After our last episode a listener reached out to talk about it. He said he enjoyed it but had a couple of questions or quibbles. Mostly, he wanted to know whether I thought of history as “fact?”
It’s an important question given the battles over history and literature happening in schools and in public discourse right now. I think the thing that tripped him up was this:
“If you want the Bible to be taught as fact, having a Bible as Literature course is not your best option. Because literature courses ask us things like, what myths inform this piece? Who are the main characters and what are they saying to us? Is this only useful as a piece of historical representation, or are there lessons beyond what its original iteration implied? Where does this come from? Who created it? What were their biases?”
I talked about how if you want to teach the Bible as fact, it’s more appropriate to teach it as history, not as literature. What I need to clarify is that such a position is premised on the idea that history is fact – and that’s the assumption I want to interrogate today. Last time we asked, “what is art?” I’m going to give the same treatment to a different subject and ask, “what is history?”
When I was in grad school, I took a historiography class for one of my methodology requirements. Historiography is the study of historical writing. It’s the “how” of history.
On the first day, my professor told us that history is based on the idea that the past can be known. I audibly snorted. This got quite a few shocked looks from my classmates. As the semester wore on, I began to realize exactly how big the divide was between me and some of my peers. One guy defined history as the study of great men. Sexism aside, I thought that was ridiculous. If you only study the “great men” of the past, you’re missing out on a lot of context that makes history fruitful. Plus, you have to accommodate for the cultural assumptions about what constitutes “great.” Other people in that class, and for whatever reason they tended to be military historians, argued that the past was knowable and verifiable. You can KNOW what happened at a particular battle because you could count the cannon balls at the bottom of the sea. Putting aside how absurd it seemed to me that a person could be sure they accounted for every cannon ball from a battle 2-300 years ago, I absolutely did not understand that take on history. That wasn’t history, I thought. That was a data point.
History, I contended, was a rhetorical construction. This was not a popular position – but my professor told the class I was the future of historical research and if they couldn’t understand or get on board with what I was saying, the field would quickly leave them behind. Seeing as I wasn’t a history student, that was awkward, but I took the compliment.
What does it mean to say that a thing is a rhetorical construction, though?
Well, it’s sort of self-explanatory. A thing that is rhetorically constructed is a concept or object that is defined and fashioned by discursive means – even argumentative ones. It’s similar to a social construction, but more defined. If you say something is a social construction, it is something that is often assumed to be true and objective, but in reality, is fashioned by the society, culture, and politics that is at the heart of it. A rhetorical construction is basically the same thing but is defined by the way we speak about it.
For example, the idea of “a good American” or even “an American” is clearly not objective and unquestionable. These are ideas that are a product of a certain time, cultural milieu, and discourse.
In that example, it’s a matter of constitutive rhetoric. Constitutive rhetoric is basically the idea that we make up who we are as we go along by talking about it. If I polled all of my listeners, I’m sure I would get dozens, if not hundreds of definitions of “American.” So how do you know which one is “true?” If you can’t hear it in my voice, “true” is definitely in quotation marks. Well, in a sense they all are. The thing about “American,” or any number of other identifiers, is they don’t have a settled definition. They change and evolve. Which means there can be competing definitions. A group of people talk about what it means to be an American – and that’s what it becomes.
This is really hard for some people to grapple with. They want there to be facts, standards, and objectivity. But the truth is, that’s a rarity.
Now, if you’ve listened in the past, you know I have a complicated relationship with facts. I do believe there is such a thing as a fact. There are things that can be verified. Science is great for that kind of thing. But when it comes to history, things are much more slippery. Because the reason we know a historical fact, is because it was told to us by somebody. And the thing about stories that get told, which is basically what history is, is that there is a big spectrum of reliability when it comes to narrators.
Go back to my historiography class – somebody posited that history was the study, or stories, or great men. That’s taking A LOT on faith from a particular narrative. Somebody has decided that these men, sometimes other people, but often men, are worthy of founding our understandings of the world upon. What makes them great? If we hear the story of how great they are, what is being left out that provides nuance or context to that? That definition of history is VERY much predicated on the idea that history is a rhetorical construction but is often framed as fact. Was Washington a great man? I don’t know – he was definitely accomplished. But he also wore the teeth of slaves as his dentures. So when you approach history that way, you are saying some accomplishments are worthy of lauding, and some you have to ignore in order to maintain the veneer of “great.” That’s not telling the facts. That’s telling a story. A story that has been through an ideological lens and cherry-picked for a particular argument.
This may all sound like a bunch of academic nonsense, but I promise you it is ESSENTIAL to understanding what is going on in America right now.
I’ve spoken before about the CRT debate, but that is literally a manifestation of everything I’ve said up to this point.
There are some people who want history taught a particular way – the way it has always been taught. They are frothing at the mouth to argue that the history of America is an objectively positive and ideal one. That patriotism and American exceptionalism are in fact, the truth.
