“The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Faulkner, American Novelist
I was listening to my favorite podcast, Hidden Brain, when the guest, Dr. Claude Steele quoted Faulkner. The episode was about stereotype threat and Steele was making a key point. He explained how long-held stereotypes about our racial group, gender, or other social identity impact us today, even if we’re not aware of it. It made me think about the impact US history is having on our present, and what it means for our future.
The events of January 2021 reveal just how much the history we believe affects our lives and our larger society. For some people, the founding of the United States is all about the “bravery” and “courage” of the British colonizers as they sought to “conquer” the land that would become the U.S. For Indigenous people, the history of the United States is one of near genocide. Through violence, disease, and deceit, a population that had been here for thousands of years was nearly destroyed. For African Americans, U.S. history centers on the torture and enslavement of our ancestors for 12 generations. This, plus another 100 hundred years of legal segregation. And, there is still the ongoing fight for civil rights for all Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
All of this history affects us today. As Faulkner says, it isn’t dead. It isn’t even past
The past is alive.
Look at any tree in the ground. It is a great example of the past being alive. The seeds were planted months, years, or even a century ago, and today we still see the result. Something in the past happened that has led to what we now experience.
It’s the same with societies. Actions from the past influence what we experience today. Think back to your childhood community. Is it exactly the same as it was when you were a kid? Perhaps over the years, someone made a decision to build a new grocery store, a new road, or install a new traffic light in town. Those decisions from just a few years ago now impact your hometown today. Or maybe you fell off your scooter as a child and scraped your knee (ahem, this is me). If that scar is still visible, that is also the past being with you today.
We don’t learn about all of the past.
There is a lot to learn about the past. There are centuries of history to unpack – and that’s only if you focus on the United States. When schools teach about the past, the experiences of those in power often dominate the curriculum. Sadly, not every racial group in our society gets equal attention in the classroom.
In this great NYT article, reporter Dana Goldstein compares eight history books from two different states. What she finds is not surprising. The states tell two different stories of the United States. Depending on where you live, and the prevailing political beliefs of your state, you will get a different version of history.
Those in power want to tell a history that makes them look good. Remember the fearless, intelligent conquerors who created a land of prosperity? The voices of people who lived at that same time, but were oppressed, marginalized, or killed are often erased from this history or barely audible.
This leads to a skewed view of the past and therefore the present. If we don’t understand how we got here, it can be hard to see that the system treats people differently. This makes it harder to agree on a system that will work better for everyone.
The history that many U.S. students learn leads to internalized superiority. According to researchers, this is often true for white children. Seeing themselves over-represented in history books, children’s books, school curricula, TV shows, and other sources leads to an inflated view of oneself. It also leads to internalized inferiority for children who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Not seeing or barely seeing yourself in history books and other sources can lead to an under-valued view of oneself.
This is a problem.
One part of the solution is to teach our collective U.S. history. Another part of the solution is to take your learning into your own hands.
The origin of Black History Month is from Carter G Woodson’s experience of seeing Black Americans and their contributions ignored or erased from the (white-dominated) historical narrative of the United States? In 1926 he established Negro History Week. It was celebrated in public schools as a way to bring awareness to the history of millions of Black people. It became Black History Month in 1976.
Learn for yourself.
I am a strong believer in taking ownership of my own learning. My school didn’t teach me what I would have loved to learn about Black history, or Asian American History or so many other topics. So, I’ve learned about many topics on my own. You can do the same.
We all have gaps between what we learned, and what is possible to know. First, ask yourself where are your gaps? If you learned a ton about the influence of European and white Americans in US society, I recommend you learn about Black, Indigenous, and people of color. If that’s the case for you, here are a few recommendations:
- A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror by Howard Zinn
- Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Lowen
- Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
- The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
- All My Relations
- Code Switch
- Seeing White by Scene on Radio
- Web Series:
- Instagram Account:
- Free Calendar:
- The Equal Justice Initiative offers a free 2021 calendar on the history of racial injustice
While we can’t change the past, we can acknowledge its existence and learn about its impact. We can also choose whether or not to sustain the effects of so many historical actions. It’s up to us. It’s up to me, and it’s up to you.