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.
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.