In my Justice at Work class yesterday, we watched a film on A. Philip Randolph, who was a major player and influence in desegregating the military and the AFL-CIO. He was also the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Awesome guy, but neglected in many history books.
Now, I’m pretty familiar with the reality that history books are collections of lies — or, more accurately, selected snippets of historical truths. As a kid, I was really upset that the history books in school completely neglected the influence of the mormon pioneers in the westward movement, which pretty much solidified my deep distrust of school-approved history books.
As time went on, I realized that the lack of depth in the school history texts is less a willful desire to withhold knowledge from a growing populace and more laziness. It’s just freaking stressful for overworked public school teachers and administrators to contest with parents who are angry about the more controversial or uncomfortable realities of history. It’s just uncomfortable to try and explain to some kid that the worldview their parents promote is not supported by realty or historical fact. It’s easier to teach a clean and sanitized version of history, which is sad but (at this point in time) a fact of life.
However, for kids who don’t experience the realization that the history taught in our public schools is, by and large, sanitized and abbreviated — well, clearly, college can be kind of a shock. This film? Kind of a shock to many of my classmates. I kept hearing the murmurs, “I’ve never heard of this guy,” in a surprised tone.
For our Sacred Texts class, we’re reading this text called The World is Made of Stories, which got me reflecting (again) on how our society likes to envision itself. We are a culture that prides ourselves on independence — to a fault, I would say. The cultural story of the iconic figure is woven into the fabric of our patriotic worldview, from the midnight night of Paul Revere (forget the other two guys) to the lone cowboy (what pioneers and wagon trains?) to Rosie the Riveter to Martin Luther King Jr. and so on. We know the iconic names and figures, but the supporting cast slips to the background.
As a society, we’re uncomfortable with things that hint of sharing and “socialism”, so we perpetuate this shared story that individuals built this country with their own two hands, no help from anyone — when really it was communities working together and sacrificing so all could benefit. Barns and houses weren’t raised by lone cowboys; they were raised by communities working in cooperation.
I dunno where I’m going with this exactly, or how we can start changing our shared story to acknowledge the reality of our history, but I think this all important stuff. This matters, and it matters in how we see ourselves and how we see the world around us. We define ourselves by the stories we tell — the stories we tell about ourselves, our families, our relationships, our society, and our history. If we won’t acknowledge the inherent bias in our stories, how can we acknowledge when we make mistakes?