We are our history

Quote

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” ~ James Baldwin

Advertisements

Podcast review: Revolutions

Revolutions is one of those podcasts that you hear about years after it started and then find yourself devouring episode after episode. Kind of like binge watching shows on Netflix.

I first heard of Revolutions on the NPR Politics podcast. One of the regular presenters shared a podcast that she had found very enjoyable: a historical podcast on revolutions around the world. Ooooh! That sounds interesting, I thought.

I have devoured the first year of backlogged Revolutions podcasts with no sign of letting up. Yes, they are interesting. Very.

The podcaster, Mike Duncan, makes history wonderfully engaging, full of anecdotes, facts, and commentary. I find myself laughing at descriptions he paints or emitting an exclamation of surprise about a tidbit of information that he shares.

In one case, he described a German officer who was attempting to train Americans to be soldiers. He spoke no English and the Americans spoke no German. Communication occurred through French. (He spoke French. Someone translated from French into English.) Often he would get frustrated or enraged at the American soldiers, turning red in the face and swearing in German—which the American soldiers found absolutely hilarious.

In another case, he related an observation by this same German officer: that European soldiers immediately obey when they are told to do something. In contrast, Americans want to be told why they need to do something before they will do it. I spit out whatever I was drinking. Some things, I thought, do not change with time. Imagine Americans not doing something until they knew why?! (I’d add that Americans need to agree with the reason.)

Revolutions are divided into, well, different revolutions. The podcast starts with the English Civil Wars and continues with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and others.(I’m currently in the throes of the French Revolution.) The various episodes describe the political/social/historical situation that led up to the revolution under discussion, the revolution itself, and the immediate aftermath.

The podcast has definitely increased my knowledge and understanding of history and events. For example, while some names of the English Civil Wars are familiar to me (such as Oliver Cromwell), I was pretty much in the dark about England’s civil wars. (There were two civil wars back to back?!)

When I hear names in other contexts, I can now place them in time and understand the historical context around them. (Oh, King Charles II? The king that was invited back from exile after the English attempt at a republic failed? Oh, the Howes? Those brothers who led British troops in the American Revolution?)

The episodes on the American Revolution solidified, expanded, and corrected what knowledge I did have about my country. Who knew that Washington was the master of the graceful retreat? What was the deal with Benedict Arnold?

The episodes also piqued my interest. I found myself picking up books about the American Revolution and noticed nice confluences between the book I was reading and the podcast. I am now feeling yearnings to re-read political theory from undergraduate classes. Anyone up for Burke, Paine, or Locke?

Lafayette, who popped up in the American Revolution episodes, reappears in the French Revolution episodes that I am currently listening to. (I am waiting for Thomas Paine to make an appearance in the later French Revolution.)

Only two and a half more years of backlogged episodes to go! (Or only two and a half revolutions, depending on how you look at it.) And then I can turn to his initial podcast, The History of Rome, which ran from 2007 to 2012 and has only 191 episodes.

Check out either podcast—Revolutions or The History of Rome. (I can’t vouch for The History of Rome yet, but in 2010 it won Best Educational Podcast.) You won’t be disappointed.

Movie review: Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2005)

The modern-day book banning of Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, intrigued me, especially since the advocate of the metaphorical burning is a former governor of my home state of Indiana and current president of an institute of higher education.

Thank you, Mitch Daniels, for bringing Howard Zinn to my consciousness. I am not one of the Hoosiers that you claim had Zinn’s view of history crammed down their throat in the educational system. I am a product of the stale, whitewashed mainstream presentation of history as a series of facts presented from the perspective of the winning side.

But I digress.

This documentary about Howard Zinn is a series of snapshots of his life, explaining how his consciousness was raised and showing the ways in his life that he fought for peace, justice, and a different interpretation of “truth”. It starts with his upbringing by two poor, uneducated parents. The lie of the US myth that anyone in the US can work hard and succeed was not born out by his parents.

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is full of interviews with Zinn as well as snippets from speeches that he gave in front of demonstrators, to audiences, and at award ceremonies. Numerous other people are interviewed about Zinn, his work, and the times in which he found himself—from Alice Walker, to Noam Chomsky, to Dan Ellsberg.

