Commentary

Fragmenting history

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A woman pondered an elderly neighbor’s cluttered living room: “Our parents’ generation carried the past memorialized in paint, porcelain and wood; we cast it off. Even our national history is taught or remembered in terms of the worst we did, not the best ... To the young the past is always an encumbrance” (Elizabeth George). This reflection is an apt description of our current experience.

Stories form tapestries that hold people together, and without a common story a community or a country cannot remain whole. Our memorialized past is increasingly fragmented, and our national history blurry.

Many centrifugal forces generate separate, opposing groups throughout our community and country. Populations are diverse and predicted to become more so. Harsh identity politics stress perspectives and perceptions of one group as shields and weapons thrust against others. Intellectual currents that demand interrogation of every cultural story and structure deconstruct rosy narratives by stressing the worst our ancestors did and not the best.

Our young people empower many centrifugal forces. A common proverb is, “Anyone twenty years old who is not an idealist does not have a heart; but one not a realist by forty does not have a brain.” Older people tend to be less radical than young people. However, one dare not strangle the idealism of youth, because any positive story must be nourished by idealism. Developing and communicating an adequate and compelling history for a free people requires both head and heart.

The essential first step in reducing centrifugal forces is understanding the validity within different perspectives and interpretations of the past.

An international example: Armed conflict erupted in 1857 in India. Indian troops mutinied and killed their British officers and families. Fierce battles resulted. These basic facts are not in dispute. One interpretation is that Indian traitors rejected their oaths and the benefits derived from British rule and were justly hunted down and killed. In post-colonial narratives, the oppressed troops are patriots engaging in the first War of Independence from tyrannical British rule and Western domination. Which is true? Aspects of both!

A local example brings it home. The basic facts: Dr. Fry, a physician, freed his slaves and traveled with them from Danville, Kentucky to Crawfordsville so his two sons could attend “an institution of higher learning” — Wabash College, started in 1832 as a preparatory school. They arrived in the 1830s. The slaves began meeting for worship in a log cabin home. Indiana was a free state, but African Americans were required to have jobs and support in order to live in Indiana. Mariah Gates, a young girl, became a maid to Mrs. Isaac Elston, a Quaker, at the Elston Homestead where she worked until the 1870s. She is honored as the Mother of Bethel AME Church because of her long leadership in the congregation. John Speed, also a Quaker, was a conductor of the Underground Railroad. In 1847, he urged the congregation build their church on the lot next to his log cabin home at the corner of North and West streets (now Grant Avenue). Bethel AME Church will celebrate its 175th anniversary on that site in June and July.

Two speakers have introduced several groups of Wabash freshmen volunteers to that basic narrative. One emphasizes positive relations with Wabash College, the abolitionist leaning of Wabash founders who came from the East via Dartmouth College and Andover Seminary, and Mrs. Elston’s gracious assistance. The other speaker emphasizes the hardships faced by African Americans, the Indiana employment requirement that was a form of chattel slavery, and the cheap child labor benefitting local families. Now, which is true? Both are!

Diverse narratives must be refined through collaboration and incorporated into one story so all can flourish. We must avoid using narratives as weapons against our neighbors. Developing a local and national narrative that will become our story requires serious listening and discussions in order to understand different experiences and perceptions so that elements from that diversity can be woven into one common history, sufficiently true and compelling to merit our loyalty. That narrative might be a foundation of hope for our future together in Montgomery County.

 

Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.

 

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