Democratize History

In my History 364 Class we are reading Major Problems of American Business History. Each chapter in the book includes a few short first-person essays followed by some secondary source analyses. Because of the discussions we have had in this class, I am beginning to scrutinize how I am learning in this history class.

This is an online class, so this book is literally the only medium I am exposed to when I begin to form my idea of “American Business History.” I am extremely concerned with the primary source selection that this textbook offers. You may have guessed, an overwhelming majority of the first-hand sources come from white males. Shocking. I find this especially agitating because the book deals with moments in history when groups of people are completely victimized by one economic trend or another. Trust me, the victims are not usually white males, yet we almost entirely get their perspective. For instance, here are the authors included in the chapter titled: “Doing Business in the Slave South”: a Georgia plantation owner, a Carolina Industrialist, a senator in the Confederate State’s Congress, a Virginia Iron Master, and Senator James Henry Hammond. Thankfully, we get one short account from Frederick Douglass of the horrors of the slave trade to keep me from going insane. But, 5/6 of the essays in a chapter that deals with one of the most sensitive traumas of our country’s history speak to the benefits of slavery! How are students going to be influenced by a book like this? It is a scary thought.

This brings me to an important question. Are the more equitable narratives not included because the authors of my history textbook do not believe they are important, or do they simply not exist. Probably the latter. You probably would be hard-pressed to find many 1850s primary sources from slaves that have been preserved. This is an unfortunate reality. This is why I love the mission statement of the Federal Writers’ Project. They are making a conscious effort to break down history marginalization by recording the life histories of every kind of person: “poor whites in the South; blacks who had achieved distinction; river bottom cultures; the early history of state universities; criminals condemned to death; rural and urban slums; consumers’ and producers’ cooperatives;” and more (Hirsch 165). I hope their work (and ours) will lead to the democratization of the history books of our future.

Hirsch, Jerrold. “Portrait of America.” (n.d.): n. pag. The University of North Carolina Press. Web.

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1 Response to Democratize History

  1. Olivia Henley says:

    Hi, Annie!

    I really enjoyed your blogpost this week, it really got me thinking. If we enable clearly biased representation of history to be the sole or main representation, simply because of limited accounts and records that belong to other histories, what are we broadcasting? I completely agree that it’s a scary thought. What happens to the histories of the marginalized if we wait to long to go back and try to piece them together? Do they wither away or are they passed down again and again through communities and families destined to stay out of the limelight forever?

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one taking a much more critical look at history, how we perceive it, and what history really is outside of this class. I’m learning about rhetoric in the media in one of my classes and this ties in perfectly. Media is enabling common histories to blossom, but thankfully, some of the marginalized is peaking through.

    Like you, I hope that with the effort Federal Writers Project and hopefully many more variant groups there can be a change for the future.

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