Perspectives of history inform perspectives of present events and situations. To go against the established perspective is a threat to those whose positions of power and economic wealth rely on the established perspective being followed. Don’t look behind the curtain in search of other perspectives—those of labor activists, of civil rights activists, of environmentalists, of blacks, of Chinese, of Latinos.

Zinn argues for the opposite: Do look behind the curtain.

Zinn challenges us to question the facts of history we have always been given. To know history is to understand the present. If we don’t know history, those in power can tell us anything—and we believe it.

As the subtitle to the documentary asserts, you can’t be neutral. You can’t remain on the sidelines in society. Either you intercede in what in happening in the world or you are collaborating. Silence is assent.

It is way past time to take another look at history and search for the marginalized from the pages of our education, our news, our consciousness. Where is history silent? What is the news of today, which will become the history of tomorrow, ignoring? Those are the places to look for knowledge, for answers, for understanding. And question, always question even if just internally, the facts you are given.

Irvington ghost tour

I—along with about 100 other people—spent a recent Saturday night on a ghost tour.

This was the annual Irvington ghost tour, led by Allan Hunter, a self-proclaimed ghost hunter. He regaled us with ghost stories about different buildings in the neighborhood while leading us around the neighborhood after dark, drawing us into the history of Irvington, Indiana, and Chicago. Unsurprisingly, Hunter is a retired history teacher—and a fabulous spinner of tales.

Given the incredibly large number of people on the walking tour, I was tempted to walk away. How would we be able to hear the guide?

I am glad I didn’t walk away. I learned a fabulous amount and now am apt to return to Irvington in the daylight to wander the streets, enjoy the architecture, and recall the stories.

The Masonic Lodge in Irvington, which contains heavy wooden doors that swing open and shut of their own accord, just happens to be lodge number 666.

Diagonally across the street was the site of a robbery by John Dillinger. The building is now haunted by a friendly spirit—probably not Dillinger’s ghost—that routinely warns the current owners of impending mishaps (fires, robberies, etc.).

Around the neighborhood we tromped, stopping in a grassy area by a low brick wall—the site of evil ground where the ashes of a nearby murder victim were buried. Across the street was the site of the house where the serial killer of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, H.H. Holmes, lived briefly and committed another murder—the murder that resulted in the buried ashes in the evil ground.

(Holmes’ Chicago murders are chronicled in The Devil in the White City, which is slated to be a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Until recently, Holmes’ Irvington chapter was unknown to the author.)

The house was razed to the ground and another house built on top of the cellar. Allan waxed on about Holmes’ exploits and the modern-day hauntings in the house.

There were plenty of other grisly (and not so grisly) stories about places in Irvington. In one of the neighborhoods that we traipsed through, a house with white pillars—something that would have looked in place on the set of Gone with the Wind—stood out. This turned out to be the house of D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Wizard of the KKK who basically ran Indiana during the 1920s.

A few blocks away stood the house of the woman he kidnapped, raped, and brutally attacked so severely that she later died of her wounds. Fortunately, before dying, she dictated a deathbed disposition to a lawyer, a disposition that led to the arrest and conviction of Stephenson and ultimately to the downfall of the Klan in Indiana. (A silent but HUGE thank you to Madge Oberholtzer.) A white woman is now seen in her bedroom window during times of heat lightning.

Like the ghost in the same building that Dillinger robbed, not all spirits inhabiting Irvington are to be avoided. The spirit, supposedly of Bona Thompson, imparts a serene calmness and comfort to all who enter the Bona Thompson Memorial. Built by her parents after her untimely death from typhoid fever, the building is the sole remnant of the original Butler campus in Irvington.

Our last stop was where the train carrying Lincoln’s body to Springfield passed through Indianapolis. Over the years, various people have witnessed the Lincoln ghost train. The train briefly appears, draped in black crepe with soldiers guarding the body of Lincoln.

Whether these stories about the hauntings are true or not, the Irvington Ghost Tour was an evening of fascinating tales woven with history. Hunter is a master speaker. Hearing him speak is reason enough to attend.