Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Meaning and Power of History

 DUKES FANS:        

“The most effective way to destroy people is to lie and obliterate their own understanding of their history”  

                                        George Orwell  

When I taught history in high school and middle school, i would tell my students two things. One was that much of what I was teaching them was not taught to me or in the schoolbooks I had when i was in school. The second thing I told them was that by the time their kids were middle schoolers or high schoolers, a lot of what I was teaching them would either be expanded upon, thought of differently, or shown to be wrong in some way. That is one of the joys of history for me. There are often new ways to look at and interpret things, new information that is uncovered, new voices to hear from, and new discoveries that can change some of the historical narrative. “History” is rarely indelibly fixed; I can continue to find out new things, find different connections between ideas, and be surprised by what I find. That is simply the nature of history.  

I am thinking out loud about this now for two reasons. One is that we are approaching February-Black History Month. I am very aware of how so much of the history and experiences of Black people in what is now the United States has been ignored, untaught, lied about, and/or hidden. And I am super-appreciative of the work that has been and is being done to uncover and re-examine much of that story and thereby tell a fuller, more inclusive and more accurate story of all of the peoples that make up this nation’s history. Our “truth” can be fuller.  

The second reason is that we are in an ongoing cultural war in which history is being overtly politicized and many politicians and organizations are attempting to limit what people read, see, and think. They are banning books, removing books from libraries, and limiting what can and cannot be taught in schools and colleges. To me this is profoundly ahistorical- it is the exact opposite of what history is really about 

To that end I have attached a few paragraphs from previous newsletters I wrote about US history and what has and has not been generally taught. There are some links to sites that are full of information that might be new and/or interesting to many of you. Enjoy:   

“ Black History Month can be seen as an opportunity to expand our knowledge and better understand where we as an entire culture have been. The month can give us ways to deepen our understandings about this place and ways the past influences the present. We know some things about slavery, for example, but for most of us slavery was something that happened on plantations and in the South-it was about picking things and working in the fields and the “Big House.” The reality is far more complicated than that; there was slavery in each and every colony before the American Revolution and in each and every state after the Revolution. And all the activities and structures needed and developed to support slavery were at the very heart of US economic growth throughout the 18th and 19th century-shipping, banking, the stock market, trade, and more. The New York Historical Society had a monumental exhibit in 2005 and 2006 on Slavery in New York City, and the history it revealed totally changed many people’s ideas about what the 19th century was about and the role of the Big Apple during that time. Most people had not realized that New York had been a slave state and that its role in banking, shipping, and trade made it the actual center of the entire United States slave systemLikewise, there was a website developed in 2003 by historian Douglas Harper called, Slavery in the North that examines how each colony and state north of the Mason-Dixon line carried out their involvement with the “peculiar institution.” Looking at these sites and other books, films, etc deepened my knowledge and unearthed moving and amazing stories about which I had known little. That is one of the wonderful things about history-there is usually so much more beneath the surface of any one thing than we see at first glance. There is always much to be uncovered and brought forth, and I love that digging.  


“As Black History Month proceeds, I invite you to become a kid again for a little while and read some children's literature that can take you to some different people and places in the world and possibly give you some new information and new realizations. Go to your local public library and explore. Re-discover how much fun reading and learning can be just for its own sake. Enjoy the pictures, the stories in these children’s books and welcome some new people into your life. It will be a wonderful and thrilling experience.  

No Small Potatoes: Junius Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas  by Tonya Bolden; illustrated by Don Tate 

Molly, by Golly: The Legend of Molly Williams, America's First Female Firefighter by Dianne Ochiltree; illustrated by Kathleen Kemly  

Black Cowboy; Wild Horses; A True Story by Julius Lester; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney  

 Dear, Benjamin Banneker byAndrea Pinkney; illustrated by Brian Pinkney  

 A good website for searching out African-American children's books: “   

  I hope this Black History Month finds you looking in new places for new things and discovering and uncovering new facts and new people. There is a universe of largely unknown, people whose lives have amazing stories to tell and whose accomplishments are astonishing. If I may jump start that for you, let me toss out some names with whom you may not be familiar: Benjamin Banneker, Bass Reaves, Miriam Benjamin, Daniel Hale Williams, and Valerie Thomas. If you are curious, look them up and see who they were and what they did, and how they are connected to so many things we take for granted. Dig, uncover, and enjoy. -------------------------------------------------------------- 

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