Possessing the Past

“What is the role of historians and who owns the past?” (216) this is what Thomas Cauvin asks in the opening paragraphs of this week’s reading in Public History. Throughout the pages he describes what we have already learned in some of the previous readings. That everyone has a claim to history, and it’s the job of public historians to keep it that way, but to also make sure that it is true and being told appropriately. So then this raises the question, what is and isn’t appropriate. When it comes to difficult areas such as slavery and the Holocaust the truth needs to be told to keep mistakes from being repeated. The way one goes about doing that is by incorporating all minorities and all affected peoples into the telling of history. When a Native American museum opens, for example, then Native American peoples should have had a part in creating that museum. It is the job of historians to include all peoples in history. So, where it has usually been about, white, straight, men, it should now be about men, women, minorities, and LGBTQ people as well. The interpretation of history is always changing so the interpreters need to change as well. They need to see what the public thinks of the past and how they participate in it. They need to see what is important to the people, and the telephone survey I talked about last week, and which I will talk about this week as well, is a great way to do that.

Why does an “ordinary” person look to the past, how does it influence their lives, and why is it important to them? This is what Rosenzweig and Thelen discussed in their book The Presence of the Past. Last week we read chapter one of the book about the basics surrounding their study of American people and how they interact with history. This week I looked into the next two chapters which delved deeper into some of the statements the

famreunion
Family reunions and holidays are a great time for families to get together and reminisce about the past.

people in the study made. Most people commented on and told stories about how holidays are a huge way to connect to the past. When families gather to celebrate there are young children, older people, and adults of all ages in between. These gatherings provide the chance for the adults to ask the older people about the past before it’s too late. This time also allows the older people to reminisce on the past and to also observe the children and see how they have similar traits and characteristics to the now aged family members. However, many responders also commented on why children may not feel the same or really participate in these family moments of remembering the past. The participants stated that they believe that children have no worries. They look to the future and live in the present. While adults, more likely than not, are looking at the past in order to prevent mistakes in the present and to live in a better future, “to change what’s bad and leave what’s good.” (75) This is why many adults seem to study the past. They want to look at other family members and see everything they did, compare themselves to it, and disallow themselves from making similar mistakes from their ancestors and other family members.

There are other reasons adults study the past, one of them is in order to learn about genetics. One woman wanted to know whether or not her son’s brain disorder came from

gene
Are we the way we are because of our genes or from what we learn from our elders growing up?

something further back in the bloodline, while another woman wanted to know if her uncle’s failing heart was ill-fated luck for him or if it was hereditary. People also study their own history just by listening to the words of their parents and grandparents. One Mexican-American man said he would always remember what his dad told him, “by the stick that you measure others, so will you be measured.“ Adding, “in other words, what you do to others, or the way you treat others, that is how you will be treated. But it sounds better in Spanish.” (49) Another woman recalled how her mother would always sit down with her and her sister while they were growing up and her mother would just talk with them and try to teach them about life. All of these people recalled how their parents had shaped them and turned them into the people they had become for better or for worse. Parents also want to be able to teach their children about their past so they learn about their own, and their partner’s.

family-album
Most people study their own family’s past to learn about themselves or to pass that knowledge on to their children.

All of the people interviewed studied the past in one way or another and every single one of them had a reason to do it. Reading this book made me ask myself, “why do I study the past when I am not studying it for school?” I found that I am very similar to the people in the survey. I want to know where I came from and I want to be able to pass the stories and information on to my own children one day, to leave a legacy of some sort. Now, the remaining question is, why do you study the past?

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