississippi. I know someone from Louisiana probably shouldn't be casting stones, but even here, we are taught the idea that Mississippi is a world apart, unlike anywhere else when it comes to race relations and the determination to preserve white supremacy. Would we have to stay overnight in Mississippi? we wanted to know. Because, if so, our parents were so going to nix that trip.

We didn't spend the night in Mississippi. And we went to Montgomery and Atlanta, and I loved it. It was the sort of experience that affirmed for me that we, black people, had a history, stories and lives and triumphs, an existence.

An aside: You know the kind of history many of us get? We didn't exist until 1619. Then we were enslaved and there was a beneficent Emancipator and a white people's war that saved us! For about a century, we didn't do much and then there was the Civil Rights Movement which two or three Important. Black. People. led. And then we sort of faded from history again--except for the idea of the monolithic black community that is a hotbed of social ills and the cause of many of "teh problems." If you ever wonder why a people internalize racism, try living with that model.

So, a year later, armed with my new skepticism and the developing connection that I felt with black people across time and space (nurtured by the fact that I began to read "black history" books like crazy after that 11th grade trip), I went on my senior class history trip to Vicksburg. And there, I got the story of the 1863 siege that "tragically" ended on the Fourth of July. Our tour guide played on our sympathies by talking about how the (white) people of Vicksburg took to living in caves and eating rats and such and how the Fourth of July wouldn't be celebrated there until World War II because of the memory of defeat.

And I remember mumbling to my black classmates, who were falling under her spell much as I had done in San Antonio, "So? Do you know what slaves had to eat? And not celebrating the Fourth was just stupid."

I was proud. I was smug. I was rescuing them from the pitfalls of one-sidedness. I genuinely felt no sympathy.

Years later, I realized that that was simply the opposite extreme from my Alamo-reaction. And I don't believe it was quite right, either. To this day, I don't really have any sympathy, but I feel like I should.

I think those trips--learning about the grassroots movements of the civil rights era, about the plight of civilians in Vicksburg--sparked within me an interest in the history of "regular" people and definitely an interest in social history.

More importantly, they taught me that history wasn't about static facts and dates. Some of my students love to say, "History doesn't change." Yes, it does, I say, because interpretations, foci, points of view, do.

Now, if I could just convince disinterested 18 and 19 year olds of that...

1 comment:

Brian S said...

I think your comment about Vicksburg was more right than the one the tour guide was making, though you're right, it's incomplete. The problem is, as Howard Zinn puts it, that we only learn the stories of the privileged, not of the oppressed, even though those stories are often more illuminating.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...