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(Why Study The Past?)

What continually calls us to the past, those of us who feel compelled to cast a backward glance? What do we seek, turning the yellowed leaves of a journal penned in faded hand?  With what expectations do we unpack the moth-riddled contents of a grandmother’s trunk?

As a child, I was fortunate to be twice present at the gathering of my geographically far-flung aunts and uncles. Distance wasn’t the only thing that separated these five siblings. My eldest uncle had been twenty, married, and out of the house when my mother (the baby) was born. But collectively, they possessed a remarkable fount of memories. Variously, they had ridden in rumble seats. Rolled their own cigarettes. Listened to baseball on the radio.  Been devotees of the Saturday matinee film serials. Jitterbugged to Benny Goodman on 78 rpm vinyl. Coveted zoot suits. Worn saddle shoes. Listening to them reminisce, I hunkered low, barely breathing, so that I might not break the spell they cast. I was happy to be wrapped in the blissful cocoon of their nostalgia. It was only much later that I wondered how these memories reflected the larger, darker forces that had shaped their young lives: the Great Depression, World War II.

While still a college student, writing for a local paper, I covered Angela Davis’s visit to our campus. A powerful speaker, she cautioned us: “Never forget from whence you came.” It was all too seductive, she said, the shiny elitism of the university. It could blind you to your humbler origins, make you forget your roots. Her words resonated with me. Despite the suburban affluence of my childhood, my mother was the only one in her family to finish high school. My grandmother’s education had ended with grade eight.

Recently, I googled Davis’s warning, certain it must be part of some larger quote. My search turned up the African “Sankofa,” both an Asante Adrinka symbol, and a word from the Akan language of Ghana that has been translated literally as “reach back and get it,” and more meaningfully, “If you don’t know from whence you came, you will not be able to move forward.”

As Americans, we pride ourselves on moving forward. We are a nation of chameleons, re-inventing ourselves, shedding former skins as fashion and desire dictate. Why look back when anything/everything is possible in the future? In the abstract, it’s true: anyone could grow up to be president. But in reality, we all carry our baggage forward. We can’t invent our future from whole cloth; can’t simply wish it into existence. We are awash in our personal and collective history and helpless to look away from it, for the past keeps moving into the present. Much of the conflict in the Middle East today has its roots in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which redrew the map of the Middle East, carving up ancient empires in ways that suited the European victors, but not the region’s inhabitants. The same treaty’s harsh demands for war reparations from Germany helped elect a mediocre Austrian painter with a funny little mustache who went on to occupy most of a continent, murder millions, and start a second world war. Closer to home, the decision in 1619 to bring the first Africans to work as slaves in the tobacco fields at Jamestown led to a civil war more than two hundred years later, and haunts us still in the headlines of Ferguson and Charleston. We are each the product of many things, many experiences—the current expression of a long, tangled strand of lives. Far from being irrelevant, the past holds out to us the opportunity to understand ourselves, our times, this world. The chance to use the wisdom of the ages to better our future. We ignore it at our peril.

As a child, I would beg my grandmother, “Tell me about when you were a little girl.” Her life was a story I needed to hear. She died when I was thirteen. My only regret is that I did not ask more questions.

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