The Stories We Ought to Tell

I have always loved Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Her reflections on the historical enterprise in which we all are engaged inform in ways great and small what I try to do in much of my teaching and writing.  “History,” she writes, “is like weather, not like checkers.”  A board game comes to an end, but the weather, “in its complexity, in its shifts, in the way something triggers its opposite, just as a heat wave sucks the fog off the ocean and makes my town gray and clammy after a few days of baking, weather in its moods, in its slowness, it its suddenness,” never does.  “We never did save the whales, though we might have prevented them from becoming extinct. We will have to continue to prevent that as long as they continue not to be extinct, unless we become extinct first.” Past, present, and future, all connected, inseparable.  The past never ends.

Solnit understands so well the work of the historian.  “Writing is lonely,” she notes.  “It’s an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with the readers who may never come to be and who, even if they do read you, will do so weeks, years, decades later.  An essay, a book, is one statement in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you’re gone and never reach your ears—if anyone hears you in the first place.”  It is a beautiful reflection on writing, a solitary enterprise, Solnit claims, that “is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler.”

And in her most recent essay, with the title “Whose Story (and Country) Is This?” she challenges the media, and indeed all of us, to think about the stories we tell.

The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out that there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing. The history of this country has been written as their story, and the news sometimes still tells it this way—one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters and who decides.

More Americans work in museums, Solnit points out, than work in coal mines, but “no one is talking about their jobs as a totem of our national identity.”   Too many of us are missing the important stories.

We are as a culture moving on to a future with more people and more voices and more possibilities. Some people are being left behind, not because the future is intolerant of them but because they are intolerant of this future. White men, Protestants from the dominant culture are welcome, but as Chris Evans noted, the story isn’t going to be about them all the time, and they won’t always be the ones telling it. It’s about all of us. White Protestants are already a minority and non-white people will become a voting majority in a few decades. This country has room for everybody who believes that there’s room for everybody. For those who don’t—well, that’s partly a battle about who controls the narrative and who it’s about.

We who write about the past, and teach history, whether in K-12 or in colleges—most of us recognize this.  We who work in the face of a testing regime that turns history education into rote memorization, and a college environment tripping over itself in a race to embrace STEM fields at the expense of the humanities and civics, face blowback when we broaden the base, and attempt to include the voices of those who traditionally have been excluded.  If we look around, however, and see the kids marching against the NRA, and the #MeToo and the “#TimesUp” movements, and the assertions that Black Lives Matter, and the growing attention to the enormous numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and children throughout North America, it is clear that the ground is shifting beneath our feet.  We work alone, and it is often a solitary pursuit.  But the effort to be inclusive, to tell the stories of the powerless and the marginalized, is as important now as it has ever been.   

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