Monday, October 18, 2010

All history is supposed

I've reached an age where fifty year chunks of time don't seem so big. My own lifetime is nearly such a chunk, now. And so it is that I've been looking at what we call history a little differently of late. Centennials, Bicentennials, I can remember when talk of such milestone increments of time always went to the topic of the settled facts of history. Things of a certain past were etched in stone.

I was about three years old when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, so just about as far back as I can remember that speech has always been given —a given— and the godlike monumental figure seated as in some sacred temple behind him, he was always already long enshrined, like an embodiment of unquestionable timeless truth. I would read histories where that god spoke of a fiery path we'd passed through defining ourselves as a nation irrevocably. That's the way Lincoln described it, as he sought to bind slavery and freedom to the war cause he led, a fiery path that would light us down to honor or dishonor —in spite of ourselves, that is what he said, as he introduced the Emancipation Proclamation, that is what he said.

There are histories that describe that speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave a hundred years later as some final consummation, a belated historical conclusion. There is that reading that what he laid claim to in the true meaning of our creed was that long overdue conclusion, honorable at long last even in spite of ourselves. King's own rhetoric spoke to that sense of our history —of history itself. He once described Justice as something that travelled through with the geometric certainty of an arc.

Fifty year increments of time.

This November 6th marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency. We'll soon be seeing those other anniversaries of that fiery path coming round again: December 20, the secession of South Carolina, the first Southern state to withdraw from the Union. Every terrible battle to follow.

I think back to my own first understandings of the supposed historical facts. My oldest brother read every history he could get his hands on during the Civil War Centennial, he collected every piece of memorabilia. I couldn't play with my toy soldiers on the den floor without him intervening to arrange them along the battle lines he'd read about in a Bruce Catton book or some article from American Heritage Magazine. He'd lecture on 19th century battle tactics while I marveled at the plastic sculptures of soldiers and canons and cavalry horses at 1:48 scale. It was my brother who saved up the gas money, doing odd jobs in the neighborhood. He saw to it that my family made the pilgrimage to Gettysburg that summer vacation —to visit hallowed ground.

Fifty year increments of time. Those days as family memories and my first awe at the whole idea of history. I remember the cyclorama paintings of battle scenes, entering a dark room and being suddenly surrounded by the images of glorious battle, sound effects and the sober narration sounding all around us, telling the story of three days of horrific bloodshed, as the lighting shifted our attention from scene to scene. I remember the long walk up circular stairs to a tower that surveyed the same landscape, so beautifully quiet the next day. We had climbed up in the still early morning. I held my mother's hand. Mist rose up from below. We had a long ride home and wanted an early start back. I remember the way my father was moved at the sight of a memorial monument to those fallen of a Union regiment of Irish "volunteers" —a dark bronze of a wolfhound sleeping at the foot of a celtic cross.

It was only later I became conscious of the working provisional nature of that history, that sacrifice supposed to long endure, the very real visceral levels on which the fiery trial continued. The summer of the Gettysburg Centennial was the same summer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. It was the summer of the Birmingham campaign and the fire hoses trained on peaceful protesters, Bull Connor's dogs tearing at their skin.

These were called current events at the time, not history.

Thinking back nearly fifty years I can remember how a hundred seemed like eternity. But think back just twice those fifty years again and Lincoln's own first battles of the fiery trial were going on and nothing of the ensuing history was yet established. It's these increments of time scaled to my own experience that have me positing that perhaps all history is supposed... provisionally. And its meanings, while they are supposed to bind us together as a nation, we are not with any kind of certainty —fixedly— a nation bound.

There is that price to freedom.

I thought of this as I read the news one recent morning. A woman moves in to a small South Carolina town, a neighborhood known as Brownsville, and off a pole on the front of her house she flies her Confederate flag. And her black neighbors plan to march in protest. They have already petitioned her to take down the flag, but Annie Chambers Caddell says it is her right to honor her heritage. She's hung a sign on the chain link fence outside her home that marks her sense of address: 'Confederate Boulevard.'

“I know she has a legal right to do that on her property. But just because it’s legally right, doesn’t make it morally right,’’ said James Patterson, a 43-year-old crane operator who lives in a mobile home next door. Some of Ms. Caddell's neighbors can remember when that flag she's flying was more than an allusion to "heritage" —when it was a chosen deliberate symbol of oppression and intimidation. They remember "the Ku Klux Klan that used to ride through the town," said Violet Saylor, a 74-year-old retired social worker. That's what she sees when she sees her neighbor's Stars and Bars on display. She said the flag brings back memories of Jim Crow in the neighborhood she has lived all her life.

It was just fifty years after the Civil War ended, in 1915, that film-making pioneer, D.W. Griffith released 'Birth of a Nation' —just another of those increments of time. The prior fifty years had seen the Reconstruction of the post war South devolve into corruption and disappointment and the bloodied-but-unbowed resurgent supremacy of Southern Whites had become the narrative, at least for some. Griffith's film took that narrative up and defined it as a national history. "lt is like writing history with lightning" was how President Wilson described it when he saw the groundbreaking silent movie, noted for its "innovative camera techniques and narrative achievements." The film's sympathetic treatment of the Ku Klux Klan would help lend legitimacy to racism and vigilante violence moving into the next fifty years.

We try to find meaning in events, in the stories and struggles. There are the outcomes we perceive, the ones we intend and those we are confronted with whether we intend them or not. We believe them concluded. We might like to believe there are larger verities we can cast in stone. But even as we carve that stone, even as we pretend to define what is true or just or good about us and say that it is fixed somewhere removed from us in history, we must realize that the narratives that make up our history are all ultimately personal and present for all of us. What we share and sustain and what we ignore and deny is up to us: The honor or the dishonor in spite of ourselves. The same measure of years applies to our own lives as applies to our history.

And like Faulkner said, the past isn't ever even past.

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