More Than One History

Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam during their 1955 trial

So here’s the problem. When we talk about history, we usually refer to one particular story, and one particular point of view. In 2021, that’s woefully inadequate, but the additional material makes history nearly impossible to teach within the confines of a well-organized school curriculum. In 2015, TIME Magazine wrote about “25 Moments That Changed America.” When I browsed the article, I wanted to know more about all of those moments. For example, one paragraph in the article is entitled, “Emmett Till Is Murdered (Aug. 28, 1955)” It’s easy to list the basic facts, and some of them are probably true, but there’s a lot we still don’t know about the story, the people involved, and precisely what happened in and immediately outside Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi. And in order to understand the story and its related circumstances, we ought to know more about Carolyn Bryant, and her husband Roy, and Roy’s half-brother, John W. Milam, and the other people involved. It’s a dreadful story, but its importance is diminished when it is simplified. And yet, that’s precisely what teachers must do because they are not likely to spend a full week on the Emmett Till story. As a result, it’s just one more story, one more starting point for the Civil Rights movement in the United States, one more thing for students to remember until the test passes, one more distant memory that’s mostly forgotten when the school year ends.

Here in 2021, we’re attempting to add context to achieve a more truthful, more complete telling of history. In the case of a new book called FOUR HUNDRED SOULS: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, I don’t recall reading anything about Emmett Till, and I don’t see his name in the index. That doesn’t mean his story is not important. Instead, it suggests that there are just too many stories to tell–and the editors determined that 395 pages of storytelling was as much as even the most interested readers could bear. And so, we’re reminded about just how selective the teaching of history will always be.

This version of history takes it slow, and keeps things fairly simple: there’s a brief essay about a particular era, event, trend, group or person, each written by a notable historian or cultural expert, and each one is a well-presented article. For the first hundred or two hundred pages, it’s a mosaic, a puzzle with pieces more and less familiar. We begin in the era of 1619-1624 with “Arrival” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (her own book about the 1619 project is forthcoming in November; her own story is now part of the narrative as she chose to work at Howard University, an HSBC, instead of the University of North Carolina after some discomfort related to the tenure process). She talks about the ship, The White Lion, which takes its place in history beside The Mayflower. I’m interested; I want to know more. A student might be curious, too. How much time should a teacher devote to these ships and a comparison between them? Context…we need to return to Africa to begin the story. Now, we’re in the remnants of African kingdoms and the kidnapping of Mandinka, Wolof, Pual, Hausa and other people from the remnants of the Ghana, Mail and Songhay kingdoms. Now, I’m beginning to realize how little I know. I have heard of these tribes–if that’s the correct term–but I don’t know much about them. And I know something about the Europeans who perpetrated those kidnappings, but my details are flimsy. And I need a map. Not one map, but an animated magical map that allows me to hear the words, see the eyes and the faces of the people involved–not groups of people but individuals who fought with their lives, who thought so little of the locals as to treat them as goods to be traded and sold.

Quickly, the location shifts to the American colonies, and the kidnapped people are forced to do labor without little if any meaningful compensation. They are deprived of rights, but they form families, and build new lives. There are slave markets, slave codes, slave rebellions. This part of the story is not often told, not in much detail beyond abusive and sexually active slaveholders and unfair practices. There were full lives here, and we get a glimpse, but again, I want more. I want an entire book, historical fiction where historical fact is unavailable, about the lives of these people and how they interacted within the confines of the plantation, the town, the state, the nation.

But we need to keep moving. We touch upon the sometimes-unexpected, such as a few pages about “Queer Sexuality” by Kiese Laymon, but by the halfway mark, the Civil War is over, and a few pages later, we’re on to Plessy v. Ferguson. Twenty pages later, we’re celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. Argh! We need to slow this down! I’m grabbing bits and pieces of a story that must go deeper and wider.

And then, I think of myself, in a parallel life, as a high school Social Studies teacher, who desperately wants the students to know and understand these stories. I now have a spectacular resource in my hands by some of the best-credentialed historical storytellers in the whole U.S.A., but the tool is insufficient to the task.

There is the generally accepted history of the United States of America, but it includes only a small portion of what I’ve read in this book. And there are emerging stories that also need to be told–the Japanese perspective on the World War II internment camps, for example–and the perspectives of those in power who were so uncertain about the decisions they were making, and the exploitative practices of non-Japanese who took over their neighbors’ farms, homes and businesses without compensation. And then, there’s this whole other story–which also needs to be told–about the people who came from Africa, not from Europe, and lived an entirely different reality during the 400 years of U.S. history. And then, there is the story of the people who lived here in the first place, the ones that the Europeans massacred in various ways, hundreds of tribal groups whose parallel lives over these same 400 years are no less significant.

I want to know the whole story, or as much of it as possible, but when I read an excellent survey, a community history as good and solid and inspired and sad and uplifting as this one, I see a challenge. How do we teach our children, or how do they learn, about the complicated story of the past 400 years? Do some of them choose a single path, say, through African American history to the exclusion of Japanese American history? Or do we take bits and bytes of the African and American stories, but ignore the Vietnamese or Cuban stories? Or do we attempt to tell all of the stories–pouring so much information down the throats of our poor students that they are bound to remember nothing at all, and pray for the history lessons to end? Or, do we guide them in some other way? Do we opt for “yes, we sometimes mistreat some people,” which reduces every story to an unimportant bump in the road? Or do we encourage some other approach, one that allows a student, or several students, to collectively study and tell the story of Emmett Till so it can be shared with others, not only in their own class or their own school, but with other students around the world–and the adults, too? That’s the deep dark secret here–children are beginning to learn history with context and connection, but adults were never taught that way. This book is a start, and for a few thousand adults who buy and read the book, it’s a step in the right direction. But I want much more.

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