History Can’t Be Rewritten

If there is one thing we’ve learned over time is that History Is.  It doesn’t make it good, it doesn’t make it all rosy and it doesn’t always agree with our current worldview.

Let’s talk racism for example.  Canada (more correctly British North America) started getting out of slavery in 1793 and it was formally banned in the British Empire in 1834 by London.  Canada was the last stop on the Underground Railroad and a significant black community wound up in Halifax, slaves from the US who came north through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont into New Brunswick and eventually Nova Scotia.

We had our own Rosa Parks, Viola Desmond, who is on our $10 bill.  Technically, Rosa Parks should be called the American Viola Desmond, but we’ll let that slide, simply because we’re Canadian that way.

We have a very discouraging history.  It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns in our history of racial issues.  Chinese head taxes, Japanese internment during WWII, ghettoizing whatever ethnic group was on the shitlist for a particular year and the truly appalling way we’ve treated our First Nations people.

We’re trying to fix a lot of it and are making progress, but there is still that ugly fact that at one time or another in the history of this country we (meaning us white folks and our ancestors) did truly horrible things.  That is our history.  We cannot change it.

This is the hard part:  Don’t hide it, learn from it.  Teach it in schools adding context and explanation.  We did this.  It was wrong, it was stupid.  It is part of our history and we have to make sure we don’t do this again.

However in my lifetime, I have seen enough racism and hatred in person and on the news that I can’t tolerate it.  I won’t tolerate it.  But I’m not going to bleach out the bad parts of the Canadian cultural quilt either.  Societies that are enlightened work that way, they fix things and teach lessons from their history.

Germany, for example:  I taught several times at Kleber Kaserne, near Kaiserslautern, which, I was told, was a German military base, specifically panzers, and like all architecture of the period, had swastikas predominantly displayed on the stonework of the buildings.  After the end of the war, Germany went out of their way to make as many of these artifacts go away as quickly as possible, chiseling off the offending icons.

The schools in Germany do not shy away from their past and the horrors that resulted, adding the caution that this can happen and it did happen.  You are obligated as a student and a citizen to make sure it never happens again.

Viet Nam:  There are two monuments I was privy to see.  One was the Hanoi Hilton, now a museum and May Bay B52 south of West Lake that contains the wreckage of a B-52 shot down in December 1972.  Everyone who goes there, Vietnamese or otherwise, takes a moment to remember.  My minder from the Viet Secret Police (hello Anh, wherever you are) explained to me that children are taught that many died on both sides and war is something nobody wins.

So to Robert E. Lee and the other statuary of the US Confederacy.  There is no need to tear them down, they serve an important purpose.

The history is this:  America had a civil war, not just over state’s rights, but over the rights of some people to own other people as slaves.  A very bloody war was fought and many died needlessly.  It happened.

Now learn from it.  Teach children that it happened, what the consequences of it were, what the bloodshed solved and how America was changed because of Lincoln and Lee and Jackson and Sherman.  It was not pretty and romantic.  It was a horror.  Take them to Gettysburg or Andersonville and let them see what it looks like.

The question that has to be asked, when teaching our collective ugly, bloody, violent history is an opened ended one:

Now that you’ve see it and felt it, what are you, personally, going to do to make sure this never happens again?  Then listen to the answers.

That is what an enlightened society does.

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