June 12, 2015
How to be inspired by history, Part I
Last April, I posted a blog that discussed why I love history. (It was called “What Inspires Me” if you want to read it again.) Unequivocally, I answered that history inspires me. I love the stories, the people, the intrigue, struggles and the triumph. They all inspire me. History shows me that nothing happens in a vacuum and reminds me that nothing ever had to happen as it did. While I have some belief in fate, I am inspired by the thought that we have some control over our destiny. And history reminds me of that.
I had a lot of responses and discussion about my history “obsession” that came from my blog post. Apparently, I touched a few people “out there” which is always a pleasure. But it is also humbling because many people wanted to know how I actually “find” history. They thought that I sit down with a 1,000-page textbook written in a size 10-font and read into the wee hours of the night. (I admit that this is my ritual sometimes!) But I realized (this is the humbling part) that I did not discuss any interesting or inspiring ways to access history. I didn’t provide any guidance about steps that I take that brings history to life for me. That was my fault. And I plan to correct this problem over the next six days.
Six days?! That’s right. I am announcing a groundbreaking new 6-part blog and podcast series called:
“6 Fun and Easy Ways to be inspired by History”
I will post six ways that people can access history in a way that is educational, interesting and inspirational. I will post one potential way every day for the following five days.
Part I will post today (Friday) and will finish on the following Wednesday. By next Wednesday, I want everyone to know where and how they find history—and how they can be inspired by it.
Each method will not be for everyone. We all learn different and respond to different stimuli. That’s the way it should be. But I am confident that every one will find at least one way that works for them. And, really, all anyone needs is one way to be inspired by history but I’m confident that most people will find several ways.
I will also release these posts in 6 wiki (that’s Hawaiian for “quick”) podcasts. You will find them on my Remembering History Podcast page and the rememberinghistory.com website. I ‘m really changing the paradigm: Reading blogs is great but I want to present these ways to you in my own voice and expression. The wiki podcasts are only 3 or 4 minutes—remember, they are quick (wiki)—but they also contain lots of information in an easy and relaxed way. Just sit back and enjoy them. Or enjoy them on your morning walk or evening jog. Anyway, I hope that you’ll read posts or listen to the podcasts of this important series. It could change your life. It could open up a new world or even an underworld to you. And, mostly, I hope that you will let history inspire you—it’s all there for the taking.
Looking forward to seeing you in Part I of this innovative, radical, trailblazing new series:
“6 Fun and Easy ways to be inspired by history”
What is the first fun and easy way to be inspired by history?
That is a great question but I want to back up for a moment just to reflect upon the challenge that this series is addressing.
I have always enjoyed a good story—whether happy, sad or both. A story well-told or well-presented has always caught and captured my attention. So, history was–and still is–a natural attraction for me. After all, what is history? Stories. The expression that “fact is stranger than fiction” rings so true but with one minor change. In my experience, fact is more powerful than fiction. Factual stories intrigue and move me. And many times I find that the drama of the human experience can be so inspirational. But history is not often presented in an inspirational or even interesting way.
History can be taught and learned in so many ways. Unfortunately, many schools teach history only as a rote repetition and recital of names, dates, wars, and death tolls. We memorize the names of presidents, the dates of wars and how many people were killed in that war. Does that sound like a story? Is it interesting? Are you feeling inspired?
My favorite historian, David McCullough, noted that, “History has to be literature or it will turn to dust.” That rings so true to me. To keep history alive and in our hearts, it has to become a part of us–it must become a part of “our story”.
So, now I present the first way to be touched and inspired by history.
Read! Read! Read!
Okay, this is one of the usual ways to learn about history. And I admit that it is one my favorite ways to learn and be inspired by history. (I’m a writer so I naturally love to read.) But books are different. Beyond just the broad categories of fiction and nonfiction, books are a work of art. They can give “the facts” like an encyclopedia—and those are important. But they can also bring history to life. Truman Capote coined the “nonfiction novel” when, in 1965, he wrote the book “In Cold Blood.”
It was a true story about the murders of the Clutter family, the police investigation, the killers and the trial. It was a gripping story that brought Kansas in the 1950s to life. (You might be surprised how interesting that part of the book portraying life in small town Kansas was to me!) And it took us into the simultaneously tortured and privileged lives of the murderers. This was an amazing way to bring history to life. Yes, this was history! And it is a far cry from the textbook that is limited to the names and dates of events.
I recently finished reading a book called The Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, brought life to Florida in early 1930s and the lives, status and experience of African Americans. Many (not all, but many) of the Blacks living in Florida during that time were working in the orange groves. This true “story” had it all: midnight Klan chases, white woman alleging rape by 4 black men, ignorant and racist judges, a corrupt and brutal sheriff, lynches and attempted lynches, a defendant murdered under suspicious circumstances, FBI investigations, the Supreme Court and talented NAACP lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall. Who could ask for anything more?! It is a true “story” that brought the early civil rights movement to life in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. My point in mentioning these books is that history does not have been told only from a textbook, an encyclopedia or some other fact-filled book. It could, and I believe should, be told as a story about people. History should be literature.
Other types of non-fiction books bring history to life. I have read a lot of slave narratives. These are “stories” by the people who lived or were living as enslaved people. These are stories by the people in their own words. Men and women tell about their life on the plantation, their sufferings, their triumphs, their families and their determination. These are amazing stories. Yes, they can be quite sad, actually heartbreaking, but they also show the triumph of the human spirit.
They show manifest courage in the face of overwhelming odds. These are truly inspirational stories and I strongly encourage everyone to read them. I have some favorites like Remembering Slavery, which was written as part of FDR’s WPA program to preserve the stories of the former slaves. Another favorite is Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He is one of the most quotable people on the planet and his book is filled with amazing writing and an amazing story of a boy born into slavery who endured both kind and brutal masters but ultimately escaped and became a powerful abolitionist. But that is not the end of the story…just the beginning in fact. And his narrative (that was of course the perfect description for this book) reads and flows so well that the words practically melt off the page. No textbook here but there is lots of history. And even more inspiration.
The following is a quote from the book. It is not a happy quote but it is moving. And we know that he triumphs over these circumstances.
I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked—no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag, which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out.
These are just a few words from this great historical narrative. By the way, let me just read a short passage from another slave narrative just in case you are unfamiliar with this genre.
When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half so strong.
That quote was from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Harriett Jacobs—written by herself. You see, this is history! And it is a great way to be inspired by history.
David McCullough wisely said that “No harm is done to history by making it something someone would want to read.” Wise words. Reading is so important. So find your author, style and interest. And you will also find inspiration.
That’s all for today. Yes, I started out with books and reading but I hope that I have shown you that they can bring history to life—we just have to go beyond the traditional dry textbook that cares only about names and dates—not people. Not real history. We should never lose sight of the individual—they make history. We make history.
Remember to read, read and read a bit more. Inspiration can be found on every page. At Remembering History, we are remembering history and we’re making history.