Revising History: Facts and Fiction

Following on the heels of yesterday’s post in which Marabou celebrated Dutch New York Histories: Connecting African, Native American and Slavery Heritage as a major step in highlighting the intersectional histories of Africans, Native Americans, and the Dutch in the development of New York City and State, Marabou wants to acknowledge the other side of the coin. Where initiatives like Dutch New York Histories is doing the good work of providing a platform and voice for marginalized populations in the New York historical narrative, there are also others who are working just as hard to “revise” history to “protect” and justify historical moments that are now being revisited and carefully analyzed and critiqued, such as the institution of slavery in the United States.

What does it mean to “revise” history in this irresponsible way? It means that people, usually those who feel the history they were taught, the history they believe to be true, is under threat and, in plain terms, is being changed to tell a story that doesn’t fit with their political and social beliefs and understanding. To do this individuals are looking to historical resources such as photos and written documents and “reinterpret” them to fit a very specific narrative. For example, as a New York Times article, “Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves Too explains, photos of Irishmen, child mineworkers, and holocaust survivors have been used in memes that spread around the internet feeding a lie that Irish people were brought over as slaves, just like people from Africa. This is untrue. Obviously the anachronistic use of twentieth century photography to support a nineteenth century myth is poor academic workmanship, but the people who were creating and cultivating this myth were twisting and manipulating an actual historical truth: the Irish were brought over to what would be the United States as indentured servants in the early colonial period. The conditions for indentured servants were extremely poor, but the truth is they were not slaves. This is a completely different experience. This is a completely different history. An episode from the podcast Uncivil beautifully illustrates how historical myths manifest from the manipulation of historical truths while explaining the motivations of those who are working hard to fabricate false histories. The episode entitled “The Portrait” explores how and why the myth of the free black Confederate soldier manifested and spread. Uncivil is hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika and shares the untold stories that have been left out of established Civil War history while making connections between issues from the Civil War period and the present.

“The Portrait” from Uncivil Podcast, December 27, 2017.

Find a full transcript of the episode here.

As explored by Jack and Chenjerai in “The Portrait,” Civil War myths are not just purposefully incorrect reinterpretations of historical moments and documents. The language used to tell historical lies is just as important. Words like “man servant” versus “slave” is just one example of word choice intentionally trying to assuage the brutalities of slavery. Those who are Confederate sympathizers today like to downplay the violence and dehumanization that was integral to the institution of slavery and a picture that shows enslaved people as happy and willing participants in the system. What makes these myths particularly troubling is that most of them are recent fabrications. With the proliferation of media and the internet providing everyone (including Marabou) with a platform, fact checking has become lax and nonexistent (excluding Marabou). Historical lies can start very small, but are able to fester spread internationally. Most people today know they need to be critical of the media they consume. In addition to being careful media consumers, Marabou asks us to reflect on why these false stories are being circulated as fact, as real history. Who benefits from spreading the lie that Irish people were brought over as slaves, equating a white ethnic group’s experience with a historically black struggle? Some people feel their privilege is being threatened when they are confronted with history that continually reveals the injustices acted on blacks and other communities of color. This threat becomes stronger when there is a public outcry to acknowledge this history and take action so unjust structures and practices do not continue. Why was there a concerted effort to “prove” there were free black Confederate soldiers who willingly enlisted to fight in the Civil War? It would prove that a population operating under White Supremacy is ok and that everyone was in support of it. The existence of free black Confederate soldiers would bolster arguments that state slavery wasn’t bad and that the United States would be better today if slavery had never been abolished.

Yesterday, Marabou highlighted this quote from the authors of Dutch New York Histories, “Decolonizing history is not only about bringing marginalized voices to the fore, but also about exposing the underlying systems and thus acknowledging that writing history is also a means of addressing racism and white supremacy.” Marabou reminds that it’s important to recognize both the good work being done to decolonize history, but that there are also forces looking to not only perpetuate historical narratives as they exist, but twist history into propaganda to reinforce and justify oppressive systems. The work is to make space for and support historically marginalized voices, but we must also challenge and stop the spread of false histories.

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