For this new series with new contributor Christine Reyes, we’re covering books that reveal and recover aspects of (primarily) US history. This is the introduction and the first entry.
Toni Morrison says that the black novel is important because it can suggest what the conflicts and problems are in our society, not necessarily as a means of solving them, but as a way of recording and reflecting them. This is true for the novels of any kind of person — we tell stories about the problems we see and how they affect our own lives. So the question is this: whose stories are we listening to, and how are they influencing our perception of the conflicts we see?
We like to think of our own country’s history as the solid and unchanging foundation of today’s world, but those who study it quickly discover how fluid it is. I still meet people who are surprised that California was ever part of Mexico, people who think slavery happened a long time ago, people who believe that indigenous people are all gone from the Americas. This is evidence that, when we look back at history, we have some control over what we choose to see.
This past year in particular, we’ve seen how skeptical we should be of any mainstream news story, and I think the country overall needs to learn how to apply that skepticism to the way we’ve been taught our own history. Bringing these perspectives into our collective memories won’t solve any problems, but it will help us identify and record the conflicts that exist.
I tend to believe that we need to know as much as possible about situations we’re dealing with before we make any decisions about how we’re going to resolve them. That means that we, the book nerds, the learners, the lovers of story and narrative, need to start reading and telling the stories that are missing in today’s conversations.
After lots of Google searches and polling of friends for reading suggestions, I settled on these eight books for helping us remember the history we forget.
It’s a reading list that tries to answer the question, “What parts of US history have we erased?” I’m planning to finish all eight this year, as a way of reminding myself to keep challenging the mainstream narrative and questioning the perspectives we’re taught. I included The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky to help us remember that there’s a world outside of the US, something we also tend to forget.
I began with Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit. Hope in the Dark celebrates the successes of activists over the past few years, ones that often go unacknowledged, especially by those who insist protests do nothing. Solnit explains that some people don’t want to celebrate small successes out of fear that people will get comfortable and give up on the larger fight. But it’s much more likely that people, having been told that there is no chance of changing the world, will never try to fight at all. Hope comes from the margins and from outside the spotlight of mainstream narratives, but Solnit’s slim book does an incredible job of bringing it all out, along with commentary that inspires people to continue working for incremental change, rather than criticizing them for not doing more.
Hope in the Dark takes you through the liberation movement of Latin America, the environmentalism of local farmers, the anti-war protests of the Bush area, and the tremendous unity that we show in times of crisis like the 9/11 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina. Regardless of your politics, it’s a stirring read that should push anyone to question the distance between the official narratives we see on TV, and what is actually happening on the ground, in a country that may be more united and empathetic than we give ourselves credit for.