“I had hoped that [Ted] Haggard [the former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, caught with a male prostitute in 2006], upon feeling the overwhelming shunning wrath of his Christian brothers and sisters after his revelation, would come to an intimate understanding of how the gay and lesbian community feels about the church—how those who claim to follow Christ will turn their backs on you when you need them the most. In that shunning, I had hoped that Haggard might arrive at a new place—where he would realize how painful that is for the person shunned and vow to never, ever do that to anyone if he were ever back in the position to lead a church.” –Candace Chellew-Hodge, Religion Dispatches
Because I’ve been reading a lot of biographical picture books lately, and because I’m working on one of my own, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and our personal identities.
In January, I had a conversation with a gentleman who was reading a book called “God’s Miracles.” It was a collection of stories that revealed moments of American history when, according to the book, God performed a miracle that allowed the new nation to thrive. The story he presented during our conversation was how the people of Jamestown were literally getting into their boats to leave when ships from England arrived, “saving” them and “saving” Jamestown.
The idea that America’s destiny was maneuvered, manipulated, aided, and abetted by the Powerful Most High is always one that disturbs me. Was it a “miracle” from God that Jamestown survived….only for the obliteration of the Native American peoples in that area to occur? Ascribing God’s hand into the American Story gives a lot of people a sense of destiny, a belief that the American Way is God’s Way, but the flip side of that is the question: Was it therefore the destiny of the Native American peoples to be killed, herded onto reservations, and left to rot—all the way up to the present day? Is that, too, God’s Way?
As a historian, I’m aware that most of history is made up of questions, not answers; it is made up of perspectives, not facts. Those of us who are white and grow up in America see our founding fathers as heroes; that is our perspective because they built a society for us that enables and encourages us to succeed. But this perspective holds very little moral authority for me when I see how they built the country at the expense of so many people’s lives.
History ends up being very similar to religion. Like our religious heroes, our historical heroes give us a shared sense of destiny with people who have very little in common with us. We can all wave our flag of patriotism because “we” are Americans.
An American friend of mine, an African historian who lives in South Africa, recently told me, “Everybody recognizes South Africa’s history as a racist history. We don’t tell the American history as a racist history because whites are the majority people.” He’s right. Yet the story of America is a racist story—from the arrival of the Pilgrims, to slavery, to the notion of Manifest Destiny, to our attempts to colonize the Philippines, to our ongoing refusal to grant Puerto Ricans full citizenship (what’s up with that? They’re “American citizens” who can’t vote? Wait…WHAT?), to our recent building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s true that racism is only part of the American story—but it’s an enormous part, something we fail to see because we try so hard to build pride in our young folks. We teach “propaganda” and call it history, not even realizing that our unconscious goal is to instill patriotism, and we do so by telling lies.
How to balance all of this when writing a picture book for kids based on a historical figure? I’m not sure. I think it’s one reason why my first biographical picture book was about a relatively unknown dude—a blind artist, Mexican-American, who has a very rare form of blindness that he describes as a “constant LSD trip” and so he paints what he sees. That was a fun book to write, but it hasn’t sold yet. I’d like to write a biographical picture book about my father, not because he’s famous but because he’s a man I care about deeply. And I’m currently working on a biographical picture book about Nelson Mandela’s chef…the man who cooked meals for him the last 15 months he was in prison, when the apartheid government was negotiating with him and so he had a cushier life than the previous three decades he’d spent on Robben Island.
Am I contributing to South Africa’s ongoing myth-making by writing about one of their heroes at the moment he was released from prison? Perhaps. It’s not that I believe there are no heroes in history. It’s just that I believe our heroes lived messy lives, full of both courageous and horrific deeds, and we’re better off telling the truth, rather than trying vainly to instill pride in a false vision of what America is, who we are, and what our purpose is in the world.