The Great Battlefield of History

I wish I had an excuse to write about John Sevier every day, just because the resulting conversations have been so interesting. Sadly for John, I don’t have that much to say about him. But I did read this excellent post over at the Posterity Project about old John and I wanted especially to talk about this part:

I say all of this in light of a recent barrage of e-mails that I received over the weekend from one angry reader who took me to task over my blog series on John Sevier. Specifically, this person — an apparent descendant of John Sevier — accused me of being interested in making too much of the “bad things” that John Sevier did, questioned my “motive for doing so,” called me a liar, and accused me of using history to further a “particular ideological agenda.” This exchange actually reminded me of a story that I tweeted recently in which an archivist says about genealogy, “In some cases we’re enriching people’s family stories, and in other cases we’re kind of destroying family myths.”

This thought-provoking encounter actually gave me an opportunity to consider the larger issue of how history has been corrupted by politicians and well-meaning citizen activists who see their idyllic world crumbling all around them, and in an effort to understand what is happening to our nation, they reach into the past for answers from America’s heroes. In the process, they place these heroes on an unreachable pedestal where they are no longer considered human beings. To them, they are gods.

Now, I’m not a historian, obviously. But I do love history and the thing I love about history is that, yes, these were people just like us, who were motivated by the same things we are, who want the same things we do, and yet, they are so different, the contexts of their lives so utterly foreign to us. And the stories we tell about them as “true” do have a “particular ideological agenda” whether our agenda is to tell a story of people we can be proud of and look to for inspiration or whether it’s to tell a story of people who were complicated and who did things we don’t approve of.

That’s one of the things that really drives me about the whole Sue Allen project. Is there a story we can tell about these people that lets us appreciate them while acknowledging the ways they were wrong–that they wanted a future for themselves that not only wouldn’t have been good for them, it would have been terrible for all of us? That’s why, to me, the time travel is so crucial, even if it’s corny–to say “this is the future you envisioned, a boy raised in the way you think boys should be raised, to believe the things you think boys should believe is a danger to you.”

It’s why, when Sue and her sister are confronted by the proto-Klan and she calls forth the dead Confederates to line the road so that the girls can travel safely home, and everyone comes out to find if their loved ones are there, the ghosts are confused. They’ve been dead such a short time, and already women can move around so freely? Their children already call other men “father”? Nashville is already a place they don’t quite recognize.

I love history, but I think it’s important to realize that we would be a wonder and a disappointment to the people of the past and they are bound to be a wonder and a disappointment to us.

That’s what makes us all human.

Voodoo Village

It’s worth ten minutes of your time to watch this extraordinary video about Memphis’s so-called “Voodoo Village” which it turns out is actually St. Paul’s Holiness Temple and a giant folk art installation. The Harris family has been being harassed for years because, as Mr. Harris explains in the video, no one bothered to ask him what it was.

In all fairness, though, once you’re dealing with heavily Catholic and Masonic iconography along the Mississippi in a black community, it’s easy to understand how someone might make the leap to “My god, it must be voodoo,” especially since Mr. Harris’s grandfather was what folks might call a hoodoo man.

But the point is that it’s all not very easily quantifiable. And you need to take people’s words for their own experience. Just because you stand on the outside and say “Well, those are the ingredients for voodoo” doesn’t mean that they’re not also the ingredients for straight-up Christianity that just looks different than what you’re used to.

But damn, that’s some amazing stuff in there.