Who Tells Your Story

Preface to the new edition of a history of the US written by former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. He was a bigot, too.

I was driving back from the Italian specialty store. They have fabulous capicola and even more fabulosa salami. I bought a bottle of wine for dinner. Oddly I selected Spanish, not Italian.

I had one more stop to make before home. The “you’re almost out of gas you idiot” indicator appeared as I pulled into the parking spot at my earlier destination where I bought a bag of dog food. The Shell station was next.

As I was pulling out of the parking space, I flipped the radio station from the droning trance music. Who knew they played trance on commercial radio? I settled on the left side of the dial. I was sucked in by an intoxicating southern timbre.

A man was talking about historical preservation and public reckoning, but his story was about an old building that was being preserved. The preservation was wrong. You see, the preservationists had confused the front of the house with the back of the house. And, more importantly, they omitted any context for the structure. This was discovered and then reconciled by research that consisted of talking with the people who had actually lived there.

The historian learned that the story about the house that the museum was sharing–the history–was not just incomplete. It told a story different from the truth of the people who were there.

The history hewed to a narrative that supported the dominant culture. It supported the idea that the people who lived there were broken and weak. But the truth was that the people who lived there were strong, with tight families and decent means.

Dr. King said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” So the history that we are told makes the people in our heads. It informs not only how we see the people in the past, but how we see their descendants.

It’s important (at least I think it is) to not only seek and share multiple perspectives, but also–and this is from the historian on the radio–to allow ourselves to be surprised. Surprised by what we find, what we learn and to let it challenge what we have believed and what we thought was truth.

Striving to understand people, to accept that their truths may be different, and even that their truth (or my truth, for that matter) might actually be the truth can help align what history makes us with who we actually are.

Wow. That’s a lot of thinking between the salami store and the gas station. If this symposium snippet on c-span was any indication, the new National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place with a surfeit of surprise. I am open to it. You?

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