Children love stories about their parents as kids, especially stories their parents don’t want them to hear. Stories can make sense of the world, express our humanity, and change the way we see the world.
After lunch recess, my sixth graders returned to the classroom eagerly. What awaited them was a chapter in a book or a story of some kind. Through storytelling, they learned about history, other cultures, values, and ideas.
America’s history is a narration of white men who made it by the “sweat of their brow,” the landowners, farmers, cowboys, etc. These stories tell that these were the men who built our nation. Whether we begin with the arrival of the Mayflower, the beginning of the Civil War, or the end of World War II, the common thread, the brightest strand, is the idea of the independent white man.
In the 1930s, southerners benefitting from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program were starting to prosper. The Southern Agrarian Society, a group opposing the government’s support for the people, blamed modernity and industrialization for destroying American traditions. The idealism of agricultural life was steeped in the notion of independence without government intervention. It’s the American way! An Atlanta housewife, Margaret Mitchell, furthered this storyline in her only book. The main protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, a woman is fighting a war against the government and the inevitable economic changes. In the mid-twentieth century, Gone With the Wind sold second only to the Bible.
A popular series of books in the thirties, based on the author’s childhood, encouraged the idea of the independent man. Laura Ingalls Wilder loathed the Roosevelts (expressed in a letter to her daughter) and the New Deal. She portrays Pa as the family’s provider and protector from hostile Indians. He hunted game and planted fields on the land—free through the Homestead Act. Mrs. Wilder doesn’t mention the free land part. Pa told Laura that men have to look out for themselves to remain “free and independent.” In reality, all his efforts are never enough to take care of the family. It takes the income from Ma and the four sisters to meek out a subsistence way of life.
Laura Ingalls Wilder writes how the family scrimped and saved to send the blind sister Mary to college. But all the scrimping accomplished was to pay the cost of the train tickets and Mary’s clothes. It was the state of South Dakota that paid the tuition and room and board for Mary. But that’s not what we remember from the story. Instead, we remember Pa, the independent man caring for his family. Today, The Little House on the Prairie series remains one of the most influential American stories told.
Storytelling channels beliefs into our bloodstream. Tales repeated time-after-time become the values we adopt. But, like the roots of an old tree, stories we inherit are difficult to amend.
“By 1939,” historian Heather Cox Richardson writes, “Hollywood was capitalizing on the image of boot-strapped self-reliance.” In that year, Hollywood came out with several films pushing the message of individuals fighting against the government: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Stagecoach.
In each film, the people faced some catastrophe caused by a corrupt government. After great suffering at the hands of the evil government, the characters triumph. Good and God sided with courageous and brave individuals.
Mr. Smith is a story of an idealist appointed to the U.S. Senate by dishonest politicians who see him as someone who will take orders. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy encounters an evil Wizard (the government) who pretends to give her and her pals the brains, hearts, and courage they already have. Stagecoach delivers all the tropes of Western films: savage Indians, a Mexican cook, a prostitute with a heart of gold, and a cowboy (John Wayne), a prototype of the Western hero, self-reliant and suspicious of the government.
Monumental events shake us to the core, and we question the validity of the status quo. It happened after the Civil War with the abolition of slavery. Women and people of color demanded the equality America claimed to represent.
In December of 1941, when America declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy, people of all backgrounds and colors came together to defend their nation. “When the nation emerged from the carnage triumphant, Americans celebrated their communal effort.” Time magazine called it the beginning of the American Century, the birth of democracy and freedom.
In the middle of the twentieth century (the forties through eighties), the standard of living in the U.S. improved because the government used tax dollars to support the people. With the GI Bill, minimum wage, Social Security, financial regulations, to name a few, the economy grew, and the middle class expanded. But the story of the independent man didn’t go away.
Family stories we tell our kids bind them to one another and give them a sense that they are a part of something larger. We tell ideological tales to gain followers willing to believe what we tell them.
Today, those opposing government policies supporting the common person tell tales of Socialism. For example, the restaurant worker shortages are caused by the government’s giving people too much money. Those with opposing views explain the worker shortage as caused by businesses unwilling to pay livable wages and health care.
Storytelling weaves threads through our lives. The stories of my youth are part of who my children are, but not without them questioning the details. “You said you walked five kilometers in knee-deep snow to go to school. Now it’s ten kilometers.” Their questions were and are signposts of their growing maturity and wisdom. It’s better to have questions we can’t answer than answers that can’t be questioned.
History is continuous documentation of our past, the pleasing and the cringeworthy. Seeking constant reassurance of what we hold true is easier than the unpleasant reality. Courage is not about having all the answers but facing those you have avoided all your life.
Throughout time, humans keep making the same mistakes. My husband likes to say, “learning math and how to read matter most,” the building blocks for all other endeavors. I’m ready to leave the math to the machine and define reading as “reading of history.” Only when we understand the long history behind issues can we fight for progress. Repeating what doesn’t work, we are like hamsters on wheels and we know-how that goes. Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” That require studying history and digesting the uncomfortable.
History explains how laws came to be and the affect they had on different people and cultures. It tells us of the efforts of people in the past who fought for what we fight for today. Knowing history means the ability to cite relevant information to focus on why some policies and laws are harmful and need addressing. Knowing what has been tried and didn’t work offers a platform for innovation, doing something we have not done before.
- How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson