Imagining History

In graduate school, I was begrudgingly introduced to renowned American colonial historian Bernard Bailyn. I say begrudgingly because my professor wasn’t exactly a fan. He believed Bailyn furthered the idea of American exceptionalism to the detriment of impartial, objective criticism, blah blah blah. He had a point, of course. But one thing Bailyn proposed, which has stayed with me throughout the years that I’ve been practicing history, is the idea of the historical imagination.

Rosser grocery store small

Imagine what used to be.

( Bailyn was influenced by Robin George Collingwood, but it was from Bailyn that I first learned of the concept).

Anyway, “historical imagination” refers to the practice of putting yourself in someone’s shoes, and it tends to be the simple shoes of a run-of-the-mill person from the past, not a great or infamous leader… the decisions of Presidents, judges, and scions of the Gilded Age tend to be unique and a little convoluted. But the opinions and reactions of a pioneer, or a Comanche woman, or an enslaved man, or an Italian immigrant, would appeal to anyone who’s studied the past, even cursorily. Their motivations tend not be that very different from our modern inclinations, even if their political and social backgrounds are not as similar.

History, I’ve learned, is all about the imagination. That old building I like to take pictures of? I have to imagine it being used, with people walking in and out, with horses tied up to the the rings and posts. That historical school building or courthouse square? I think about the kids and citizens who beat a path to the doors. And that raid on a settlers family in Forestburg? I imagine their fear, their fatigue, and their uncertainty.

We can make walls talk.

We can make walls talk.

I’ve always encouraged my students to imagine things like being a soldier in a Civil War battle, being an enslaved woman whose child was sold, or being a tenant farmer who lost his livelihood to a big corporation. What I try to do is to get them to understand that not only are people, even over time, not that dissimilar from us today, but that history is itself the study of time, and how we’ve used it. To draw conclusions about the past, one must first be able to view it through the eyes of those who lived it… from those people who didn’t have a lot of power, but were a large part of the force that made the present into history.

Imagining history gives me a moving picture. I can deduct from my suppositions the actions and policies that came about after an event. It helps me to understand that no history is black and white, but rather shades of gray, but it also allows me to judge injustices and empathize with those who lived through them.

Published in: on February 20, 2013 at 3:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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Moving and Changing in America

My family hails from the South… I mean from way back. They came from the slums of Middlesex, London, and after a generation in Ireland, they boarded a boat to Virginia, whether voluntarily or not. The next generation then squatted in the Bladen swamps of North Carolina, and the next generation after that moved further southwest to the foothills in upcountry Alabama. From there, the next generation dove south to Natchez, Mississippi, then 30 years later north to Shreveport, then 30 years after that my father was born in Fort Worth, Texas.

I’m mentioning this not because I’m a genealogist (I gleaned all this information from other family historians who are far more interested than I am), but because I’m fascinated by what makes America tick. And that tick seems to be movement and change.

This motel was once a busy stop when US 80 still hummed through Ranger, Texas.

Aboriginal Americans moved around, often for trade purposes or, in the case of Plains tribes, to follow food sources. African Americans, once freed from the bounds of slavery, sought freedom through courage by traveling to northern cities, joining cattle drives and the army, or simply by traveling to the southern schools under hostile conditions. Poor whites, like my family, constantly searched for better economic conditions.

Americans are a people with itchy feet. It doesn’t matter where their families originate, or how they got here… each generation is on the go, looking for greener  pastures and better opportunities. Living in a country that was founded and shaped by these restless people makes me see how much the US culture invokes this spirit of moving.

Abandoned cotton gin along LA 1

Often, it’s the physical landscape that reflects this quest for finding something better “just around the corner.” Think of the many abandoned cemeteries that scatter around haphazardly. In Europe, cemeteries tend to be associated with a long-standing church, and the congregation takes care of them. Not so in the US… families buried their dead on their own plots of land and then, when the next generation moved on, those graves stood forgotten and overgrown. Entire towns lived and died with the tide and ebb of economy and location. Certain cities grow, while others are barely holding on. Some schools are bursting at the seams, and others sport boards over their windows and doors. Buildings that once defined a community are torn down for newer construction that can be renamed by current movers and shakers. Big factories sit shuttered. Rail lines and roads become weed-strewn scars on the landscape as newer commercial byways change how towns function – think of industrial loops and interstates.

