Saturday, November 10, 2018

Daisey Lecture Four: Buried Histories

Daisey's fourth lecture doesn't progress entirely linearly with the others, but rather deals with the large context of erasure. Erasure from history in their case of women, and erasure from the land itself in the case of its original inhabitants. And being neither female or of native american heritage, I really don't really have much to add to their experiences except a laconic "Aye-yup."

But I do have a few things to say about my own brushing up with how I know what I know. What I was told.That may have some bearing.

My grade school experience matches tightly with Daisey's - a school text that tended to gloss over the more unpleasant issues. The one I remember had a Conestoga wagon on the top half of the cover, and a steam engine on the bottom. Sort of showing progress in that process. But it was a bunch of initial stories that prepared me for learning other stories, sort of how you learn that atoms are little solar systems and then discover quantum mechanics and electron shells later on.

And my high school experience had a lot of readings, usually by established historials. A lot of Hofstader and Kissinger, and things like the J-curve (Note - I hate the dreaded Davies' J-Curve, but that's a story for another day).

But in Junior High something different occurred. I discovered primary sources. As opposed to going to some historian looking back and pre-chewing my thoughts, I found I could go (to a library, in those pre-Internet days) and get input from people that were around at the time. That was cool. That made history exciting in an Egyptian Archaeologist sort of way (This was before Indiana Jones).

Great Art is not necessarily Great History
Also cool was Mr. Mentecki, who was a history teacher, and who first embodied the idea that people, including the people giving you your history, lied. He would do this by lying. Continually. How his ancestor was with Washington atop Mt. Washington, and almost got it named Mt. Mentecki. How he was a race car driver. How he sang with the Four Seasons (his wife affirms that this last one was the truth - he was in the audience and drunk at the time). And someone would call him on his lies and he would congratulate the student and give them a free period. And the other students would not understand.

He would also do things like read a passage of history and ask about what the writer really wanted. Give different viewpoints of the Boston Massacre. Or show a picture of Washington Crossing the Delaware and pointing out everything that was innaccurate about it.* Decades before Lies My Teacher Told Me, I had a teacher telling me about lying.

I think this has left me open to new ideas, and even when a new interpretation of events shows up, another story, I am poking around the edges, looking for ulterior motives.

But anyway, Women in History. There aren't any. Well, that's not true. They had to be there - subordinate, helpmates, mothers, property. When the question came up of beating your wife in law, it was more of a case of when and where it was proper to beat your wife as opposed to the if the act itself was inhuman. But in the "official" history (as opposed to "official history"), there are not a lot of women in the narrative that concerns itself about great men.

Those that show up are mythologized - Betsy Ross, Pocahontas, Molly Pitcher, all reduced to their great moment (creating a flag, sparing John Smith, fighting the British) that pushes them into the same realm as Paul Bunyan and Captain Stormalong. And we have a couple who are known for being in proximity of great men - Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, and, most recently, Sally Hemmings. Nope. Not a good look for us.

But there is a moment for women in colonial history that we hit and then forget about. It popped up every year in school, along with set theory and clock arithmetic. The Salem Witch Trials.

The Salem Witch Trials are a good, safe story. It involves women (as victims, but still....) It can be laid at the feet of other women (even more useful) and against a religious group that most people think of as extinct (Puritans- The Congregationalists are a descendant, but you don't think of them, much, either (sorry, guys)). It shows that occasionally we all go a little crazy and kill people for stupid reasons. It shows us injustice happens, but it happens such a long time ago it doesn't have any real affect on today.

So, yeah. Salem Witch Trials. Women in history!

Native Americans, we have a lot more of in our books. Almost always as military opponents. Blackhawk. Pontiac, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Geronimo. A moment's reflection gets us to some who didn't die directly of European bullets - Tecumseh, Seattle, and, of course, Guyasuta, but who merely faded away. They were always the ones being swept away across the plains by the encroaching Europeans, making way for progress. Sacrifices must be made. They were them, and we remember them because they fought.

Zinn's A People's History of the United States was not my first "woke" text. That would have been Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which hit my life at about/slightly after Mr. Mentecki. Here was, as Daisey notes, the story we always knew but never really delved into. Everyone knew of Little Bighorn - Custer is seeped deeply into out bones, but not so much Sand Creek. This was one of those books that made me face the idea that, though the victors, we the citizens of the US were not the good guys (of course, in the same period - Viet Nam, which has other resonances).

History is vast, and filled with stories. Whose stories get told reveals a lot about both the storytellers and their world. The vanishing of women and Native Americans are only one component of editing our pasts to justify our actions in the present.

More later,

* Flag wrong, river too wide, real crossing happened in the middle of the night, and that's before you get to the questions of whether an icy Delaware would have been frozen solid and is that really James Monroe in the boat with Washington? But we are talking about something painted 80 years after the event.