But the point of that isn’t to create unity or value “facts.” The point of that is to maintain power.
When that version of history is held aloft as the “true” or “factual” version of history, it enshrines certain ideas and people in positions of power. That’s straight up white supremacist history. Because if America is ideal and blameless, then her original sin, slavery, has to be painted as either not that big a deal, or even not problematic at all. If America is a shining city on a hill, then what does that say about our treatment of Natives? Is that exemplary?
This is a battle about the stories we tell about ourselves. Do we teach that we are great, or do we acknowledge our flaws?
The thing about acknowledging our flaws is that it is much more democratic than a monolithic understanding of our greatness. If we provide context and nuance to our narratives, a lot more people’s stories get told. But that is dangerous to people who have held power for generations. If you want to maintain power, you have to make sure that only certain understandings of what is right and who we are get shared. Including more people in the narrative dilutes hegemonic power and calls into question the norms that have entrapped history and culture.
And the thing is, the “facts” of history play an important role, here. Take for example the 1921 Tulsa massacre.
The Tulsa race massacre killed hundreds of people, destroyed more than 1,200 homes, and wiped out what is known as “Black Wall Street.”
According to Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, et al.,
In May 1921, the Tulsa, Okla., neighborhood of Greenwood was a fully realized antidote to the racial oppression of the time. Built in the early part of the century in a northern pocket of the city, it was a thriving community of commerce and family life to its roughly 10,000 residents.
Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Okla., was the pulse of the Black business community.
Brick and wood-frame homes dotted the landscape, along with blocks lined with grocery stores, hotels, nightclubs, billiard halls, theaters, doctor’s offices and churches.
Greenwood was so promising, so vibrant that it became home to what was known as America’s Black Wall Street. But what took years to build was erased in less than 24 hours by racial violence — sending the dead into mass graves and forever altering family trees.
Hundreds of Greenwood residents were brutally killed, their homes and businesses wiped out. They were casualties of a furious and heavily armed white mob of looters and arsonists. One factor that drove the violence: resentment toward the Black prosperity found in block after block of Greenwood.
The financial toll of the massacre is evident in the $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars — detailed in a 2001 state commission report. For two decades, the report has been one of the most comprehensive accounts to reveal the horrific details of the massacre — among the worst racial terror attacks in the nation’s history — as well as the government’s culpability.
Greenwood Avenue, for years a thriving hub, was destroyed by racial violence in less than 24 hours.
The destruction of property is only one piece of the financial devastation that the massacre wrought. Much bigger is a sobering kind of inheritance: the incalculable and enduring loss of what could have been, and the generational wealth that might have shaped and secured the fortunes of Black children and grandchildren.
“What if we had been allowed to maintain our family business?” asked Brenda Nails-Alford, who is in her early 60s. The Greenwood Avenue shoe shop of her grandfather and his brother was destroyed. “If they had been allowed to carry on that legacy,” she said, “there’s no telling where we could be now.”
I bring this up because it is a fact. It is verifiable that there was a massacre in Tulsa in 1921 in which a white mob descended on a Black neighborhood. This is objectively true. It is also pretty much taken as fact that the reason this happened is because white people were angry about Black prosperity. None of this is up for debate. This is me, counting the cannon balls.
But this fact has been left out of history for the last 100 years. It’s only recently that this moment in American history has become part of the historical conversation. This incident was almost entirely left out of history. Most people just don’t know about it.
Consider for a moment what that does. It erases both the harm done to Black people, and the legacy of that, and the harm DONE by white people. History isn’t fact – it’s a narrative constructed by the selection and interpretation of facts. So who benefits from the nation being ignorant of the Tulsa Massacre? Honestly – the same people who benefitted from it when it happened.
People in power dictate history. The end result of that is the elimination of the history of people who are disempowered.
George Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The observation was recorded in his classic book, 1984. It’s one of those examples of truth in fiction that we discussed last time. Think about that for a minute. Narrating the past gives somebody a great amount of power. Because we select our future based on what we know as the past. But the past isn’t a given. Whoever is in charge at the moment controls our understanding of the past. Power is cyclical.
That’s why these debates happening in America are so critical. It’s not just about what is being taught. It’s about how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. History isn’t some dry subject you have to suffer through in school – it is a living, breathing story, and the way that story is told drastically shapes the world we live in.
So the connection between the last episode and this week’s episode is the idea that history, like art, needs attention beyond just recording anecdotes. If you’re serious about history, you need to ask what do I know? Why do I know it? Who benefits from this being common knowledge? History, like art, is interpretive and should be critiqued. And if you can look at history and say, “oh, this group has always been the good guy” or “these things in the past don’t matter anymore and we can let them be,” you need to really ask yourself if you are thinking of history, or propaganda.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.