How we tell history matters

I’ve had dates hear what I do and tell me they don’t understand the point of studying history. I have heard people say they never think about history or that it’s boring so why bother. Most heartbreaking are the people who feel no claim to history, who do not see themselves reflected in the stories and events they have been taught and assume that history isn’t for them. They believe, consciously or not, that history is only valuable or relevant for those connected to the powerful few who are said to have shaped it. And they aren’t entirely wrong, because that’s what history has mostly been for a long time.

These all describe History as a discipline, the way it was studied and taught for hundreds of years. But this is not what history, or engagement with and study of past people, is or has to be. First and most fundamentally, people who think they are removed from thinking about history are gravely mistaken. Yes, there are people who spend their lives working in archives and museums and that is part of the production of historical narratives. But this is not how most of us interact with history. This is not even how most historians interact with history most of the time. The past, or our idea of it, is always present. Our parents tell us about our ancestors, we read books by Hilary Mantel, we covet tickets to Hamilton, we memorialize a hip hop icon named after an indigenous South American revolutionary, and politicians everywhere throw around references to the founding fathers. Every form of culture is constantly referencing some historical narrative. We define ourselves in groups based on the wars, explorations, social theories, and migration patterns of the past.

Historical perceptions, and the myths that grow out of them, are the bedrock of group identity. We all learn these myths as children and most of us never quite shake them. Through limiting the history seen as important, people can effectively control power: if only their ancestry is treated as noteworthy or signifigant, only they get to belong. There is a reason colonial powers and invading armies often work to destroy evidence of a peoples’ past: if you disrupt a people’s sense of history, it can make them feel as if none of the world is really theirs.

If we follow these narratives of power and destruction instead of seeking out new ones, we lose the invaluable resource of millions of lives and voices, of stories that sound so different from ours, or so heartbreakingly similar, that we can’t help but stop and take notice. For these reasons, history needs to be told, retold, and studied. Understanding how and where these narratives come from helps us see past social divisions and ideas of belonging. It does not render community ties and divisions any less real in our daily lives, but it helps us understand that it does not have to be this way. It helps us see how our realities came to be and what other realities might look like.

But there is another part of studying history that, as far as I am concerned, is the most important. Studying history can build empathy. When you read the words people wrote or connect to their stories, you can realize how much you only understand a tiny piece of what it means to be human. The little corner of the world you live in is not the whole world, and there is so much you haven’t even thought to try to understand. You learn about lives more different from yours than you ever imagined, people who lived on the other side of the world, people who lived on your street 200, 300, or even 50 years ago, people who are long dead or maybe still alive. The real study of history, not the retelling of tidy stories, is about challenging our ideas of things. It’s about understanding people in their own worlds and on their own terms as best as we can manage. It’s about that endless personal challenge to step outside your perceptions and observe new realities. We can never truly know the lives of others, but we can try, and it is that effort that is essential to history and that effort that makes each of us more curious, more engaged, more compassionate. It gives us the skills to look at the world and to push past those first mythologies we might have been told, to work to understand the humans that are the other people around us.

The production of commonly taught history has stuck so much to the stories of the powerful, in part, because those are the people who leave a written narrative behind. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson produced thousands and thousands of written pages (and objects) that have been preserved and catalogued, while the work done and things produced the people they enslaved were not preserved in a way to be easily found (although the people over at Monticello are working on telling those stories). This is the ultimate privilege and power: a leg up in the fight for immortality and an outsized influence on the future. Someone’s life became a story taught to generations. Someone’s didn’t. It can be easier to tell ourselves this has something to do with achievement or character, but is also largely an accident of birth. Most of the billions of people that have lived and died before us have left no or almost no record; a name on a wedding certificate, a gravestone, a tool they made, a fragment of bone. We will never know their lives on their terms because they never got to tell us. It is insane to assume that just because their stories didn’t get told, none of those people had stories worth telling. But we lose out on all of those other perspectives, all of those slivers of the world we could add to our own.

Here, fiction has an edge over History as a discipline; fiction is not limited by what was left behind. It can give the narrative back to people who never got a chance to be heard. Of course, fiction can also move us farther away from an awareness of the lives others actually lived. Instead of teaching us more, it can just teach us the same things over and over again. Then again, so can history. But historical fiction, when done well, can stop us in our tracks with the truth of it. We can take facts and fill them in. We can use empathy to flesh out how epidemics, wars, great inventions, social movements made people feel and made people act. We can understand the pain of loss and the thrill of change.

Responsibly told, historical fiction always stays firmly rooted in the past. It remembers that humans are similar, but can also be incredibly different, and we cannot assume about people living in what amounts to a different world. But we can seek to learn more about their world and use empathy and reason to fill in the gaps and to bring a person to life. This can be especially powerful for people who have been denied control of their narrative, and especially when members of these disenfranchised groups control the storytelling process. There may not be records about everyone’s ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that only some people deserve to try to connect with the people who made them.

History matters, and power lies in the telling of it.

So I am going to use this space to talk about history in the modern world and in popular culture. Who is telling it well? Who wants to tell a story for the humanity of it, and who to feed their own power or sense of worth? What do these stories mean for us, right now?

Oh man, there is so much to talk about.