Dwelling in the past or learning from it: A case for engaging history

Given the right set of circumstances, history can repeat itself – in fact somewhere in the world, right now, if you pay attention to the news, it is.

I believe that this is one reason we must study and understand history, to better understand ourselves and the potential for good and evil that lives within us. It’s why I can’t stand the glossing over of history, simply because the discussion of history (and in our case as West Indians/Caribbean people, the part of that history that deals with the enslavement of Africans) perhaps makes us uncomfortable. And make no mistake the wound is still open. We can stick a plaster on it, but the skin has not closed.

The thing I’m reminded of, the more I read history and in particular history’s atrocities – the enslavement of Africans to the Holocaust and beyond – is while it’s easy to pinpoint the villain of the tale, the slave owners and the Hitlers, the masses whose complicity (active or passive) might be driven by fear or apathy or something else, is a trickier animal to pin down.

Most of us have no ambitions of world domination or God-like desire to control the destiny of another; we just want to make the best of our lives. How are we different from the masses in any of history’s pasts? How will we be different if the right set of circumstances lines up to create opportunities that birthed history’s darkest days?

Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.

We study history in part so that we can be clear-eyed about our present and our future.

In my current book, the fictional Oh Gad!, there are two warring philosophies with respect to this idea. Kendrick Cameron, a local developer of the Caucasian persuasion, when asked to participate in a pilgrimage to a slave dungeon near the development site as a way of appeasing the protestors, scoffs, “Make mosquito nyam me up all night…For what? I don’t hold to all that ancestors crap.  Black people hang on to slavery too much, if you ask me. Is that keeping them down. I’m a practical man. I live in today. Anybody who know me, know that. For me to go up there would be a bold-faced lie; and I never lie.”

On the flip side of that, Tanty, a farmer near the site and descendent of the Africans who would have experienced enslavement on Antigua, said when making her case for the pilgrimage, “People must know who dem be, must remember what important.”

I’ll cite one other of the elder women in this book, main character Nikki’s big sister Audrey, who said, “One thing I know ‘bout life though, picknee who na hear wha dem mooma say, drink pepper water, lime and salt.” This was her version of who won’t hear will feel, but can refer to the lessons history insistently imparts and our failure to heed them.

As I write this, I’m reading two books that can be considered historical – Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker and Shouldering Antigua and Barbuda: the Life of V C Bird by Paget Henry; three if you count Hilary Rodham Clinton’s autobiographical Living History.

I will possibly review these more completely when done, but, so far, one of the things that jumps out at me is the familiarity of the circumstances – whether economic expansion and the way greed and hunger can fuel moral compromises, or economic oppression and the way it can breed heroes with the potential, unchecked, to become something less than heroic – notwithstanding how different the time. Another thing that is hard to miss is the justifications and willful blindness that can allow things to happen – things that will be judged harshly in retrospect.

Except we don’t live in retrospect; we live in now.

These musings are sparked in part by a spirited debate with an associate about letting the past go and moving on, which left us agreeing to disagree not on the premise (I think we both see the value in moving on), but on what it takes to move on. Glossing over and pretending the past away won’t make it so; engaging with the ways the past lives in us still can be akin to lancing the pus-filled area that inhibits the wound from truly healing.

The psycho-social, economic, social, religious, racial, gender, legal, political – and not just in the partisan sense that occupies entirely too much of our time, economic realities of today are at least in part a product of that thing we call history; facing the future, confronting ourselves, means, at least to some degree, confronting that history, even the bits of it that make us uncomfortable.

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