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Research & Thoughts

History + Theater = Life

One of the history lessons I wrote contained information about the female black abolitionist Sojourner Truth. I'd never heard of her except in one glancing statement somewhere so I went to look for more information. I fear I may have shared her caricature, rather than the truth.


That brings us to understanding truth in history. So much disagreement today in what needs to be taught in schools. Critical Race Theory? Someone says that's just another term for the truth. But to some, is it going to put the emphasis on US wrongness? Is it going to teach our students to hate the US?


Truth in history is elusive. It's stories we tell ourselves. Some are meant to make us feel better. Others to erase that feeling in the name of truth. If I blame President Grant for Custer's death and of all those men at the Little Bighorn, is that the truth? If we see President GW Bush as having turned a blind eye to 9/11, is he then guilty of killing over 3,000 people by allowing it to happen? If we say that the assassinations in the '60s are all part of a conspiracy, what kind of nation does that make us?


All these things -- all theatrics. We can't get to the truth because as human beings we all see things with a different, sometimes unpenetrating, perspective. As God-seekers, we believe what we want, what reassures us, what makes us feel whole. We laugh at things that happen, seeing "all the world's a stage and people only players." Those who hated Aaron Rodgers before his "lie" hate him even more now without seeing his humanity. Those who had admired him admire him less, but understand the reasons why. Those who felt no way about him wonder why he's getting all the attention.


We live in a divided country now, divided because, like with Sojourner Truth, we cannot accept the humanity of everyone. If they live outside our perspective, they don't really exist. An anti-vaxxer goes home, feeds his kids, laughs at his TV. But like with Sojourner's experience, she is forced to prove who she is. That's she's human, and a woman. When accused of being a man during one of her speeches, she bared her breasts, to "their shame, not mine."


We are all looking for a piece of the limelight these days. TikTok, Instagram, YouTube -- we're taught that we can all be stars. We self-publish because we can be the next "Shades of Gray" (heaven forbid). We don't want to have to work at our talent, we just want to BE our talent. We see all the stars falling from the sky, every day, people we've grown up with, more renowns than have ever been known before this "babyboomer generation" came along. And though we may not have heard of them in years, we mourn this or that 88 year old as though their life was cut too short.


We are what we believe. We don't seek truth. We eye theatrical performances as though that gave us the truth. We shun history books because even historians don't agree on what really happened. I accepted what I first found about Sojourner Truth because I never heard of her before and I figured a little information was better than none. Now I read that she did not have 13 children sold into slavery, that she had a Dutch accent, not a southern one. But this is another perspective. Can I believe it? For me, yes, because I want that perspective to be true. I will never meet the lady.


If we all feel the way I do, is real truth in history even possible? I still like to believe it is, because the way I write history is not to share my perspective, but to follow events in history as they happen and let their attitude emerge. We cannot understand history if we accept someone's analysis of it as the real thing. We have to dig deeper. I made the mistake of not doing that with Sojourner Truth, and for that, I apologize to her.


This history lesson is provided courtesy of an article in American Scholar, November 2021.

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