The Misuse of History

It was a routine day at the park.  We left the house around our usual time.  Yesterday, we took the same route, looked at the same houses and pointed at the same cars and ‘tucks” (i.e. trucks).  My son and I have done it almost every day since spring began.

It was unusual that there were so many children at the park.  There were about ten and there were three women there: two African Americans and one European American.

I knew and had spoken to the older European American grandmother when I walked over to introduce myself to the two new arrivals.  They were not from the neighborhood and I assume were visiting friends.  One woman held a two week old boy and we gushed about his beauty.  She had delivered the baby by caesarean and complained of boredom and tiredness.  Her recovery had been difficult and she looked forward to when she could return to her normal routine.

I apologized that she had such a bad experience and wondered why mine caesarean had gone so well.  The next day after surgery, I was sitting on the side of the bed, asking for lipgloss.  The older woman concurred that she too had a high tolerance for pain and didn’t experience much difficulty.  Then, she said something that both startled and repulsed me.

The older woman said, “Yeah.  We’re used to having them in the fields.”  I looked at her and said, “What?”  I knew the historical reference she was making but what did that have to do with right now?  She was speaking of the belief that a socially colored black woman possesses a unique strength birthed out of American slavery and abuse.  She was suggesting that her high tolerance for pain as well as mine was the result of American slavery.

Shocked, I turned to her and said, “No.  I had my son in a hospital and was not rushed back to my office to work.  I was on maternity leave for three months.  I was also born in a hospital, surrounded by family members, doctors and nurses (not grass, dirt and bugs).  And my grandmother was the midwife for a couple of her daughters.  They had their children in their childhood home but not in a field.”  That was the end of the conversation.  She moved on and so did I.

I returned to my reality and left her in history.  Frankly, I do not understand the purpose of this point of view and resultant declarations concerning American slavery or any other racially motivated event in history.  The truth is that I have never met an American slave and I knew my great grandparents.  While I am from the South, I have never picked cotton.  I have never felt the sting of a lash or the threat of an oppressor.  I have never witnessed a lynching.  I have never lived on a plantation; my family owned their land and the houses built on them.

I have only read about it in books and watched it being depicted in movies and on theater stages.  I am not a witness to this history so my life cannot testify to it.  While I am aware of the lingering effects of American slavery (i.e. prejudice and stereotypes, segregation and various social inequities), I see no benefit in casting myself as a slave on a playground.  While there are those who would quickly assign me to a new oppressor (i.e. American capitalism, materialism, etc.), I do not see the point in living my life through the paradigm of oppression– as a Christian.

While I respect and very much value history, respecting the life and sacrifices of my ancestors and yours does not mean that I have to repeat their history or live my life through them.  I can learn their history and then create my own.  If not, I am repeating their time and not living in my own.

History should be a memory.  It should not be considered reality; that would make it the present.  And it would be a misuse of time and history.

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