Tuesday, November 10, 2009


My African American Lit class has gotten me thinking a lot about history and the way it impacts our lives on an everyday level. Personally, I'm somewhat confused as to my own relationship to history, so I'd like to use this as a forum to work that struggle out.

The way I see it, we have two histories to relate to. The first is our personal history, which all of us have and cannot avoid. I am the youngest of three. My dad is a pastor and my mother is a nurse. There have been lots of different events and circumstances in my life that have shaped me to be the particular Mark that I am today. I've personally experience this kind of history and can reflect upon it and my relationship to it. For me, this is a fairly simple and unproblematic concept.

The second relationship to history is what really interests and perplexes me, however. I'm part of a culture. I live in a certain society at a certain time in history. While I understand the ramifications of how this effects my day-to-day life and has a PROFOUND impact on who I am, I fail to identify myself with it. It's a strange thought, but maybe I can illuminate it better by describing people who do identify with their cultural history.

African American writers, for example, spend a good deal of time focusing on how their cultural history shapes who they are. I'm reading Toni Morrison right now, and she seems to think that you cannot simply be an individual living in a society. You are a member of that society, and that society's history is your history which you must learn to deal with. Her characters have to learn what it means to be black, to have an oppressed and checkered history. I guess for a group who's history is a little more tangible in their daily life, I understand how this is relevant. Still, for me, I don't know.

My history is white-washed. George Washington cutting down the apple tree kinda stuff. It's a bunch of tall tales, myths, that never really happened but that we tell ourselves in order to justify our modern selves. Aside from that, I don't even know which history to look for. Am I an American? Am I European? Should I associate myself with the history of Great Britain as an Irish descendant? Exactly who I am is a little muddled and confusing, so exactly which history is "my" history is confusing as well.

I suppose on one level, people could say that it's important to understand how your history shapes you, but you don't have to personally identify with it. Currently, for example, if I were to personally identify myself as an American I'd feel nothing but ashamed of our actions. That's just me though. Thoughts? Comments? Reflections? I'd love to hear them!


Matt said...

I agree with you Mark that it is difficult to find our historical connections and our identities because of our "white-washing," which I think is an appropriate term.

There are a few ways I'm looking at this conundrum. One is through the lens of white (and to an extent male) privilege. We have never needed to rely on a unified community to draw inspiration from or connect with because our humanity and individual worth has never been called into question. Therefore, those with privilege need no roots to hold onto for support. But that does not deny that we certainly have a heritage and we are products of it.

So then we get into the idea of histories. I think it is fair to say that the American heritage you referenced is controversial at best and disgusting at worst. But I also think that we have to come back to the idea of the "white-washed" history. History is not one dominant paradigm that continues to flow and define all of our existences. There are histories that reflect a diverse range of voices. It is important to break down history and examine all of its parts before saying that you have no history or that your heritage is devoid of inspiration moments.

So I guess it comes down to one question: where do you and I find our heritage? You can look where you want, I suppose. But it is also important that regardless of your heritage, you do have agency and you are a living being today. You can look back on what you see as your heritage (regardless of whether it is good or bad) and you can critique, change, or embrace principles and actions. In fact, I believe much of the problem with white American history is relying far too heavily on the past, too much white-washed history. We want to be who our ancestors were, and in fact, we need to learn and grow where those before us failed and hold fast to the principles of the past that upheld dignity...

Whew. So much more I could say, but that's wordy enough for now.

Mozart said...

We live in a fairly individualistic culture. Of course we are profoundly (and largely subconsciously) shaped by our history (I think "culture" is more appropriate, since the latter turns into the former over time), but at the same time, we as white Americans--with our personal varied pasts--tend to see ourselves more as single, unique individuals than as members of some abstract "society." Hence a competitive attitude, rat race, dog-eat-dog world.

Of course that, too, is a product of our history....

But what I'm saying is that by and large we don't choose to identify with our collective past. We acknowledge it, but think that we can somehow "overcome" it or rise above it or invalidate it through our own personal choices.

Elliot Spicer said...

I am the descendant of vikings, potato growers, warriors and survivors. I am the descendant of pagans, christians, Native Americans... when I sleep I dream of Vahala, wine, and mystic lands. I dream of Industrial cities where men and women worked tirelessly in dirt and grime. I am the stedfast ship, a woman's smile, and a carpentar's hand. I am their longing and their victory.