Maybe it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be blazingly angry and despairingly sad about something that happened over 150 years ago. I wasn’t anywhere near alive then. Hell, my parents and even my great-grandparents were equally not-alive-yet as I. So why does it matter? Why should I care?
Time and time again, history has been unkind to those who have been unable to survive it. To the slaves whom America treated worse than the dirt on their sole of their shoe; to the German Jews ripped violently from their pleasant lives; to anyone who ever dared to speak out against an empire. Here in America, people claimed liberty and individuality. They spat in others faces and kicked their heads into the ground. They kidnapped and traded and sold them like playing cards. Like a careless kid who ruined his own toys when he got angry, he beat and murdered them, simply because he could.
History is about more than the painted landscaped backgrounds in intricate frames that your high school textbooks and the Wikipedia page of an event provide you with. History is about looking upon the unfamiliar faces of these depictions and feeling the heavy weight of searing anguish on your heart. Because, really, these faces are not unfamiliar. History is about realizing who these people were, and what they endured. History is recognizing a person as mother, child, brother, sister, and friend. As pious, moral, loyal, patient and kind. It’s thinking about the situation, and imaging what it feels like to watch your son get whipped and left upon the ground to bleed while you are unable to wipe his tears or tend his wounds. It’s about recognizing the agony of watching your daughter be sold and taken away from you, knowing full well that her innocence and beauty are being taken away too and that there is nothing you can do to stop it. History is about trying to understand what these experiences must feel like and knowing full well that even when you magnify your imagination countless times, it still flounders in comparison to reality.
We do not study history to wallow in despair; we study it in an effort to help wrong the rights that happened too long ago for us to ever prevent. History is about compassion and about realizing the pitfalls of humanity. As hard as it is sometimes, history is about forgiveness of those who came before us. Being a historian is about today and making sure that you are doing everything in your power to make sure that this world is a better place than it once was, and that it will one day be a better place than it currently is. History is about feeling blazingly angry and despairingly sad about something that happened 150 years ago, but more importantly history is about taking those feelings of hopelessness and transforming them into change and hope; it’s about being hopeless about the past but unstoppable in the present. It’s about using both your hopelessness and invincibility to try to make sure that 150 years from now, your great-great-great-great-grandchildren might not have to feel so hopeless.
History matters because people matter.