- the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.
- the whole series of past events connected with someone or something.
My love-hate relationship
History was not my favorite subject, but some things still stand out to me from school days. And, even though I had no interest in being introduced to my mother’s cousins from a mid-western state at a family reunion when I was a kid, the older I get, the more intrigued I am with events in my family’s past and genealogy.
The study of history provides enlightenment on things happening in our world today. I remember a class discussion about Social Security and its purpose. Especially, I remember my teacher’s encouragement for us to consider whether being engaged in work provided a better example of integrity than relying solely on government compensation for fatherless children. Being gainfully employed was something to be commended, our teacher told us, and used my mother as an example.
The subject of slavery was treated as a fact, though a deplorable one. Perhaps it was because my county was on the Mason-Dixon line. Folklore tells us that folks of the area provided shelter and food for both union and confederate soldiers at the Inn in my hometown during the Civil War. There seemed to be no uncomfortable history in my community.
My tenth grade history teacher’s rendition of the Civil War was not one of glamour. The Underground Railroad belied fear along with courage. I often wondered if I could have kept the secret had my home been part of the Underground Railroad. We spent much more time learning about slavery than about the freedom of the enslaved.
White slave owners viewed black slave women as their property – and treated them as such. Especially horrible to these already demeaned women was rape by their owners too many times to count. Then these plantation owners ignored their own flesh and blood offspring because they were not pure-blooded white. Slave masters whipped their “property” into submission, leaving scars both outside and inside. Our class discussion that day was rife with consternation and hatred for what happened during that era. Many of us had never heard this part about slavery, but Mrs. Younger made certain we knew – and would never forget.
My first neighbor in Halifax County hailed from war-torn Europe. Over the course of several years, she told me about her life during World War II. I heard about her fear and anger; a head shaved because of who she was; a number engraved on her arm. Her eyes told as much as her voice the day she shared with me the horrors she experienced those many years ago. I could not then – nor can I now – imagine the terror she endured, all because of her blood line.
Owning my past
My family has stories we tell proudly of our ancestors. A response to a corn-stealing neighbor
; a house
built to hold a school for underprivileged that still stands today; a minister who rode over 300 miles on horseback
to bring back a 15-year old from Germany
who was indentured in Baltimore. These stories are used in sermon illustrations, in folklore of the community, and in family history books. They are told because they are true. Folks tell these stories because they are an example of how one ought to live.
There are other parts of the stories that are also told, although not in a public arena. That is because the examples in these stories are not the way one ought to live. A child (my great-grandmother) was born out of wedlock. Children were born from incest. There were extramarital affairs. Skeletons in a closet are found by listening. The facts are there. There is regret and shame, as there ought to be. This is also part of my history. It’s true that I don’t put what I know out there because I wouldn’t want someone to do that with my history, and my only purpose would be to create heat instead of light. While I will never deny what has happened, I will also not broadcast it for all the world to see. When the opportunity occurs, I share (and will continue to share) events without names for the purpose of illustration and as a way one ought not to live. I also share these as examples of redemption because that’s part of my history, too. My great-grandmother was raised by a single mother, but her biological father showed regret for his fornication and later became a man of integrity and a leader in the community. He couldn’t change his past, but he changed the course of history by changing how he lived. That, too, is part of my history.
Unless we understand our past, we can’t understand ourselves. Nor can we learn to face our future unhindered. There is not any way to put a skeleton in a closet and keep it there. It will continue lurking, casting shadows on our tomorrows unless we deal with the skeletons and bring them out of the closet. .
I cannot right the wrongs of the past, but I can acknowledge the wrongs. I cannot heal the hurts people before me endured, but I can acknowledge the pain, and learn from it. In addition, I can refuse to perpetuate pain by defending those who were wrong.
By learning from the past, I can attempt not to make the mistakes others made before me so history will not repeat itself. God knows I make plenty of mistakes on my own and don’t need to copy anybody else’s. Nor do I need to carry a grudge from years’ past from a hurt that belonged to someone else. It’s not my place to carry the torch of bitterness for someone else. Rather, acknowledging history gives me cause to take steps to circumvent those whose agenda it is to ignore or deny the pain of the past.
That’s why it’s important to remember that what I say and do today becomes a part of history in the months and years to come. We are each making history. What do we want the books or stories to say about us?
History tends to repeat itself when we don’t learn from the past. If our history is ignored or denied, we can’t learn from it when it’s not even taught or made available.
Sometimes we tell our stories to portray what we want to have known instead of telling them like it really happened. Sometimes we choose to believe a story because it sounds better than what really happened. If we’re honest, sometimes we deflect blame from ourselves by pointing fingers instead of searching our hearts. If we’re honest, sometimes we choose to believe a story because it helps vindicate our own bitterness, even when not all of it is true. Other times, we feign ignorance of a story because it’s easier not to deal with the actual truth.
History has already happened. We can’t change the past. We can, however, choose to respond to it properly. To do that, we must acknowledge the truth. We must accept the truth. Only then can we -and those who come after us – truly be free.