Commentary: Real lessons of history get lost in clutter
February 13, 2009
February is Black History Month followed by Women's History Month in March. Both observances seem to suffer from a common failing - trying to re-write history in light of what we wish had happened, rather than what did.
That's a shame, because some of the real lessons of history get lost in the clutter. A couple of examples from the American Revolution illustrate what I mean.
A few years back a poll was taken of high school students in Indianapolis. They were asked to name a great figure from the American Revolution. The number one response was Crispus Attucks.
For those who have forgotten, Crispus Attucks was a former slave who was shot and killed, alongside two other protesters, by British troops in Boston in 1770. This "Boston Massacre" was one of the events that eventually escalated into the Revolutionary War five years later.
Attucks' actions in protesting the presence of British soldiers were representative of the rising discontent in the colonies at the time. That he was black is important for us to remember. But to attach a "great" label on this early casualty of the conflict is to ignore reality.
Worse, the deification of Attucks by some in our country ignores the greater contributions of blacks to the cause of freedom at our nation's birth. While many know of this early casualty, few are aware that as many as 25 percent of the Soldiers who fought in the war for independence were black. Indeed, the Continental Army was probably the most integrated combat force to fight for our nation prior to Vietnam.
Women have their equivalents of Attucks, too. Molly "Pitcher," the wife of a Soldier in Washington's Army, carried water to her husband and others during the Battle of Monmouth in July 1778. When her husband was wounded, Molly took his place loading and firing a cannon. As heroic as her actions might have been, they certainly had no effect on the outcome of the battle, much less of the greater conflict. Yet, Molly is remembered today alongside the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
There is a similar thread to many of those highlighted during commemorative months. It is important to note that women and blacks were part of our nation's development. But it is harmful to endow their actions with greater importance than they deserve.
The fact is that when decisions were made that shaped great events in our history - indeed, in most of the history around the world - many types of people were not involved. No women served in the halls of Congress when our nation's political system was evolving in the early 19th century. No blacks commanded Army or Navy units as our nation expanded across a continent, then grew to become a world power.
Neither women nor black Americans were allowed to play central roles in these great events. We are left with only hints of the contributions that could have been made if society had been different.
It is really only in the lifetimes of many current Americans that things have changed.
In recent decades blacks have risen to the highest levels of command in our military, women have taken their rightful place in the Armed Forces and in the halls of power in our nation's capital. Finally, a black has risen to the highest post in our nation. Doors have clearly been opened.
But, as we see women and members of ethnic minorities climb to positions of influence in our world today, we can only wonder what contributions could have been made if these populations had had the same opportunities in the past.
So go ahead and take the time to remember those few women and minority members who made some small impressions in our early history. But rather than endow them with more importance than they had in their own times, look at how far we have come - and marvel at what might have been.
David W. Kuhns Sr. is editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.