On Historical Erasure

September 2, 2017 No Comments »
On Historical Erasure

As Confederate monuments fall in the US, and Ontario school debate removing the name of Sir John A. Macdonald from elementary schools, I thought it would be a good time to talk about historical erasure. I have a special interest in this, obviously, as a History teacher.

In the midst of all the discussion in the media, I came across this tweet, and it piqued my interest:

The whole thread is golden (for those not in on the joke, the various reasons people are giving for not including the suggested men are the same reasons women have historically been dismissed from history texts), but one reply stood out to me in particular:

This one hits pretty close to home, as many of the textbooks we use for school do just this for women, as if the role women play in (for instance) the First World War are only important in the aggregate, but men are important enough to warrant naming individually.  It’s the reason you can probably name Watson & Crick as the discoverers of the structure DNA, but not Rosalind Franklin. It’s the reason you may know Tim Berners-Lee as the inventor of the World Wide Web, but not Hedy Lamarr as the inventor of a foundational technology behind WiFi, cellphones and Bluetooth.

It’s not just women  who are erased from history, it’s minorities, too. The reason that white supremacists claim that western civilization is responsible for the modern world is that the contributions of non-Europeans have been, at best, glossed over in history books. Isaac Newton is recognized as the inventor of calculus, but do you know the name of the person who developed algebra? It’s Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.

As an able-bodied white Christian heterosexual male, I will never not see myself reflected in film, TV, novels and history books.  The default main character in most entertainment looks, acts and believes like me. This is true outside of fiction as well: in 2015, when Justin Trudeau announced his new cabinet, if he’d named all white men, there would have been a certain amount of outcry, but no one would have assumed that more qualified female or minority candidates had been passed over in order to put a white man in that position.  White male is the default, so when he named a cabinet that was ½ women and ½ minorities, people assumed he’d ignored better white men, in order to be politically correct.

Recently, a story out of the UK had white people all a-flutter when it was publicized that a white Christian girl was sent to a Muslim foster family and had been asked to adopt some of the customs of the family with whom she’d been placed.  Sensationalist versions of the story decried her not being allowed to wear her cross necklace or eat bacon in the home.  Some of these accounts were later deemed exaggerated, but the damage had been done. The girl was sent to live with her grandparents.  If only white Canadians had been as horrified by the cultural suppression when it was First Nations children placed in white foster homes or Christian-run residential schools in Canada in a policy explicitly designed to “take the Indian out of the child.”  If it’s European Christian culture at stake, it’s a crisis, but any other culture is fair game to be “fixed.”

Certain parts of the US celebrate Columbus Day, honouring him as the discoverer of the Americas, as if he’d come to a wide-open place that no one knew about and had helped people come there.  In reality, lots of people already knew about the Americas, from the ~50 million indigenous people across both continents, to Viking explorers and Basque fishermen. Why is Columbus honoured and the others ignored? Given Columbus’ legacy to the “New World”, some states and cities are starting to observe “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” to recognize that history in  America didn’t start when Europeans started capitalizing on its resources.  This is a good start.  Columbus will likely never be erased from history books like critics of the change apparently fear, just as Confederate generals and politicians will still exist in history books even after their monuments are removed.

As a parent, I don’t want my daughters to think that they can’t contribute anything important because they don’t see themselves in a history text. I don’t want my son to think that he should only listen to people like himself because those are the only  people he sees as having contributed to history. As a teacher, it’s my job to ensure that students who are not in the same privileged position as I am to be able to see and connect with people like themselves in the same way that I can.  That means female students need to be able to see women explorers and politicians. It means FNMI students need to be able to read about the contributions of Indigenous people to our history.

Maybe it’s time to start recognizing some of the people who actually have been erased from history. We could start by renaming Ontario schools after another John A. who helped make Canada what it is today: John Amagoalik, the father of Nunavut.

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