In the 21st century we are witnessing the unintended consequences of national and local history traditionally presented over centuries from limited points of view. Many of the heroes and sheroes are almost mythological or reflect only partial facts; others, because they do not conform to the accepted standard, have been maligned or eliminated completely from the narrative. With the establishment of ethnic studies in our institutions of higher learning, a new cadre of scholars, qualified as researchers and writers, have uncovered information that they consider critical to the dialog. They are in the process of debunking the fiction and incorporating a more accurate and, in fact, more interesting narrative. These scholars, researchers, and journalists are truly history’s detectives, committed to uncovering, analyzing, and incorporating the full story. Motivated to employ translations of primary sources, to consider the validity of oral history, and to weigh other’s interpretations that may not fit the prescribed approach, these historians are challenging the norm.
Previously, because the common practice of separating and evaluating a group’s worth and inclusion was based on its designated social status, the perception was that all or most people of color were inferiors, obstacles, or incidentals in this nation’s history. There are numerous examples of this approach across this country. The exhibit Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: How the Word is Passed Down (February 1 – July 7, 2013) at the Atlanta History Center is a prime example. In this installation, Thomas Jefferson, is in the shadow. He is fleshed out only in reference to his relationship to the people he enslaved and their descendants. After viewing this presentation, we know him more completely, not exclusively as the third US president or the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence, but as a man who also intentionally supported the enslavement and oppression of human beings for his personal and financial benefit.
In another example, a scholar in Rhode Island is focusing her study on the enslaved families of US presidents. In his newly published work, Finding Florida, T.D. Allman presents a detailed and well written history of Florida. Step by step, he applies his journalistic skills and fascination with the past to describe a state that seems almost committed to ignoring facts in order to create a history that is not even close to reality. Our beacon for this approach to presenting a full accounting of the past is Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States.
In order to tell an authoritative history of this nation, one group’s version of the story cannot predominate. There will always be varying perspectives. Let us encourage the lifting of the veil and shining the light on our past.