Last month, Lois, Anna and I took a 6000-mile car-camping trip through the western U.S. It was terrific. We drove across the Rockies, the Great American Desert, the Sierras, the Pacific Coast Highway, saw San Francisco and L.A., visited Dinosaur National Monument, Yosemite, Muir Woods, and saw a lifetime worth of small things that make lasting memories.
It was in the Visitor’s Center at Yosemite Village, and again on a boat tour of San Francisco Bay that I was reminded of something that used to bother me as a teacher. At Yosemite, it was a written history of the Indians who used to live in the valley, displayed nicely with pictures in a walk-through gallery. Think about it. These Indians lived for hundreds of years in the closest place possible to the Garden of Eden, and then they were suddenly expelled from the valley by a vigilante brute squad. Most died.
Yet somehow the National Parks version of this story managed to be so saccharin, so matter-of-fact, that you could stand there in the gallery and watch visitors file past, read (maybe) this horror story without understanding any of the horror, nod and move on to the next panel to read about the redwoods’ root structure. All the same.
On the San Francisco Bay tour, we were given headphones and a little transmitter which you tune to the language of your choice. The tour is so down-to-the-minute that the headphone tapes were on perfect cue at every part of the trip. This time it was the headphone narrator’s voice that was saccharin. Female, young, perky. As we glided past Angel Island, the hundred or so passengers on the boat listened to another horror story: the internment, sometimes for up to a year, of Chinese immigrants on Angel Island, for no other reason than their race. It was selective and random, like Jews being herded off the box cars, some to the left, some to the right. And yet, the voice telling the story in our ears was so non-committal, so “unbiased”, a story told in the same tone we heard describing the vast array of sea life in the bay and the number of bolts in the Golden Gate Bridge, that as I looked around the deck at all the people hearing the same thing I was hearing, I saw not a single expression of anger or dismay. It was just an inevitable fact, you see. What could have been done? Shit happens and it happened a long time ago (that would be before yesterday), so… whaddya gonna do?
I used to have my students read a short passage from their textbook (booorring!) about slavery or Native Americans. I hated that textbook as much as they did, but they would dutifully pull these 20-pound behemoths out of their book bags, drag them up onto the desk, and begin reading obediently.
I’d give them a few minutes and then ask for volunteers to answer this question: “How did reading about the treatment of these people make you feel?” Silence, of course, because in fact, it hadn’t made them feel anything. It was a history textbook – how could you possibly feel anything? Eventually I’d be able to coax something like this from a semi-reluctant sophomore: “I guess it makes me feel kind of sad.” Which might have been true, but was more likely the answer they thought I was looking for, and SOMEbody had to take a leadership role so we can get Mr. Graham off this stupid and vaguely uncomfortable topic.
Except that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. Not once in the years I asked that question did one student EVER say, “It makes me mad!”
But it’s the answer I always hoped for. What happened to slaves/Native Americans/union organizers/Jim Crow blacks/etc. in my country makes me MAD! What happened to Rosa Parks makes me MAD! What happened to Chief Blackhawk makes me MAD!! The use of chains and whips on millions of unnamed Americans makes me MAD!!! Not just “kind of sad”.
“Sad” is easy. It doesn’t require action. It’s retroactive. There’s nothing that can be done about what happened. “How… sad.” This is indicative of exactly what is wrong with U.S. History textbooks. They exude that formal “historical” sense that history happened exactly according to one script and that there could not have possibly been any other outcome. Same as that Yosemite placard. Same as that perky voice in San Francisco harbor. No action taken by anyone could possibly have changed the course of history. (This is especially comforting when your race or nation comes out on top every time.) And so we check our souls out from under any responsibility with a, “Gee, it’s sad, but I guess nothing could have been done. Awwwwww. (Now how soon can I check my texts to see what my friends are doing after school?)”
But “MAD” is an entirely different thing. It requires us to do something. It means we understand that things COULD maybe have been different. It makes us wonder what it would have taken for those things TO be different. It makes us understand that maybe WE have some kind of civic and moral obligation to face up to and take action on yesterday’s issues, when perhaps our forebears didn’t.
The Civil Rights Movement is a glorious exception to the rule. It’s a sterling example of a people rising up in moral indignation – righteous anger if you will – to right a massive wrong. But sixty years after the fact, even it is now succumbing to the same kind of bland, “unbiased” treatment in the history books. After all, what Rosa Parks did was inevitable, wasn’t it? It had to happen – otherwise the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t have started, right? And the further away in time we get from these events, the more they become just another dull chapter in the history textbook. So a chapter of our history that should excite us down to the heart of our hearts, instead evokes the response, “I guess it makes me kind of glad.”
All the passion is removed. All the humanity. J.K. Rowling’s brilliant character, Mrs. Umbrage, the head of the Ministry of Education in the Harry Potter series, is the embodiment of this movement. Mrs. Umbrage would love “It makes me feel kind of sad.” Rowling’s point, I believe, in creating this character was to show that there are great forces of evil masquerading as human, in very high places, and what they want more than anything is the extinction of all emotion outside of a very narrow range, because passion is the essence of humanity, and human, truly human, is the last thing the forces of evil want people to be. I think Rowling and C.S. Lewis were very much on the same page on this, as are intellectuals who oppose the “politically correct” movement.
There’s a lot to be “mad” about in history. Let’s not be afraid to let ourselves be human in the fullest meaning of the word.
“Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.”
– J.K. Rowling