Refusing to Rewrite History

Recording history is not just a matter of writing down what happened.  Even if “what happened” is known without dispute (not always the case), historians still have to winnow out what counted: broader themes, trends, or significant events.  What “counts” is always in dispute!  Textbook publishers have always walked a fine line among different interest groups.

For example, the refusal of some Japanese politicians to apologize for (and in some cases, even to acknowledge) for Japan’s actions during World War II — the Nanjing Massacre, the sex slave system, the use of slave labor on infrastructure projects, and so on — have been making the news lately.  And these disputes are reflected in schoolbooks:

[Prime Minister] Abe also expressed anger that McGraw Hill had not amended a passage about comfort women in one of its history books, as Japanese diplomats had pressed the US publishing company to do.

But a desire to gloss over unpleasant aspects of one’s own history can lead to a dangerous ignorance.  That is why some historians in the region are working together to publish textbooks such as “A History to Open the Future,” which gives what the article calls “a single account of the region’s past from medieval times to the present.”

In the United States, textbook publishers are under the same pressures from politicians.  And the desire to brush aside this country’s complex history of slavery and racism as something that only happened long ago is very similar to the Japanese situation.  The publication of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is an ideal opportunity to discuss the historical context surrounding its writing and delayed publication, and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the novel that appeared after Lee wrote “Go Set a Watchman.”  To quote one reader’s reaction:

Many well-read, well-educated Southern whites will tell you that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is their favorite book, and that’s in part because the book’s central myth helps them paper over a painful, irreconcilable chasm in their lives: namely, that Southern racism was never about class or education or character, broadly speaking; that it was and is all-pervasive, that some of the most widely respected, intelligent, kind people they know – grandfathers, teachers, bosses – were and are staunch bigots.

“Go Set a Watchman” destroys the mythology that grew up surrounding the character of Atticus Finch.  But neither “To Kill a Mockingbird” nor “Go Set a Watchman” is just a Southern story; racism is a national disease, and not talking about it doesn’t go very far in curing it.  As another writer points out, the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” this year has been fortuitous because it adds complexity to our knowledge of both the past and present.  It adds historical context to the question of why it was not published when written, and what was published instead.  And it leads naturally into a discussion of the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement.

For historical background on the continuing struggle for civil rights in America, see the Theme: African Americans in American History II, as well as Chapter 9: Great Depression and New Deal and Chapter 13: The Eisenhower Years.  (“To Kill a Mockingbird” is set in the 1930s; “Go Set a Watchman” is set during the 1950s.)


BulbgraphOnOffAdvanced students can get a lot out of Internet Projects on their own; curated links progressively lead to a hands-on project.

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Dr. Annelies Kamran is Senior Editor at WorldView Software, Inc.

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