Sunday, October 27, 2013

Internet Wading: Learning history

Bass Reeves
I’m as passionate about history as I am about politics. Of course, the study of the politics requires the study of history, but there’s far more to it for me: History is alive. Sometimes, it’s also hidden.

History is nothing more or less than telling the stories of people from the past. It’s not about dates and events alone, but about the people who live through them—their hopes and fears and dreams, their triumphs, their failures and everything else that marks the passage of their lives.

The problem is that so much of history is hidden. Professional historians focus on what interests them (and fair enough), and also sometimes skip over things that don’t mesh well with their beliefs or prejudices. This is how so much history of minorities is lost.

Thanks to the Internet, I’m always finding out things I never knew. Sometimes these end up in blog posts, as for example the story of the UpStairs Lounge that I wrote about back in June. Most often, however, they don’t. This post is about some of those things I learned that I never knew.

Let’s start with something easy, and kind of contemporary, shall we? The complete history of Twitter as told through tortured descriptions of it in the New York Times”. This shows how the NY Times’ perception of Twitter evolved over the years, mirroring public awareness generally. I think we’ll see more of this sort of “instant history” chronicle in the future, now that everything that happens is recorded somewhere—including on Twitter.

Okay, that was nice and easy. Now, a Founding Father I never heard about: Peyton Randolph. The National Constitution Center’s Constitution Daily blog published an article, “Peyton Randolph: The forgotten revolutionary president” on the 238th anniversary of his early death in 1775—at the same age I am now. He was twice president of the Continental Congress, and from a prominent Virginia family, but I’d still never heard of him. Now, I have. So have you.

Next to the American Revolution, the Civil War is the most “popular” for ordinary people to read about. I was a small child when the centenaries of various Civil War events arrived, and with the Civil Rights Movement happening at the same time, the war was seared into my mind at an early age. But it was all so old—black and white, grainy, distant. Until now: A couple digital artists have painstakingly retouched famous photos from the Civil War—in colour and with sometimes excruciating detail. I thought the re-touched photos made the people in the war much more real than they’d seemed before. Some of them are downright amazing. For me, it really did bring history alive. This history wasn’t hidden in the literal sense, but the retouched photos sure made me see it in an entirely new way

A link shared on Facebook—I forget who shared it—led me to a story about the Dunning Asylum in Chicago, once known as a “tomb for the living”, and a name that parents could threaten children with to immediately alter their naughty behaviour. Yet, I’d never heard of it—nor, apparently, have a lot of other people. Lost history on so many levels—including the fact that perhaps 38,000 people were buried there and forgotten. A sad and scary story.

And let’s round out this found history sampling with something I saw just today: The real life inspiration for The Lone Ranger was almost certainly a Black man named Bass Reeves who was born a slave. He had a Native American companion, rode a white horse, frequently left a silver coin and was responsible for capturing some 3,000 fugitives. There’s so much more to the story, of course, but why the fictional character was made white isn’t really a mystery. Personally, I like to know more about that part of the story.

And those are a small sampling of the sorts of things I run across all the time—these are just the ones I thought to save the links to. Hopefully I’ll remember to keep doing this. After all, I’m sure that others haven’t heard these stories, either.


rogerogreen said...

There were about a dozen Presidents of the United States under the Articles of Confederation I can't ever remember, yet I can name the next 44. I did know about Bass Reeves - from somewhere - but he's a good a reason as any why we in the US have Black History Month and Women's History Month (is that international?) and LGBT History Month (in October!)...

rogerogreen said...

BTW stole your post: http://aplfriends.blogspot.com/2013/10/internet-wading-learning-history.html Why was the Lone Ranger white? Because that would sell better!