Interpreting History

The kayaking trip that Jeff mentioned in the last post didn’t just involve paddling around tidal waters; it also came with some history lessons on the area in general and Sandy Island in specific. At one point, we all pulled up in our kayaks as our guide described how the area in which we were floating was once a rice-growing area managed by plantations where over 1,000 slaves were put to work. On one hand, it was interesting to learn a bit of history. On the other hand, we all agreed at the end of the trip that the way the history was presented made us feel a little bit uncomfortable. Our guide repeatedly stressed how well the slaves in this area were treated and how profitable the plantations were. There was maybe a brief aside acknowledging that slavery was, perhaps, not the best thing, but we all felt the guide was a little too sympathetic to this horrible part of our history. Hey, the plantations were turning an 8% profit, how could it be wrong?

It’s always tricky dealing with history in which there is an obvious winner and an obvious loser, an obvious bad and an obvious good. The first time I came across a memorial to fallen German soldiers while living in Freiburg, I spent some time staring at it uncertain as to how to interpret it. I mean, Germany was obviously the bad guy in this battle. How could they be memorializing their soldiers? I get a bit of the same feeling when I see Confederate war memorials. But then, if you take a moment to think about it, you realize that it’s not that simple. The fallen soldiers were husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers, and they died fighting for something they believed in. Whether they simply believed in their country or in objectives that we find abhorrent (the annihilation of a race, slavery, etc.), we have no way of knowing. Whether they fought willingly, even exuberantly, or whether they were forced into battle, we also will never know. All we know are that these are men who went away to war and never came home. The facts are obscure, the history incomplete.

History is a funny thing. It seems it should be objective. This happened. Then this happened. Then because of this, this happened. But it’s not like that at all. Instead history is interpreted. The winners have their version. The losers have their version. The governments have their version. The people on the ground have their versions. There are individual histories and collective histories, private memories and public memories. And as time passes, the histories and memories merge and change. I find this process to be completely fascinating, and if I were ever to return to school it would be to study history and memory.

On our trip, we’re sure to have multiple experiences in which history is presented in ways that differ from what we know. Sometimes the facts will have been blatantly distorted. Other times the facts will be interpreted in a way different than what we’re used to. And on occasion, we’ll be presented with history that we know little about and will thus have little basis on which to judge the accuracy of it. The history we’re taught as Americans is not just our version of it, it’s also often woefully incomplete. Admit it, unless you’re a history buff who sought out specialized college courses, you probably know little about the Korean War and probably not all that much about Vietnam. The Cold War is a vague idea that seems almost quaint. Iran-Contra is in your vocabulary, but explaining it might be beyond your capabilities. With history classes always seeming to start with the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley and the rise of civilization, there never seems to be enough time for any amount of focus on the twentieth century. A brief glossing over of all that happened from WWI to the present is about as good as it gets. And even then, the focus is almost exclusively on Western Civilization. What happened in the rest of the world goes without mention, unless somehow the U.S. got itself involved. An incomplete education, indeed.

I’m going to go ahead and be a nerd here and say that I’m really interested in learning some new history on this trip and getting a different viewpoint of history that I think I already know. I’m sure sometimes the new info will be interesting. Sometimes eye opening. Sometimes downright hilarious.

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