Some thoughts on history:

Sieve from Coffin House, Newbury Massachusetts. Unknown maker. Image credit: Historic New England.

“Those outside the academy tend to think of history as settled, as a simple recounting of what events happened on what date and who was involved in those incidents. But while history is what happened, it is also, just as important, how we think about what happened and what we unearth and choose to remember about what happened.”

— Nikole Hannah-Jones: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story

***

“History is not the past. It’s the method we’ve evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past…. It’s the record of what’s left on the record… It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it…. It’s no more the past than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey…. It’s no more than the best we can do. And often, it falls short of that.”

— Hilary Mantel, quoted in On the Media: How Historical Novels Can Help Us Remember

***

“The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out that there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing. The history of this country has been written as their story, and the news sometimes still tells it this way—one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters and who decides.”

— Rebecca Solnit: “Whose Story (and Country) Is This? On the Myth of a ‘Real’ America”

***

“[U]nderstanding history as a form of inquiry—not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting—was central to the nation’s founding. This, too, was new. In the West, the oldest stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are odes and tales of wars and kings, of men and gods, sung and told. These stories were memorials, and so were the histories of antiquity: they were meant as monuments….

“Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered….

“This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions—the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran—are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them—with evidence.

— Jill Lepore: These Truths: A History of the United States

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