Thursday, August 13, 2009

Real History

I was asked once about the human side of history. The question came about because this person, having read one of my papers, felt the need to criticize my approach to "professionalism." He was concerned that perhaps I was not analytical enough, that I put too much "feeling" into my words.
It all started me to re-analyze my method. I've reached some conclusions. Our history is the history of people who lived and died, just like we do, they laughed and cried, just like we do, they fought and loved, just like we do. Can we, as historians, NOT try to locate the human story in each chapter?
Isn't that what "revisionist" history is all about? As a middle-aged man, I rarely remember hearing stories about how European disease decimated whole native populations in America... or the psychological effects that it had on the survivors. I surely remember playing "cowboys and indians" with my brothers. It was only right that the "cowboys" won. Why? Because "cowboys" wrote the story. Natives were relegated to a subservient position and thrust aside by American destiny and pride. Some revision is needed there, I think.
Colonial times in America are also hard for us to understand because it's difficult to imagine a world like that. Our usual routine of coming home from work, watching TV, eating dinner and going to bed is a recent phenomenon. What did we do before TV?
I got an early introduction into this world. Many of my relatives would think it ridiculous for me to regard this as unusual, I think. However, I was between two worlds... one pre-TV and the other, a modern, technologically progressive one.
I loved computers. Even owned an old Atari 800. My friend had a Commodore 64. Those were great times.
But, so was the times I spent with my grandmother in Burgaw, North Carolina. She had a TV, but there was so much more to do there. Most people would think me crazy for saying that. But, I loved the old world, too. Playing in tobacco barns, mud-puddles, building "forts" in the woods... these fascinated me and gave me as much pleasure as my Atari 800. Don't tell on me about smoking in those old barns with really flammable hay, etc.
The point is... I know what it's like to enjoy my life without TV, to live and play like some kid in colonial times. I understood farm life and the difficulties in not being able to feed your family. These were real, tangible, very human and emotional times.
Isn't that the kind of thing you expect in revisionist history? To learn that cowboys didn't always wear bright colored chaps and have horses for best friends? Mr. Ed really doesn't talk, either. Crushing times for me!
And much of the older historiography that I read during my research reflects these seemingly ancient ideas... aristocratic claptrap designed to build pedestals for personal heroes.
It's time we told the real story. Still, those old histories are entertaining. It's nice to dream, to imagine idealistic times, romantic stories of the past. So, do we dispense with things like "Columbus discovered that the Earth wasn't flat" or "George Washington chopped down his father's cherry tree" or "He never tells a lie?" Well... yeah! That's not true, none of it is.
Still, those stories tell another side of history. Maybe we shouldn't throw them away. They tell us more about ourselves and what we desire to believe. And, that is just as important as the truth.
My grandmother surprised me one day. Well, two days. I bought this book, sort of a family medical guide, published in 1888. I found it at a local flea market. It represented the current medical "know-how" in 1888 and my grandmother could have written it! She knew almost every cure and remedy in that book. And her and her oldest daughter sat at the picnic table in her back yard with me, and conferred with each other like doctors over a patient! I was floored!
The other time, I was eleven years old, playing in Grandma's yard, as usual. While I was sort of hidden in a ditch by the road, she came out of the house with a hatchet, proceeded to the chicken coup, grabbed a feisty bird and proceeded to snap its neck with one quick motion! Then, she carried to a large hickory stump in the yard, about two and a half feet thick, laid the accosted bird on the stump, raised that hatchet over her head, chopping that helpless bird's head clean off!
It took me only a split second to get over this scene of horror (I was sort of a city boy) when I saw that chicken literally running around the yard without its head. The old wives-tale was true! They can really do that! The scientific fascination I had over this revelation even allowed me to eat the fried chicken we had for dinner. Truth be told, I was a ravenous fat kid.
My grandmother was not regarded as a genius. However, my impressions of her are full of awe. Why? Could it be, that in the days before TV, we had more time to focus on learning things... practical things that we would use everyday. We might have gained more of a woodsy-wise knowledge of our world. That world is still around us. Don't ask me anything about medicine though. I'll say, "Call a Doctor." When my grandmother was alive, I might have said, "Ask Grandma..."
What does that say about our modern distractions and how much help they are to our understanding of the world? I don't like to think about that. I sure do remember that headless chicken, though! And I sure do remember Dr. Mary Rivenbark of Burgaw, North Carolina!
That's real experience. And, that's what we get when we play outside and what our ancestors experienced everyday. I will continue to tell this side of the human story because it is truth... not made up to please the winners. These are real, human stories of our past. They can still be learned in the old ways today. Just stay away from the TV once in awhile... unless History Channel is on. :)

1 comment:

Ed said...

Here, Here...I second that!