What good is history?

“You remember I told you about my brother and I taking Uncle Peter to the zoo?” said the skeleton of my father from his grave on the side of Cortlandt Road.

You showed him the giraffes.  

“Yeah, we said ‘look, Uncle Peter!  Those are giraffes, from Africa –aren’t they amazing?’  Uncle Peter said ‘what good are they?’.   My brother and I looked at each other, took him to see the crocodile, one of the world’s most impressive reptiles.   Do you remember what Uncle Peter said?”  

“Who needs it?”

“Well, the same goes for history.   To some people it is an empty abstraction full of ambiguity and threatening, unresolvable nightmares better forgotten.   Why think about what our forefathers did to Africans, to Native Americans including the Mexicans?    We committed some horrible genocides, wrote laws to protect the most vile occupations man has ever engaged in, protected those practices for almost a hundred years under the world’s most revolutionary blueprint for democracy, our U.S. Constitution.  

“Of course, you’d have to be a lawyer to find the discreet little phrases where the Constitution protects those hideous practices, but to a lawyer and a judge, no matter could be more cut and dried.  ‘ ‘Other such persons,’ Yaw Honuh, what could be more clear cut and precisely, perfectly dried, suh?’   

“The learned Chief Justice, a man a hundred years ahead of his time, is compelled to write: ‘Whatever the constraints of our individual conscience, the law requires a faithful interpretation of the intent of the Framers. It was clearly intended by our founding fathers that this genocidal practice be authorized under our law, at least until the year 1807.’     

“What American wants to hear that shit?  What, we are no better than the Nazis?  Who wants to hear that Americans, many times in our history, have celebrated mass murder as enthusiastically as the fervent mobs at Nazi rallies?   There was never an anti-lynching law, and those lynch mobs used to be quite enthusiastic, bring a picnic, the whole family, buy souvenirs afterwards to recall the amazing day.   There were no protests when Truman insisted we had to drop those atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  There was dancing in the street when Japan surrendered.    

“With Hitler, you had, for the first time in the history of warfare, a ruthless maniac with the modern means of killing civilians on a mass scale and no hesitation to use the new technologies.  The blitzkreig in the skies over London, for example, a continuous, nightly bombardment of civilians, was designed to terrorize the populace and demoralize support for the war effort.  So the Allies responded in kind, we killed untold hundreds of thousands of civilians during World War Two.  The historic city of Dresden was wiped out with incendiary bombs, the massive firebombings of Tokoyo killed many more Japanese women and children than both atomic bomb blasts combined.  So, of course, in a time when everyone is filled with dread and fear, it’s no surprise that many people turn away from history.”  

“Add to that the notion many people have that history is generally written by rascals, in the pay of other, sometimes pernicious, rascals.   Which is often true, you have to look at who the person was who wrote the history, who paid for the book, what the hidden agenda is, why the story is told this way, certain facts highlighted, others left out completely.  You know first-hand that it’s possible, by the way you tell a story, to convincingly describe something completely alien to those who actually lived through and survived it.”

It’s fascinating to me that you had such a keen, lifelong interest in history, and bending the moral arc of history and all that, and at the same time you always insisted that people can’t change themselves in any fundamental way.   That optimistic impulse, to read history and learn lessons in hopes of avoiding the worst stupidities of the past,  set against the pessimistic belief that people’s lives are laid out for them immutably by the age of three.

“Well, look, Elie, you can hold up history to support either proposition, or both of them.  Did America change for its black citizens?  You now have a black middle class, much larger than it was sixty years ago.  You have black millionaires, even a black billionaire or two.  Certain changes toward equal rights have been made, as a result of a titanic, organized struggle and sometimes unbearable sacrifices.  You can say a lot has changed.  The power company in Georgia has a policy of firing employees if they say the word ‘nigger’, you know, what is now universally, in mixed company, pronounced as the ‘n-word’.  

“On the other hand, you have, for the vast majority of blacks in America, the same eternal charnel house.  Brown v. Board of Ed was decided in 1954, segregation in education was unconstitutional, it imposed inferior education on black students.  States were ordered to de-segregate schools ‘with all deliberate speed.’ Now, going on 63 years later, longer than your lifetime so far, schools are as segregated as they were the day before Brown was decided.  So you tell me how much has changed for the average Negro in America.”    

I’ll tell you one thing that has changed, with a president who cunningly positioned himself with the White Supremacists, hate crimes are up.   Every other day we see a scene in a Jewish cemetery, grave stones knocked over; a mosque set on fire.  The anger of the master race is quite palpable, and we have a guy who is stoking it in a cynical attempt… well, you just have to listen to the political pronouncements of each side to get a pretty good idea what is going on.  

“History, what good is it?  I can hear my Uncle Peter, an uncurious man with only practical concerns related to life on his farm.   I guess I’m with Howard Zinn on the constructive use of history– taking courage from those rare moments when people have organized and triumphed over evil things like slavery, child labor, denial of basic rights to women.    We have to take courage from these things or we could not act.  We’d be in despair with a destructive narcissist like this one in power, appointing people who are dedicated to destroying the agencies he’s putting them in charge of.  

“We have seen this before, seen the mistakes a divided opposition makes in opposing each other as the far worse evil takes root.  I grant you it makes little sense, looking toward society wide change for the better while denying a person can do it in his own life– but there we are, Elie.  People are not consistent, or logical, or, in most cases, very brave.”    

The skeleton looked over his shoulder to Cortlandt Road and we both pictured the line of cars, traveling slowly past after being energized by Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, and their message of brotherhood and positive social change, at the moment the fist sized rocks began pelting down on their windshields.    

“The power of hatred, Elie, one of the big ones in human affairs,” said the skeleton.  

No shit, Shylock.

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