Why is it that we see anything that’s not conventional, we’re uncomfortable? Why is it that history has been ‘conformed’ into this conventional ideology? Are we as Americans that concerned with not only how we present ourselves today but with how we present our history? No country is proud of their entire history. Mistakes are made. Why is it though, that Americans seem so bent on hiding away all that does not glitter?

Before Columbia: The FWP and American Oral History Research by Jerrold Hirsch points out that in the past, histories have been recorded in a certain way, not in the way that they were told. There is limited dialogue and the vernacular that was used in interviews was polished over. There was a pressure on oral history to implore the ideology of when it was recorded rather than when it was experienced.

This is not just about history in the terms of the Federal Writers Project, this is about all American history. There is an article, linked here that talks about how most people are ashamed of the Holocaust but not of the genocide of Native Americans.

Germans are ashamed. Immediately after the war there was no talking about what had been done. The next generation compelled their parents to tell why they allowed such a horrific tragedy to commence for so long, and the parents shushed them. They were too ashamed to talk. Even today, Germans as a whole refuse to be okay with it. They admit it happened, they do all they can to prevent idealists like those from the 30s-40s to rise again, and they try to move forward. These people are proud to be German, proud of their culture and heritage and their ability to move forward after the devastation of the war. These people though, are still ashamed of their role in the Holocaust.

What makes this different from the genocide that happened in America, where Europeans came over and decimated entire tribes, cultures, ways of life? It continued for hundreds of years. The Trail of Tears… there are still reservations that have been forced smaller and smaller today.

Why are Americans unashamed of the genocide committed by their ancestors? Is it because their history has been twisted? ‘We were helping the Native Americans become civilized.’ ‘It was our land for profit.’ ‘They didn’t understand what was happening.’

They didn’t need our help. It was their land. They understood exactly what was happening.

History, written by winners, conforms to winners ideals. It makes sense then that when the FWP commenced there were certain ideals, certain dialects and certain ways of life, phrases, as well as admittance to being mistreated that were left out entirely or morphed into the conventional. ‘Winners’ write history.

This is changing though. As history moves forward, plurality of ideas, of histories, of ways of living are becoming widely accepted. There is no way to correct the mistakes of the past, no way to change it, but why be ashamed to even admit it was wrong? We should be ashamed, yes. But, there’s no ignoring that it happened, simply because it happened. We must accepted it, record it, learn from it, and move on. Without accepting what really happened, we cannot really move forward.

Germany has moved on from the Holocaust, but America is still being shamed for their treatment of blacks and their treatment of Native Americans. Most of this shame comes from Americans themselves. Perhaps it’s time to chronicle history correctly, accurately, and move on.

About Olivia Henley

Marine Sciences
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1 Response to Conventionality

  1. Nicole Martin says:

    Hi, Olivia!

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post this week, and I think that you raise some very provocative questions. Regularly, I find many examples of Americans’ collective lack of shame regarding the genocide of the nations’ indigenous tribes on which you focus: the outcry regarding the possible discontinuation of the dehumanizing use of Native Americans as team mascots, Thanksgiving pageants at elementary schools in which children in feathered headbands gleefully welcome peaceful pilgrims, and the trashy Pocahontas costumes lining Party City’s shelves every Halloween, to name a few.

    Given these callous offenses, I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion to “chronicle history correctly,” but, as has been raised in class, where do historians begin? Which model should they employ–list-like databases, reminiscent of medieval annals, or the more traditional narrative form? And how can the perspectives of indigenous peoples be reconciled with those of white reporters? Even oral histories, such as those collected by the Federal Writers’ Project, seem to be infused with bias. For example, Hirsch writes that Couch selected which histories to publish, resulting in the exclusion of those which didn’t match his conception of what was interesting or appropriate. Additionally, interlocutors’ stories were often warped by writers’ individual voices, or their responses intentionally misled by leading questions.

    Is there a way to “correctly” and “accurately” record the past?

    Maybe not.

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