How we shape history and how it shapes us
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Since and before Herodotus coined the word ‘history’, humanity has been infatuated with – and bound to – its roots. It could be said that the past is dead and only the present exists, but in reality, the present is the past in motion – a society cannot escape the circumstances of its creation. But it can be aware of its foundations; the history of any place does not only stem from its old buildings and tourist attractions. It is the story of a culture, of values at the core of its people.
These stories are mostly found in history books, which are often full of black holes. No book can chronicle the total reality of a past event in just words and pictures. Authors and historians may even exude some individual bias or omission, and there are ever more glaring gaps in the status quo. It is often said that the ‘winners write history’ but some victories have to be buried to be won. Take Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early 20th century: the site of a thriving, wealthy Black community surviving in a culture charged with racial prejudice and white supremacy. On 30th May, 1921, a Black teenager – Dick Rowland – rode in an elevator with a white woman. The next morning Greenwood was ash.
Accounts of the alleged incident in the elevator spread throughout the city’s white community over the course of a single day, following Rowland’s arrest. A “white mob” gathered outside the courthouse, forcing Sheriff Willard McCullough to have the top floor barricaded. With the threat of a lynching hanging overhead, groups of 27 armed Black men offered to help guard Rowland. But they were turned away, the latter being met by a mob of around 1,500. In the early morning of 1st June, Greenwood was burned and looted, over 6,000 Black Tulsans were detained by white vigilantes and 35 city blocks were destroyed.
This incident was re-narrated many times because muddying the waters of history was useful for some: labelling the massacre as a ‘riot’ meant the insurance companies never had to pay benefits to the survivors left in Greenwood. It was only in 2001 that an official Race Riot Commission was put together to review the event – eight decades too late, for the survivors, their justice, and missed opportunities where people may have learned from history. “Survivors recounted black bodies loaded on trains and dumped off bridges … and, most frequently, tossed into mass graves”, writes Brown in They Was Killing Black People. The total number killed will likely never be known, even if the mass graves are uncovered someday. These are deaths which can never be mourned and lives which can never be celebrated.
Rarely, if ever, is any historic event told as a unified narrative – it becomes a set of (often incongruous) parallel histories. To use the metaphor of a tree, the base of the trunk serves as the point of origin, the real event. As soon as reality leaves the present and becomes history it becomes malleable, subject to social, cultural and individual values and prejudices. While a variant of the truth might survive as one branch, others spill out with different interpretations, entangled with whichever facet of society they have ties to. These branches become the roots of other trees – new histories, built on, and feeding from, the old.
Parallel histories seem to manifest largely in two ways – firstly, as separate truths of different cultures and societies. ‘Otherness’ seems intrinsic to the human condition – a primitive tribalism which festers as social discord, ranging from wars between ancient kingdoms to the phenomenon of modern nationalism. A historic example comes with Japanese folklore’s tsuchigumo. The word, meaning “ground spider”, appears to have been used by those allied with the emperor as a “derogatory and demonizing label for the indigenous inhabitants of Japan”, as explained by Foster in The Book of Yokai. The word, within the social context of portraying natives as “having short bodies and long arms and legs”, shifted into the realm of the supernatural over time. The image transformed into a monstrous spider yokai; one seemingly disconnected from its original meaning, but still maintaining a negative representation. Tsuchigumo features in many folklore tales, including legends of the warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu where it is presented with deceitful and combative natures – is this the sole legacy of an ancient slur? Even in artworks like Yoshitoshi’s Minamoto no Yorimitsu Cuts at the Earth Spider, humanoid proportions are made monstrous in the yokai’s form, with Yoshitoshi’s tsuchigumo only having two spindly arms on display.
The second way these parallel histories function is as differing, incongruent ‘truths’ or beliefs in the same social sphere. These could be separated within subcultures, shared ideologies or simply in the minds of individuals. President Trump’s divisive tactic, falsely declaring “we won the election by a landslide, we won it big” after his loss in the 2020 US Presidential Election exemplifies this. For those who subscribed to Trump’s claim, this version of truth was believed and accepted, acting as a symbol of their political allegiance.
Looking further back in time, the damages of parallel histories becomes increasingly apparent. For instance, the Nazi eugenics of the Holocaust epitomise anti-Semitic stereotypes which have permeated history for millennia. In the New Testament, Jews are viewed as the “Children of Satan”, and thus comes the stereotype of Jewish people having horns. In Michelangelo’s Moses statue – commissioned by Pope Julius II for his tomb – horns were given to the biblical figure. This happened often, in part due to the tiny spark of a mistranslation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin. In Exodus 34:35 – just after Moses has received the Ten Commandments – “karan”, meaning ‘sent forth beams’, became “keren”: ‘grew horns’.
Understanding the origins of cultural associations – both negative and positive – is crucial for an objective look, not only at history, but at modern socio-political tensions. Stereotypes are often built from a vague artifice – obscure foundations, which might have been built to serve another purpose. In Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, the ‘moral panic’ over a racially charged fear of mugging arguably used Black immigrants as a misdirect in the media, to assuage public criticism of her infamous move to close mines. This tactic crops up time and time again in history, and it only works when a mistruth is given the power and presence to take hold in people’s minds.
Ultimately, all histories exist atop histories; any false narratives become increasingly difficult to detangle from what is actually real when time puts distance between them. As we continue to explore the past, we may begin to pull on an already threadbare social fabric. It is up to you to choose which past defines your future: one built haphazardly on buried lies and sub-surface tensions, or one which questions society’s archaic foundations and might just unearth the stories of long-lost lives.
Article by Will Ballinger