Thursday, October 7, 2010

We've been here before

We're always dealing with new issues and new ideas. Aren't we?

Maybe it's because I'm reading many articles, books, pamphlets, and speeches from 70 years ago for my research. Maybe it's because I'm coming across stories about anti-Catholic sentiment in New York in the 18th century. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that very little--if anything--we think and do (aside from the discovery of graphene and those kinds of things) is new and original. I know this may come as a surprise and a blow to your ego, but we're not quite as creative as we might think we are. I guess I've always appreciated reading and learning about history because there is so much that has happened years, decades, and centuries ago that we wrestle with today as if they are totally new issues. I'm not diminishing the importance of contextualization or time and space. What I do want to say is that we've got a great deal to learn from the stories of others, especially those who have come before us.

Historical events and happenings aren't quite as static as we might think. The stories (or more often story) we learn about is limited. It's partial. There is always more. There are many more actors. The United States in the 1770s didn't consist of only a handful of pretty smart guys. That holds true for any other time as well. It's just that we don't learn about all of those folks at the same time. History is done, something simply to be documented. It's alive. This is another reason history is so fascinating to me: it's continually unfolding. Some of the work I'm doing these days is digging deeper into a part of American history that has been uniformly categorized. People, in that time, acted this way. However, I'm finding out something so different that it's almost difficulty to situate it then, in that period. But that's where it belongs. It's part of the larger narrative. But getting to that larger narrative is so vitally important.

Just as we need to recognize the fears that have shaped American society for so long, we must put that knowledge--those stories--into conversation with what's going on in our world today. It's this ongoing, unfolding conversation and engagement with different times and people that we acknowledge our little spot in this amazing thing called human history.

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