Friday, March 29, 2013

How History Gets Re-Written: The USA's Civil War

I speak in schools and to community groups about how the history of gay, lesbian, bi and trans people has been erased, destroyed, hidden, re-written, and needs to be reclaimed.  How the stories of men who loved men, women who loved women, and people who transcended gender boundaries are there for us to discover.  And how knowing our true LGBTQ history empowers all of us, queer and allies and everyone.  History like...

Shakespeare being in love with a man.  (And how the sonnets that spoke so eloquently of that love were altered to make it seem like he was speaking of loving a woman.)

Gandhi leaving his wife to move in with the man he loved.  (And how the book that mentioned it, twenty years after the letters detailing their relationship were made public, was banned in parts of India.)

Even the recent reveal of Dr. Sally Ride living for 27 years with the woman she loved. (A fact only revealed in Sally's obituary last year.)

If you've ever wondered, like I have, the details of HOW history gets re-written, this Salon article "The South still lies about the Civil War" is fascinating reading.

From one reporter, John Herbers, remembering when he was growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s,
“the lost cause was one of the main themes my grandmother used to talk about: ‘slavery was nothing to do with the Civil War—we had a cotton economy and [the North] wanted to dominate us.’ It was an undisputed topic.” At the time, he accepted this version, as children do; today, he is struck by the vigilance with which adults in his world implanted this story in the minds of their children. “They pushed themselves to believe that,” he said. “If [the war] had anything to do with slavery, they had no ground to stand on.”

To one longtime publishing executive telling the author

that when he got into the business in the 1960s, it was common to see two different versions of school history textbooks — one for in the Deep South and one for everywhere else, “and the difference was how you treated the Civil War.”

To this moment, where Dwight Pitcaithley, a professor of history at New Mexico State University who was chief historian of the National Park Service from 1995 to 2005, gave a talk to school educators in Mississippi in December of 2008. He included

this quote from the Mississippi Declaration of Secession: “Our cause is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world.” That sentence is now prominently displayed on the wall of the National Park Service visitors’ center in Corinth, Mississippi, near the site of the battle of Shiloh. Pitcaithley took a picture of the display and used it in his presentation. After his talk, he was chatting with a thirty-four-year-old black school principal who had grown up in Mississippi, attended its public schools, and received his university education there. “I asked him if he’d ever seen that [quote] and he said no — he’d never even heard of that.”

The article is a powerful reminder of how we need to be more thoughtful when we read history, considering who's telling us the stories and what their agendas might be.

Go check it out.



CS Perryess said...

Thanks, Lee, for a great post. Typically, we've been told the victor writes history, but it appears all the various survivors get to contribute to it, don't they?

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Thanks CS - what's so interesting about the Salon article was that the survivors in the South all contributed only their version of the history - and over the years that version took over in their states. Fascinating!