Our cultural legacy is constantly changing, too. Our history has had many wrongs – slavery, forced Indian removal, segregation and racism – and on the whole, Americans address these issues bit by bit so that my son sees people in various shades of brown, not black or white. My grandmother canned her fruits and vegetables, but I need to look up how to do that on the internet, and “foodies” are “rediscovering” recipes that thirty years ago were considered everyday fare. We fill our homes – in which most of us will not grow old  – with things that are cheap and easy, not necessarily long-lasting. Shoot, we think a phone or computer is obsolete when they’re over a year old…

Even churches aren’t safe from a changing and moving population, like this one in Atoka, OK.

I’m not writing from the perspective of a high horse here, either. I’m part of this legacy of change. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, my grandmother, who lived in San Angelo, saved enough money to buy 12 acres and a grocery store in Red River County, Texas. Years later, my mom and step-dad built a cottage on the land, the store having been abandoned long ago. Now, my mother has to sell the house and land that’s been in our family for three generations because my sister and I live and work in big cities, and we’re not willing to move back.

While the United States is a young country, relatively speaking, and is still defining itself, the definition seems to be one of transience. Our geography and culture reflect that. Maybe this perspective will lessen as the nation grows older, with fewer opportunities to start anew. Or maybe we’ll just continue to blaze new trails and leave our old worlds behind, whether that is in a new location, or in the fact that we forget how to bake a pie from scratch, or just because we’re always searching for who we are – when in fact, change is who we are.

 

Published in: on November 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Insulator-ing

I consider myself very lucky because my son likes to take road trips with me. Sometimes, I feel as though I need to justify my trips, and what better way to do that than to just blame all the traveling on my son. Well, not really – I just like to get up and go, and ever since he was a small baby, he got up and went with me.

Now, he’s 12, and he discovered a hobby that combines my love of road tripping with a purpose: to find insulators. Glass (also ceramic and plastic) insulators were used to hold up and protect telegraph and telephone wires that were strung next to railroad lines. David likes to discover old right-of-ways that still have telegraph poles next to them and hunt for these utilitarian pieces of art. Currently, he has over 100 glass insulators in a variety of colors. He usually finds simple Hemingray 45s that are clear or aqua,  but sometimes he’s lucky enough to find blue and green ones, too.

A sandblasted Hemingray

While I’ve never been much of a collector, I must say these insulators are growing on me. They’re just so pretty, and some of them have interesting stories to tell. For example, I especially like the ones that still have a ring of soot on them – remnants of the days of steam locomotives.

If your curiosity has been piqued, here are a few websites that can tell you a lot more about this rather interesting hobby: http://www.insulators.info/ , http://www.nia.org/, and http://insulatorstore.com/

Published in: on December 3, 2011 at 3:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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List of Things to Do

I am trying to make my site into something bigger. I dont’ like to work for anyone except me, so my ultimate goal is to be self-employed by doing what I love. I’m sure I’m not alone in that wish! I’m going to try my darndest to make it a reality.

I guess the problem is that “what I love” just happens to be history and writing – not very lucrative areas. It’s not that I care about making a lot of money, but it would be nice to make a living off of my interests and not starve while doing it.

I currently have  a business plan in place that involves creating a small, regional press (Red River Historian Press) that will publish regional histories, travel guides, and vintage how-to guides. I also am slowly amassing inventory for a “mobile store” that I want to set up at area festivals. Further, I’m hoping to create a “mobile classroom,” which involves offering fun classes to retirement homes and such.

It just seems like all my efforts are in slow motion. What with work, the house, and the constant “What ifs…?” swimming in my head, it seems like I’m not doing enough to really make a go of this.  So, I thought that if I put all this out on my Blog – even if NO ONE is reading it, which is okay – I will find myself a lot more committed.

  • For my site: I need to update and revamp my bookstore; add a page about the Cane River National Heritage Area; add links to Louisina and Arkansas on the Itinerary Page. 
  • For my store: I need to buy a color laser printer; more books, maps, and postcards; and some trinkets to sell.
  • For my classes: I need to mail out the brochure and cross my fingers!
  • For the Press: I need to finish the two books I’m writing; get a proof reader to go over them; take an In-Design class and then tweak the books using that software; find a printer; and then find more authors who I can publish!
  • Marketing: once the Press is underway, I want to get the word out through columns, giving presentations, sell the books to museums; and having a PR-kind of person help me with press releases.

Aargh. I’ve got big plans and time’s a-wastin’.

Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 4:03 pm  Leave a Comment