Everyday History

I’ve met a number of people for whom history is apparently something in the classroom or textbook, a dry (possibly dusty) academic subject. I don’t blame them for thinking these things, any more than I would blame people who likewise relegate chemistry, physics, math or literature to the school building. But just as we encounter chemistry in cooking, physics on the highway, math in our budgets and literature on the shelves of a local library, history is always present.

I’ve had two encounters in the past two days with everyday sorts of history, and I wanted to share them.

One

Yesterday morning I went to my parent’s church and was engaged in conversation by an older woman who sat herself down next to me. Learning that I am a PhD student in history, she proceeded to tell me how she loves reading history and finding things out. Her personal interest is in the history of regional groups in the US.

She said to me “of course, the more you learn the more confusing it is,” (roughly paraphrased) which I thought was such a wonderful expression of how studying history can sometimes feel like travelling down Alice’s rabbit hole, or wandering into Ariadne’s labyrinth without benefit of a ball of string.

She also mentioned that she grew up in south-east Washington, DC. Recently she’d been coming back from National Harbor with her daughter and they’d driven around the neighborhood looking for a Dairy Queen. They ended up in front of her grandmother’s house. Not only did she tell her daughter about her memories of that house, she went home and dug out a picture of her grandmother on its steps, tracked down the woman how now owns the house, and sent her a copy of the picture. Apparently the current owner is the third generation of her own family to live in that house, and she loved having a picture of its first owner just after it was built.

Two

Today Patrick Murray-John retweeted a link to a blog essay written by a person of color who went to the Occupy Wall Street movement to see what it was about and ended up getting involved. The essay discusses the demographics of the people in the movement and the people organizing the movement. It’s worth a read.  I was particularly caught by this passage, near the end:

And this is the thing: that there in that circle, on that street-corner we did a crash course on racism, white privilege, structural racism, oppression. We did a course on history and the declaration of independence and colonialism and slavery. It was hard. It was real. It hurt. But people listened. We had to fight for it.

When you live rolled up in history all the time, it’s easy to forget that some people don’t see it unless they’re made to.  I don’t want to say that all history is political, or that it should be, but it’s worth keeping in mind that some people are doing the politics without understanding the historical context.  That just giving a student dates and names may not offer them the resources they need to know why riffing on race and the Declaration of Independence might be problematic.

There is chemistry in cooking, there is math in my checkbook, and there is history in the everyday.

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