History and Memory
As our life experiences differ, so do our interpretations of history.
Often there is a fine line between history and mythology.
This is what I mean: When we do the work of history, we try to verify facts. The historian works with letters, wills, census documents, newspaper accounts and artifacts. But these items themselves do not make a living history. They are like the points on a connect-the-dots drawing. To string them together, we turn to our imaginations, our family stories, assumptions and preferences.
In the end, the histories that inform our lives and shape our worldview are seldom objective. Each of us brings a world of preconceptions to the table and uses them to breathe life into the old photographs and cold data.
We decide the things we want to remember, and we remember things the way we want to.
“People tend to get involved with history because they have an agenda,” says Amy Reed, curator of the Marietta Museum of History. “They may not realize it, but they do. There is something that motivated them to get involved in history to begin with, and whatever that is, it tends to color the way they see things.”
Approaching history this way, we tend to find what we were seeking. It may be the history that we wanted to find all along. In other words, we collect enough data to support the mythology with which we already live.
This is particularly true in the South. The Civil War left a scar on our collective psyche that still has not healed and which draws us back to it. Both sides, North and South, have constructed mythologies that elevate their respective “causes.” Both contain elements of the truth, and both tend to fall short of the full reality.
Some have suggested that history ought to be this way–a living, breathing, changing thing–for much of what is past is beyond verification anyway. It is our perception of what happened, and what it means to us today, that matters.
This is true to a point. But problems begin to appear where our perceptions of history diverge, and the grievances of one people are glossed over by the nostalgia of another.
This is particularly true regarding race relations–a subject on which I have written a great deal in this column.
In response to my article “Deep Roots Together,” I received a very heartfelt note from a reader who took issue with Rosalie Andrews’ benign portrayal of race relations in Marietta. Describing herself as an African-American woman who grew up in Marietta during segregation, she recounted stories of a city horribly divided and demeaning towards her race. She described being “packed like pigs and bussed to the black school in Austell” where they were provided with hand-me-down textbooks already worn out by white students.
Most moving to me was her account of sitting in the “colored” section at the back of the Strand Theater. She recalled a young black girl who, unable to find a seat in the colored section, ventured downstairs to the white section and was chased away with harsh and berating words. The girl, she said, sat on the floor and cried throughout the rest of the show.
No doubt there is truth to Rosalie Andrews’ milder picture of race relations, but the account given by the reader is also true–similar stories have been documented. Here are two different realities portrayed by two different African-American women, informed by two distinct sets of experiences.
None of us like to recall the brutal sides of our history. Perhaps Rosalie Andrews chose those pleasant things that she wanted to remember, while my anonymous reader finds the ugliness of her experience too important to let us forget.
We need to hear them both.
And with this, I would like to appeal to all of my readers, to all who love history, to be a part of it by contributing their voices.
If I have learned anything by writing local history, it is that history isn’t just found in the “great” events, or in the doings of famous people. History is around every corner, over every doorstep, and in every memory. Photographs and letters hidden away in a drawer or box until no one remembers the names of those pictured are treasures to our common history, and the stories each of us have of the things we have seen, heard, and done comprise an oral history that is beyond value.
It is the peculiar nature of voices that, if they never speak, they will never be heard. And it is the peculiar nature of memory that, if we stop remembering, we forget.
Share your memories. Tell your stories. Write them down, record them and pass them on. In doing so, you are breathing life into history.