Americans don’t tend to see the past in their everyday lives. If they do, it might be because of a personal or ethnic connection, or maybe they hear the president harken back to Sputnik and the Space Race, and greatness of our past. But the average person tends not to feel overly connected to their area’s past, nor do they see how history could be valuable in their own lives. Disengagement, you might call it. We have, after all, spent our existence as a nation on a purposeful mission to be constantly reinventing ourselves, getting away from the demons that held down the European ancestors of those early settlers (and with the notion that we were claiming empty land, preordained for us, but that’s beside this point). No time for the past.
In an excellent essay (in this book), public historian Michael Frisch talks about this relationship we have with history, using his 1980s perspective to talk about the Vietnam War in our national memory. First, talking about the war was out of bounds because it was current, still present. Then, you couldn’t look at the war or its roots because it was the past, an episode that needed to be “put behind us.” But what happens then, he points out, is that while we have the living memories, those memories themselves get warbled, people block things out, or chose not to remember. Even films about the war, while providing heroic characters for audiences and poignant stories, keep these figures pointedly isolated from the history of the event, from what it means historically. This puts us at a disadvantage in analyzing our past.
I don’t have an answer, nor even a suggestion, about the state of this relationship, or about possible implementations to bring the two, American and American history, closer together. I do hope that some of the projects I want to work on help to bring people closer to their past in ways that are meaningful for their present, for the daily lives now.
Frisch quotes a Nigerian friend who has this to say about Americans and our disconnection from what’s behind us:
“What’s so mysterious?” he observed.
“Why bother with history when you’re rich and powerful? All it can do is tell you how you climbed to the top, which is a story its probably best not to examine too closely. No, you don’t need history. What you need is something more like a pretty carpet that can be rolled out on ceremonial occasions to cover all those bloodstains on the stairs. And, in fact, that’s what you usually get from your historians.”
Then he went on solemnly:
“For the rest of us, its a lot different. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring history. History is a giant stone that lies on top of us; for us, history is something we have to struggle to get out from under.”
To say that most of American history has been seen through the eyes of the powerful is a familiar criticism, but we rarely acknowledge, as my friend suggests, how profoundly power, privilege, and freedom from historical constraint have conditioned our basic relation to the past.
There was a sense of liberation from the toils of the European past that early Americans felt, and to a large extent, we still run from it today. It is hard to think about bad things in our history. But it is obtuse to ignore them and never face unpleasant truths or critical interpretations of what happened before us (or, more difficultly, during our lifetimes). Taking a deep, contemplative look at the American past does not make anyone unpatriotic. That bloody stairway we climbed? We better know it well, for all its good and bad.