History Matters

We may have trouble understanding the present if we don't know our history.

It is easy to assess peoples struggles and conflicts only through the lens of today, but we only have a partial picture at best. While laws may have been changed for the better, how many generations does it take to change attitudes? How many generations does it take to overcome the economic policies that were made to separate and discriminate? We are not detached from events that have taken place before our time. Our attitudes are shaped by the culture in which we were raised, often unbeknownst to ourselves, and we may be unwitting recipients of its baggage.

 

A few years ago, I read a novel based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In this case, it was told from a housemaid’s point of view. There were a few storylines that were over the top in my opinion, but my main objection was that this book burst my bubble. I didn’t want to know about how hard a servant’s life was in the Regency Era. I didn’t want to think about lack of plumbing or chamber pots. I preferred to imagine Austen’s works through the lens of modern film adaptations with their beautiful costumes, dancing, witty dialogue, and actors with historically inaccurate perfect teeth.

But history is not as nice and tidy as a novel or a film. Sometimes it is easier to edit my intake because I don’t want to face the toll sin has taken on mankind since the fall.  Being a self-revisionist may shelter my sensibilities, but nostalgia, no matter how pretty, is no substitute for the truth. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I would also humbly add that we may have trouble understanding the present if we don’t know our history.

I’ve been shaken by recent racist incidents involving Asian Americans. In listening to people’s stories, we are still considered “perpetual foreigners” no matter how many generations we’ve been Americans. Why is that? History gives the answer.

Since the 1880’s the United States government enacted legislation to prohibit the immigration of Chinese citizens and forbid naturalization. The “threat” imposed by the “Yellow peril” was hyped to the point that Asians were marginalized and even lynched out of fear of their supposed pernicious influence on American culture. (Sadly those sentiments are making a comeback.) The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but the quotas for Asian immigrants were still very low.  Finally the 1965 Immigration Act opened the door for immigration, not only from Asia but other countries as well. When I learned about this, I was floored. The immigration act took place during my lifetime, and I’m not that old. This also explains why I was one of two Asian kids in my school district. Our families were allowed in. Others were not. Fifty years is also a drop in the bucket when it comes to history. Perhaps this is why some people have a hard time accepting Americans with Asian faces and still ask us “Where are you really from?”

It is easy to assess peoples struggles and conflicts only through the lens of today, but we only have a partial picture at best. While laws may have been changed for the better, how many generations does it take to change attitudes? How many generations does it take to overcome the economic policies that were made to separate and discriminate? We are not detached from events that have taken place before our time. Our attitudes are shaped by the culture in which we were raised, often unbeknownst to ourselves, and we may be unwitting recipients of its baggage. Perhaps our discussions would be more profitable if we opened a history book and learned about our past. Being aware of the good and the bad may help us not repeat it.

Persis Lorenti is an ordinary Christian. You can find her at Tried With Fire and Out of the Ordinary. This article appeared at her blog and is used with permission.