When I was about 10 or 11, I was fascinated with the American Civil War. Indeed, I once begged my mother to buy me a fifteen-hour documentary about the battles and generals. She was convinced that I would not watch the entire thing but nonetheless relented. And I did. History had been a passion of mine from an early age, but I can attribute this indelible fascination with the Civil War to my history teacher, Mr. T. He performed in military re-enactments and had even at one time re-enacted the Battle of Gettysburg. The battles were a consistent theme in the classroom as we examined the various uniforms, the generals, and political leaders. I particularly liked learning about Abraham Lincoln to the point that I memorized the ‘Gettysburg Address’ and watched countless documentaries on him. The Great Emancipator who had defied the odds and saved the nation represented a thread between myself and my country. In a childlike fashion, I liked Lincoln, because he would have ‘liked me’, which made him stand out among the figures we studied. In Lincoln’s eyes, I was an American; the war he had led to free my ancestors proved that for me. So, in his eyes, I was whole.
My love for Abraham Lincoln resurfaced as I happened upon some of my old DVDs at 22. I began to research the Lincoln I had met in my seventh-grade classroom using the skills that I had since acquired as a historian To my horror, though, I discovered the real Lincoln; the Lincoln who believed in separatism; the Lincoln who would have preferred that my ancestors return to Africa, leaving the county to mend in our absence. Ultimately, Lincoln began to resemble the rest of the characters in the story of the Civil War. In the words of Fredrick Douglass, ‘In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man’. It was only then that I began to revisit my childhood memories and realize a terrifying fact. The one aspect missing from Mr. T’s and my own vision of the American past: slaves. I still cannot remember a single lesson on slavery. It seems we both ignored that part, but for distinct reasons. I had overlooked this distortion of the past in the same way I had I ignored the fact that Mr. T had once told me ‘I was one of the good ones’ compared to my black and brown classmates. It was easier to disregard those moments than to confront them. I simply cannot describe the gut-wrenching feeling I felt as that childlike thread that had once sewn me securely to the fabric of my country was severed. I cried like a child for the loss of belonging that had grounded me.
My first reaction to this revelation was to shed all materiality of an American heritage to which I was no longer tethered. I began to identify as an African, abandoning that hyphen that never truly fit. I at once felt whole embracing a new, more authentic history. I turned my focus to the Black Diaspora and its unique past and wrote and produced an entire play to immerse myself and others in the stories that I had never learned about in school. In many ways, my experience of dealing with the past mirrors the major shifts now occurring in America and across the Western world. The resurfacing debate about race has resulted in commercial brands, sports teams, and even States trying to distance themselves from their sordid history. While some have dubbed these shifts corporate activism, the sentiment is a common reaction to dealing with a problematic history. We believe that if we can all at once shed the physical ties of the history in which our narrative has been unsettled, we can rectify a past that has left so many broken. This process of unlearning or confronting a wretched past is by no means unique to the United States, as European countries try to burn some of the uncomfortable iconography of their own histories. As statues across the West are defaced and hurled into the sea, there seems to be a widespread desire to divest ourselves from what were once considered the good old days.
This process of severance worked for me until I arrived in the UK in 2019 to pursue an MA in public history. In this new world, I was American, and my history was a valued asset in discussing race. During my time in England, I was struck by how much African American history was referenced. Our history was discussed in my courses through the slave narratives and the role of slavery in shaping American culture. Our figures were highlighted in the curriculum for secondary school students. About mid-way through my time in England, I began recognising a similar method of elision to the one to which I had been exposed at school, and I realised that outside of America, our history has often been used to discuss race from a comfortable distance. It is far easier to discuss the KKK South or the white backlash against the African American Civil Rights movement than to address the financial investments of the slave traders or the ribbon-tied racism that is still prevalent in the Europe. My narrative supplies a comfortable distance to discuss race without confronting the pervasive structures that continue to marginalize the black community in the UK. In conversations with my black and brown British friends and through my work with the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, the results of this method of dealing with the past seem very similar to those I had experienced. For the first time in over five years, my closest friend Alex and I had a conversation about how dominant my African American narrative had been for him as a London boy, a dominance that meant he could never truly feel whole and a part of his country. His narrative could never be properly explored if ‘Black history’ was so inextricably linked to ‘African American history’. His past was in a sense erased by mine. History has a cost.
But what does this journey through various approaches to the past provide in the way of instruction for the public historian? Can we genuinely help in the current process of dealing with the past? Or are we solely fire starters who cause havoc and leave our public to grapple with flames? If the traditional approaches to uncomfortable pasts that I and others encountered at school have no substance, then what innovative approaches should we employ? To these questions, I can supply no concrete answers concerning the way forward. Many of the issues I am raising are not new or even unique to the profession. It often seems, however, that many of my colleagues feel no particular duty to contemplate them. What I do know is that none of us are free from or above the debate. There is no history that has no power. There is no aspect of our field that should remain untouched by this conversation.
So, where do we go from here? In the words Edward Baptist, the first place to start will be in asking the right questions and imagining a new way of doing and telling history. It is my belief that much of this work should focus on the classroom, an area often neglected by historians. If Mr. T had been armed with the proper educational tools, would we have covered slavery and not just the uniforms? If Alex could have learned about OWAAD in his secondary school, would he feel whole? Decolonisation must be a verb. It is a process of tearing down, but also a process of repositioning what we once thought was fixed and settled.
The murder of George Floyd was familiar. I opened the video reluctantly because I had seen it before. I had seen it when Tamir Rice was gunned down for having a toy gun. I had seen it when Freddy Gray was killed. I had felt it when 7-year-old Aiyanna Jones was shot for sleeping on her grandmother’s couch. I needed no reminders of what it means to be black in America, especially amid a pandemic in which my demographic had been disproportionately affected. I needed no rendition of the cost of my skin. But I still cried. I still thought of the reality of what it feels like. This was the America from which Mr. T, and I were running; the result of a tumultuous past, that left victims in its wake.
When I think about my revelation about Lincoln, it was at that moment that I had finally reached adulthood, at least in a historical sense. I had finally faced the reality of my past. Against the backdrop of a nation on fire, it is still unclear if my country has, less to act on that revelation. But this work is inevitable, whether it is carried out peacefully or in turmoil. A couple of months after my discovery of the real Lincoln, I went down to Washington DC to take in the new African American History Museum constructed to remind the public of the impact of the African American past. The museum is massive, with over four centuries worth of history and culture within its walls. A visit can easily last a day, if not more. It stands as a physical reminder that African Americans have always been tethered to the fabric of the country. We have always been present. It is the legacy my ancestors fought for. But it is also offers method through which we can refocus our lens to see a different narrative. A different America. The retelling of the past.
After touring through the galleries, I made my way down to the Lincoln Memorial. I stood under the great statue of the man, rather than the myth of my childhood. I stared at him for a long while, taking in the weight of his existence and the hundreds of people who had come to visit him that day. The Great Emancipator. Eventually, I smiled and whispered, “It is great to finally meet you Mr. Lincoln.”
Daisha Brabham is a former teacher from New Haven, Connecticut, currently enrolled on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.