Change History When It’s Wrong, Not When It’s Inconvenient

The lens of history may be just as unmerciful when judging twenty-first-century Americans

My white middle-class attitudes may blind me, but I wonder where the line is with eliminating names and words from our past. I understand choosing better words when we speak, and more than words, to eliminate the hate sentiment we express, sometimes unintentionally. Using rabbit in the eenie-meenie-minee-moe of my youth is a better choice to teach our children. But it is a slippery slope. Are the corrections to the sensibilities of today gaining more than they are losing? I liked the songs of Stephen Foster when I was young, and now they are never played? Does anyone under forty even know who he is? The purification of history is not limited to race or Native Americans. America, indeed all of humanity, does not have a pristine past. Does filtering our past to match our present social appetite benefit the future? Does it make our past less violent or less bigoted? Does changing the names of baseball teams do anything to address the genocide of America’s history?

Few escape negative slurs. I think jocks and honkys to describe white men pretty much close the circle. Like most people, it is easy to find famous Americans’ opinions that do not pass today’s critical eye. Lincoln said some well-known racist statements that do not reflect the forefather’s ideals nor stand up to today’s standards. Henry Ford was anti-Semitic, yet he created mass production and affordable cars. Robert E Lee was a southerner respected by his peers, general of the confederacy by request and not aspiration. Woodrow Wilson’s racism is at the forefront today, yet his legacy is more than his attitudes towards race. Are any of us defined by one thing, or our acts safe to scrutiny?

The lens of history may be just as unmerciful when judging twenty-first-century Americans. Maybe eaters of meat or consumers of fossil fuels will be the heinous acts that bring down today’s heroes. “A Chinese man who eats with sticks” are poorly chosen words in today’s culture. But Mulberry Street has little to do with Asian bias. I think the better lesson might be a teaching moment, call out the stereotype as a symptom of a less enlightened time.

Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima were icons of my youth. I did not think of servitude or their titles as disrespectful. I thought Uncle Ben made good rice. Any racial attributes I put there had nothing to do with rice or his picture on the box. Perhaps a poor beginning for black icons, but a good springboard for positive black images to emerge, Michael Jordan sneakers, Beyoncé dolls, J.Lo attire and beauty products. Lieutenant Uhura, or Mae Jemison, if you prefer, put black women in space. Progress is not the elimination of the past. It is expanding on it.

Perhaps some of these changes are better. The Dixie flag has become a symbol of hate and should not fly over state capital buildings. We need more diversity and fewer stereotypes in our literature, children’s and adult’s alike. TV commercials, toys, and heroes should reflect all Americans, so we come to see our similarities, rather than a social order of a biased past. We do this by seeing what was wrong and doing it better, not by denying that we once did it wrong in the first place.

Reader, writer, life-time learner, friend. Today’s ambition, increase kindness in the world.

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