What historians do

On my website, Red River Historian, I haven’t often written about controversial topics in history because I tend to shy away from confrontation. Since my readers are mostly U.S. Americans from the South, there are certain historical events and themes that may be deemed safer if “buried in the past.”

However, I made a resolution to change this – I decided to not be timid anymore. I’ve finished a short article on Dallas’ segregated cemeteries and another one on the Colfax Massacre of 1873. Soon, I’ll be doing a lengthy piece on lynching in the Red River Valley, as for a while, the area had the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent places for African Americans in the United States.

Historians occupy an important role in our society; they confront the present with questions and observations about the past. It’s like they hold a mirror up to us so that we can question our own  prejudices and assumptions. Through their research, they challenge the way we view the nation. I think this is the most important task a historian has: to make the present ACKNOWLEDGE the past. And the past in the U.S. is fraught with all sorts of uneasy topics. Racism is BIG component, of course, as are other -isms like sexism, nativism, nationalism, capitalism (meaning, an economy built on slavery) and more.

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Here’s nativism, racism, and eugenics conveniently packaged in one illustration inside an early 20th century academic journal.

Acknowledgement is something Americans are really good at, even if pundits believe the opposite. History has shown that in the U.S., misdeeds do get remembered and controversial topics are eventually brought to the surface. Recent examples are acknowledgement of what happened at Wounded Knee in 1890, South Carolina removing the the Confederate flag from the state house, and uncovering the complicity of US academe in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.

In the U.S., the truth isn’t hidden for long. I like to think it’s because we’re a nation of seekers. Americans have certain freedoms, and responsibilities that come with those freedoms, that allow for the hidden past to become known. This is done through memory, research, and recording. Though the interpretation of the past might be faulty, all that the wrongness does is to create a dialogue; instead of censoring, we debate, negotiate and adapt.

Acknowledgement does not mean atonement, however. Often, being confronted with the bad parts of history makes people defensive and  dismissive. Denial is one of the five stages of coping, and sometimes, people get stuck in that stage. So, the only thing a historian can do is continue to expose the past… and help students of history eventually acknowledge it.

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Published in: on January 7, 2016 at 8:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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An Ode to New Orleans

ship on mississippi

New Orleans awakened a creative hunger in me. I just felt like sharing this feeling. Ignore as you wish!

I gained an idea
in a town I visited
Back in the month
Of soft autumn light.
The sidewalks were carved
by millions of footsteps
and the balconies filled
with the inkiness of night.

The houses, all worn
gleamed in the sun
and shadows were cast
softly, if at all.
In the flits of history
of the public square
along the river banks
I heard the idea call.

I listened intently
as I drank the absinthe
and watched as souls
stumbled about.
Saw an old staircase
climbed to its end
and laughed absurdly
as I called them out.

The tugs of voices
some ancient, some new
others quiet or poor
I strained to remember.
The cause of my longing
that found throughout
those streets, those buildings
on that day in November.

I leaned in closely
as I sighed, understood
that to live in my head
was a worn-out cause.
I had to reach into
the city, the sounds
the art of being alive –
the gained idea I had once lost.

Robin Cole-Jett, 2012

Published in: on March 10, 2013 at 5:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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