What counts as “history”?


A few days ago, I read an article on the Internet titled, “Learning That I Do Exist: Why LGBT History Matters.” It’s an excellent read, and it briefly covers a few LGBT historical events that many people don’t know about. However, that’s not what most struck me about the article: Reading it triggered a memory of an event I hadn’t thought about in years, an event that was shockingly similar to the college incident shared in the article.

In my 11th grade AP History class, one of our assignments was to write a paper about a 20th century historical figure. Mr. Reinhardt, my history teacher, rattled off a list of examples, most of which involved the usual suspects: John F. Kennedy. Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson. Boring, I thought to myself. The last thing I want to do is write another paper about a dead White president. I wanted to learn about someone who isn’t usually studied in a typical history class, but I couldn’t think of anyone. One night, I was watching a baseball game on TV with my father, and I asked his advice. “Who would you write about?”

My dad didn’t miss a beat. “Jackie Robinson,” he said. (Obviously he had baseball on his mind.)

“Who’s that?” I asked.

My dad snorted. “Write your paper about him,” he said, “and you’ll find out.”

The next day, I did some research at my high school library. (This was 1987. Google didn’t exist then.) Once I learned who Jackie Robinson was, I got so excited about writing that paper. History seemed like such a boring subject, probably because all we talked about were wars, dead White presidents, and military heroes. No wonder I had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. This paper opened a door for me, and made me realize that history could be about baseball players and the Brooklyn Dodgers – and that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only Black man and civil rights activist of importance.

The day after our paper topics were due, Mr. Reinhardt asked me to stay after class. “You can’t write your paper on this topic,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. “Why not?”

“Because Jackie Robinson isn’t a real historical figure.” (Yes, my teacher really did say that.)

I was a pretty good rule-follower in school, and I rarely challenged authority. But this time, my automatic knee-jerk reaction was to pick a fight with Mr. Reinhardt. “What do you mean, he isn’t a real historical figure?” I asked. Many years later, I still remember Mr. Reinhardt’s eyes narrowing when I said this.

“He was just a baseball player,” Mr. Reinhardt said. “There isn’t much else to say about him.”

I remember standing there in total disbelief as he said this. “If you let me write my paper about him,” I said, “I’ll prove you wrong.”

Mr. Reinhardt laughed. “Okay,” he said. “If you’re willing to risk your grade.”

I was willing to risk my grade.

In high school, “history” was about White men, for the most part. And that’s true in most academic disciplines, including psychology. (Read Even the Rat Was White for an expose of the history of racism in psychology). It wasn’t until I got to college that I took courses in women’s history and African-American history – neither of which were graduation requirements. In graduate school (which, by the way, is a program that’s lauded for its approach to multicultural education), we were required to take just one class that focused on a historically marginalized group. I took several – one on Mexican-American history, one on Asians in America, and one on the history of those indigenous to the Americas. I have never taken a class on LGBT history.

The point is this: It’s easy to spend years in higher education without ever really learning about women, people of color, or LGBT people. And invisibility is one of the most powerful forms of oppression. If you don’t see people like yourself represented, then people like yourself must not exist. Or people like yourself who are important must not exist. If, on the other hand, you only see people like yourself represented – well, nothing breeds privilege and ethnocentrism more strongly than that.

This isn’t just a theoretical issue – we’re seeing the real-world consequences of this. Many studies have documented a significant achievement gap between White students and students of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Several of those studies show a link between poor academic performance and the lack of representation of these groups in their curricula. Several studies, including one recently conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, show that Black individuals who lack knowledge about their history are more likely to endorse negative Black stereotypes. Other studies, including classic work by psychologist Claude Steele, demonstrate that internalized stereotypes can have a negative impact on test performance – a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” And LGBT history is rarely taught in schools; most of my students have no knowledge of the Compton Cafeteria Riots or the Stonewall Riots, just to give two examples. In fact, very few of my millennial students have meaningful knowledge about the AIDS crisis.

Recently, our pastor at church gave a sermon about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. After she told the story, she asked, “And where was Sarah in all of this? How come her voice isn’t heard in this story?” I’d heard the story of the sacrificial lamb many times, but it had never occurred to me that Sarah’s voice had been silenced. But this happens all the time – the voices of those who lack power don’t make it into the history books. In elementary school, I learned that Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer who discovered the Americas. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that “bravery” from one point of view is “genocide” from another. Who gives voice to a particular historical event determines who gets seen and heard, who is deemed to be “important,” who appears on your AP History list of possible paper topics.

So I wrote my history paper about Jackie Robinson. And I worked my ass off. I visited multiple libraries (including a university library), searching for every shred of information I could find. I wrote and rewrote the paper with fierce determination until it was as good as it could be. Mr. Reinhardt decided that my efforts were worth a B+. And I got a tiny taste of what it’s like to have to convince an authority figure that something is worth learning about.

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Filed under activism, culture, human rights, psychological research, racism, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized

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