Those Who Fail to Learn from History...

A large crowd of Civil Rights activists march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC during the March on Washington in 1963.

As a child, growing up in a state that had been a slave state and part of the Confederacy, I wasn’t fully aware of the disconnected in-betweenness that formed the basis of my history classes. What was our history, as Texans and Americans? And how did that identity form our sense of the past?

Shortly after my 10th birthday, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and for the next four years, my nation, the United States of America, was at war. Men were dying on land, sea, and air, fighting under the banner of the Stars and Stripes. The nation was swept up with a unity of purpose. We were Americans waging a war of justice against evil enemies. In my classrooms we took great pride in the Founding Fathers, but also in the history of Texas and our unique culture. We never reckoned with the horrors of slavery, let alone the Jim Crow laws and practices that defined our daily existence. We, of course, weren’t alone. 

The Civil War and its true causes and unsettled aftermath continue to shape our country in profound ways. 

As we contend with the peril and opportunity of our own moment, I find myself looking back to history for guidance and perspective. Each day of the calendar includes its own anniversaries that can be springboards for thought and connectivity with our current times. Last week, I was struck by how many on Twitter commented on the anniversary of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, which signified the conclusion of the Civil War. The bloody and wrenching conflict and its imperfect resolution understandably struck a nerve considering the currents of our present reality. This week, I was reminded that the conclusion of the war was almost exactly four years, to the day, from when it started. April 12 marks the 160th anniversary of the shots that began the conflict, the firing on Fort Sumter.  

I will not relate all the nuances of these historical moments, or the specifics of the war, and what followed. To do so rightfully fills volumes of history books and other wonderful acts of evocative scholarship  (for example, Ken Burns’ lauded documentary series). For the purposes of our discussion here, I am moved by a sense of time and the overarching reverberations that shape our own age. 

Let’s start with the very notion of history, itself a subjective construct of human understanding. There is an oft-quoted saying that “history is written by the victors.” It is commonly attributed to Winston Churchill, but the adage had been in circulation prior to his birth in 1874 —a sign of the fallibility of certainty in our historical remembrances. If the history of the Civil War was indeed written by those who won, you would not have known it in my segregated school classes in Houston. I was born 70 years after the start of the war. It is the equivalent of 1951 from today, history to be sure but not exactly ancient. 

The history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed, as well as segregation, and the racial violence, economic suppression, and civil rights injustices that continue to our present time have not been sufficiently confronted, not by a long shot. In my many travels to Germany over the years, I have been struck by how seriously that country takes the remembrance and atonement of its atrocities. That effort even has its own name, “vergangenheitsaufarbeitung,” which translates to a working off of the past.  We do not see anything similar in this country, at least not at the scale enacted nor in the importance placed in the national consciousness. From boardrooms to classrooms, the sins of our past linger. And this is not just a problem with the Southern states. 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and First Lady Elke Buedenbender at the Auschwitz Memorial during the official ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz II - Birkenau.

There are obvious outrages that signify that we have not sufficiently exorcised the ghosts of our past. Some are symbolic, like the continued veneration of the Confederate flag. Others are systemic, like the enduring legacy of redlining in our housing market. The previous president was able to pluck at the still potent strings of misplaced white victimhood and racism that stretch back through Appomattox and Sumpter (as well as places like Selma, Birmingham, Tulsa and too many locations to count). “Make America Great Again” is itself a cynical and dangerous distortion of history as much as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Another oft-quoted aphorism is those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. To be sure, we do not teach about the full horror of slavery or the causes of the Civil War, and we lack accountability for this nation’s many injustices around race. We have allowed a narrative to emerge that can be summoned and weaponized. It is the same currents that led to the storming of the Capitol on January 6. 

In the battle for the soul of our country, we can start with embracing a more accurate telling of our own story. 

There will always be disagreements over what that will mean. But we cannot shy away from the challenge. The Civil War was over slavery. Slavery was an unmitigated and violent evil. The end of the war did not bring a full freedom to formerly enslaved people. They and their descendants have continued to face the repercussions of state-sponsored discrimination.

What does give me hope, is that in the fissures of our current moment I see some long-overdue reckonings. I see it in the battle over voting. I see it in demands for better policing, for corporate responsibility, and for emerging voices from national political figures on how racism has shaped all sorts of policies, from transportation to environmental protection. To be sure, the legacy of suppression and privilege will not die easily. But as this country becomes more diverse, as more people question the tidy and contorted history they were taught, we can maybe fully celebrate the surrender at Appomattox as not an end, but a waypoint along a continuing and progressing journey of justice. 

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