I can tell you precisely the moment when I was bitten by the history bug. When history went from being something that I was abstractly interested in to something I was passionate about. Nay, enthusiastic about. It came to life for me and became something that would, well, it would become a life-long love. I don’t ever see myself not loving history and not leaping to take advantage of chances to delve into historical artifacts and events. I don’t see myself ever not squeeing with delight
It was a hot October day and I was in Salem, Massachusetts, wandering through the house of Rebecca Nurse, one of the women persecuted during the Salem Witch Trials. Her house is maintained as a historical museum and it has some replicas of artifacts from the era. You can also take a few steps to the family cemetery right next to the house. I was in Rebecca Nurse’s house, and I realised that although I’d spent years reading that people were shorter in the 17th and 18th centuries, here I was in the house of someone from that era, and it felt like a house made for me.
For context, I am around four feet, eleven inches tall. And this house felt like, well, it felt like a home. Modern houses I enter, everything is slightly off kilter. It’s not a lot, I am not that short, but it is just enough. Counters are slightly too high. Doorknobs are slightly out of place. Handles are not quite where I would want them to be. It’s like someone magnified the house by 107%, just enough to throw me off, but not enough that I feel totally disoriented. After all, I am used to it at this point.
But Rebecca Nurse’s house, everything was just right. It was where it should be. And the people with me were all very tall, and they were clonking around and tripping on the stairs and hitting beams with their heads. It was a Goldilocks moment for me. That dry information in textbooks, that people used to be smaller, came to life for me because I was there and, well, I’m small. And I always felt too small for the spaces around me, but finally I took up the right amount of space.
Later, I had an opportunity to actually look at original records from Salem. And it was another lightbulb moment for me. Something I had viewed in facsimile, something I had read synthesized by countless others, was suddenly right in front of me. I could read it for myself. I could draw my own conclusions. It was like watching a door that I didn’t even know was there suddenly snap open, and just walking right through it.
I realised in a way I never had before that history is a living, breathing thing. I know it sounds kind of silly, but it was something that had actually happened. And it also made me realise the dangerous of filtering history through others. Of allowing others to read and report on history, instead of seeking out the information for myself. Of letting stories only be told from one perspective.
And it made me realise the value of keeping and preserving records. Things that might not seem so important or interesting now could be fascinating later, as I’ve realised looking through subsequent original source documents relating to other historical events. You really do never know when or what might be relevant, how material might be used. And people who preserved things ensured that even if stories weren’t told at the time or official publications were incomplete, that the information was out there. It was available. For people who were willing to look for it and sift through it, it might provide an entirely new perspective that had not been considered before.
I’m not a historian. In college, I went on to focus on anthropology, specifically studying military culture and the anthropological aspects of warfare. Which is, in a sense, related to history, and it also involves going through original source materials. But I never forgot the lessons I learned in Salem that day, and I continue to apply them to my daily life. Because history matters. It is important.
I believe in history. This sounds tremendously cheesy, but it’s the truth. There are all sorts of things there for the finding. And I think that one of the biggest flaws we face as a society and that individual movements face is a lack of history. An inability to incorporate historical perspectives. An unwillingness to think about history.
History is loaded. History is scary. History, all of it, sometimes reveals unpleasant things. It erodes the images we have of icons, it causes our visions of perfect societies to crumble. This, the ugly truth of history, must be brought to light and explored. We need to talk about it. We need to contextualise it. When we don’t, we do a disservice to history and ourselves.
If we do not, for example, talk about the intersections between the eugenics movements and the women’s rights movements, those deep roots of racism and ableism that lie under some feminist ideologies, we aren’t going to understand why racism and ableism continue to be problems with the feminist movement. History has real impact and it resonates; the things that some people fought for continue to be fought over today. ‘Feminists’ believed that ‘idiots’ shouldn’t reproduce and diluted versions of that belief, that ideology, that line of thinking, trickled down to modern day feminism. The whitewashing of feminist idols ensures that people have to dig to find the roots of this thinking. The concealment means that it isn’t readily apparent and feminists express shock and surprise when, well, people point out that this was a fact, and bring out original source materials to prove it.
History is like the ocean. If you turn your back on it, a sneaker wave might just get you.