Sunday, March 21, 2021

What Is History?

What is history? If you grew up when I did, history was likely taught as a series of boring sets of dates and names. Very American- and European-centric, and exceedingly white male dominated. Of necessity for time, history taught in grade school and high school was condensed to a subset of that.

Even allowing for that condensing of events, history generally came across as series of "great men doing great things". This U.S. president did this thing, this rich guy did this thing, this general defeated that general in a battle. Some of that is self-promotion, some of that is "history is written by the victors", and some is information lost over time, but much of it is simply an accepted but distorted view of things.

The reality of history is far more intricate, and far more interesting. A president may have signed a bill into law or started a war or given a speech, but it was countless unnamed people who made that thing happn. A rich person did things of note, but much of the actual work was probably done by countless unnamed people. A battle may be won or lost because of the strategy of generals, but battles are fought by individuals who do brave things, cowardly things, and live or die during the battle.

As a historian, it's easy to fall into the trap. People were famous by standards of their time because of their political office, their wealth, their geneaology, and so they are the ones who appeared in newspapers, history books, and official documents. Those things lead to their names being given to cities, parks, streets, and geographical features. And they were the ones who could afford to document their families with paintings, photographs, and other tangible items. So naturally the references to those people are more numerous and easier to find. Much of that is systemic: men as head of household, white men as owners of property, holders of political office, and so on. But frequency doesn't necessarily mean importance.

It's important to always take a step back when researching a historical figure. Look at who raised them, where they went to school and who taught them, the people who worked with them and for them, and look backwards and forwards to where and how their parents and children lived, where they went to school, etc.

And most importantly, remember that those other people are a part of history, whether they were "famous" or not. Your great-grandparent or great-great-grandparent who you know little about? They were part of history. The ones who fought in wars, whether in the U.S, or elsewhere, whether they were were a foot soldier or an officer, they were part of history. The one who drove a truck or wagon, the one who worked in a shop or the open field, the one who died without much fanfare. They were not only part of history—they made history, even if they didn't make it into the history books and newspapers.

Check out this presentation from the Oakland History Center, "Revisiting Historical Narriaves through Genealogical Research":

And I strongly encourage you to work to preserve your family's history, through photos, letters, films, and so on. After all, your ancestors made history, too.

If they're part of Oakland history, the Oakland Wiki ( is great place to document your family. Unlike Wikipedia, there's no requirement of them being "famous enough".

P.S. Those people in the photo are my great-grandparents. Andrew Anderson came from Sweden to Oakland about 1880. Emma Williams (Anderson) came about the same time. He worked on one of the ferryboats that plied SF Bay before there was a bridge, and they lived on Myrtle Street in West Oakland. But I can't tell you much else...they weren't famous.

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