Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Storytellers As Keepers of History: Our Stories Tell Us Who We Are

"The British are coming!"  Paul Revere rode alone to warn the whole of the countryside.

"I cannot tell a lie.  T'was I who chopped down the cherry tree."  George Washington was always truthful.

Betsy Ross sewed the very first American flag.  Yes, see, a woman did something important to further the American revolution.

Sherman hated the south, that's why he burnt and destroyed so much of it.

What were the stories you learned in American history?  What were the stories you internalized?  What did you learn about World War II or Vietnam?  Who was held up as a hero?  Who was vilified?  What is it you were taught about American values, and whether or not we lived up to those values?

Through much of human history, the bulk of the population were not capable of reading.  Population wide education is a pretty recent development in society.  Before we could read to ourselves, we had to have others tell us what was happening.

The griot, bard, poet, minstrel, folksinger, or jongleur had the job of keeping everyone informed about what was happening.  Their tales were often dressed in poetry or little personal flares.  People learned about the world beyond their villages by listening to the stories that were carried from place to place.  The stories that pleased the population were told over and over again until they moved from mere tellings to ritual.  The longer we tell the same story, the more we begin to believe it is true.  We actually reinforce each other when it comes to these tales.  In the end, they get added to the history of how we understand things.

The problem, of course, is that some of these stories have absolutely no bearing on the truth.  They didn't happen entirely the way they were reported, and, some are made up of whole cloth.

How can we tell the difference between what is real and what is just story, and why does it matter anyway?  If the stories make us feel good, and they aren't really hurting anything, why does it matter?

Well, I would like to put forward that it does matter because of a very simple, but profound truth that we overlook all of the time.

George Santayana said it best:

It matters what we hold up as history.  It isn't enough that we only remember the shining examples of our triumphs.  We must also face the darkness and the realities of those times when we, as a nation, faltered.  If we cannot look into that yawning crater of failures, then we are going to head down the same road, and fall into the same craters.

This is an obvious sentiment, but it is not something that is easy to do.  

Why?  Why is it so hard to admit that we've made bad choices, been led by the nose by foolish or dangerous practices or ideas?  Why?

Well, if we've done bad things, it suggests that the people who run our countries are just people.

No matter the country, the populace likes to tell grandiose stories about how it came to be.

You never hear a story like this:

Bob liked growing cabbages.  He found a great place to grow cabbages and cleared some land.  Other people followed, and before long, the area was big enough to need some kind of governance, and the people living there kind of fell into a system, and it eventually grew up into a town.  

No, the stories are all about intrepid adventurers or travelers or men who couldn't lie or stout hearts who held off regiments with nothing more than hope and faith.  That's the history we tell.  That's sexy and it sells.

George Washington was a truthful man.  He never lied, not once in his whole life because he was perfect, right?  Really?  Who honestly believes that?  Does it make him less of a person because he might not have been honest every second of his life?  No.

Did Paul Revere rouse the whole countryside by himself?  No, he had help, and he was just one of at least three men who were responsible for that heroic ride.  Does that take away from his accomplishments?  No.  

Something else I never learned was that after Paul Revere and his merry band roused the countryside, women and old men, who were the ones left home, were the citizen army who put the British on the run.  Old farmers, and their wives were the 'army' which inflicted such damages on the redcoats.  How come nobody tells that part of the tale?  Well, maybe they do, but I never heard it in school.

Did Betsy Ross actually sew the American flag?  No, probably not.  In fact, she was never credited with this accomplishment in her lifetime.  So, why bring this up at all?  Is it because we needed a woman to have done something special in the founding?  Aren't there plenty of women in history who actually did contribute?  Why have we mythologized a non-event?

As for Sherman, his action had nothing to do with hating the south or being virulently anti-slavery.  He burnt much of it to the ground to break it.  It was in rebellion, and he meant to make sure it didn't rise right back up and start causing problems once more.

General William Tecumseh Sherman

It goes deeper.  There are those who would like to put the actual history of what happened in our country behind us because it isn't always pleasant.  They actually have an alternative suggestion. 
This is not an isolated problem.  All over our country we are changing the stories we tell about ourselves to reflect something that either didn't happen or is so limited in scope that it doesn't even begin to tell the story of who we are as a nation, or what we've done.

There are others out there telling true stories as well.  Somehow, these stories never seem to get as much traction in our history books or rise to our notice as say, Betsy Ross.  For instance, how many people know much about Ida B Wells?

Ida B. Wells

February is black history month.  A month where we fill in some of the history that somehow managed to get left out of the history books.  We also have Hispanic history month and women's history month.  We have these concentrated times because these groups are still underrepresented when we tell the history of America in our schools.

What is to be done about the fight we are waging to keep our history? There is only one thing to be done: Keep telling the stories of our history; the powerful ones, the truthful ones, the ones we turn from, the ones we embrace.

There are shameful things in our past, yes, and we need to answer to ourselves for them, but there are also spectacular successes we should celebrate.  We need our history; it is the only thing that will keep us from failing our future.

There are storytellers out there telling our history in interesting and accessible ways.  They are invited into schools to give a different picture of the world than the flat one students read about in books. 

To those tellers who focus on true history, and not the surface kind we often get, I salute you.

The stories we tell matter.  They shape how we feel about ourselves.  The stories we refuse to tell because they might make us look bad, matter as well.  Not hearing them robs us of our ability to grow and get better as a society.

Let us keep telling the stories that need to be heard.  Let them be grounded in facts.  Let us embrace them as part of who we have become.  Even the difficult ones.

Happy Lore Keeping.


  1. Oh, I love this ! Such a good, true story with a wonderful ending !