Last year, I write a blog post that discussed why I love history. (It was called “What Inspires Me” if you want to read it again.) Unequivocally, I answered that history inspires me. I love the stories, the people, the intrigue, struggles and the triumph. They all inspire me. History shows me that nothing happens in a vacuum and reminds me that nothing ever had to happen as it did. While I have some belief in fate, I am inspired by the thought that we have some control over our destiny. And history reminds me of that.
History also reminds me to live in the moment. Yes, I know that it’s strange to think that studying the past helps me to live more fully in the present! But it is definitely true. I realized that history isn’t really about people living in the past; it’s the STUDY of how people lived in past times. But people only live in the present. Whether it is in 5th century Greece, 16th century Mali, 18th century United States or yesterday, people can only live in the present. The difference is that we all have our “present.” That’s where everything happens. We might look to the future and reflect on the past but we can only act in the present. History reminds me to be mindful of that fact.
I had a lot of responses and discussion about my history “obsession” from my blog post. Apparently, I touched a few people “out there” which is always a pleasure. But it is also humbling because many people wanted to know how I actually “find” history. They thought that I sit down with a 1,000-page textbook written in a size 10-font and read into the wee hours of the night. (I admit that this is my ritual sometimes!) But I realized (this is the humbling part) that I didn’t discuss any interesting or inspiring ways to learn or experience history. I didn’t provide any guidance about activities that I do to bring history to life for me. That was my fault. And I plan to correct this problem in my six-part series.
Six parts?! That’s right. I am announcing a groundbreaking new 6-part blog and podcast series called:
6 Fun and Easy Ways to be inspired by History
I will post six ways that people can access history in a way that is educational, interesting and inspirational. Each part will introduce another fun and easy way to get inspired by history.
Each method will not be for everyone. We all learn in different ways and respond to different stimuli. That’s the way it should be—we are just individuals, after all. But I am confident that every one will find at least one way that works for them. And, really, all anyone needs is one way to be inspired by history but I'm confident that most people will find several ways.
I will also release these posts in 6 wiki (that’s Hawaiian for “quick”) podcasts. You will find them on the Remembering History Podcast page (called Listen Up!) on rememberinghistory.com website. This is also supplemented by the Wiki History Podcast page on Facebook where you will find pictures and videos of each method that I present. I ‘m really changing the paradigm: Reading blogs is great but I also want to present these ways to you in my own voice and expression. The wiki podcasts are only 3 or 4 minutes—remember, they are quick (wiki)—but they also contain lots of information in an easy and relaxed way. Just sit back and enjoy them. Or enjoy them on your morning walk or evening jog. Anyway, I hope that you’ll read posts or listen to the podcasts of this important series. It could change your life. It could open up a new world or even an underworld to you. And, mostly, I hope that you will let history inspire you—it’s all there for the taking.
Looking forward to seeing you in Part I of this innovative, radical, trailblazing new series:
6 Fun and Easy ways to be inspired by history
What is the first fun and easy way to be inspired by history?
That is a great question but I want to back up for a moment just to reflect upon the challenge that this series is addressing.
I have always enjoyed a good story—whether happy, sad or both. A story well told or well presented has always caught and captured my attention. So, history was--and still is--a natural attraction for me. After all, what is history? Stories! The expression that “fact is stranger than fiction” rings so true but with one minor change. In my experience, fact is more powerful than fiction. Factual stories intrigue and move me. I also find that the drama of the human experience can be so inspirational. But history is not often presented in an inspirational or even interesting way.
Unfortunately, many schools teach history only as a rote repetition and recital of names, dates, wars, and death counts. We memorize the names of presidents, the dates of wars and how many people were killed in that war. Does that sound like a story? Is it interesting? Are you feeling inspired?
My favorite historian, David McCullough, noted that, “History has to be literature or it will turn to dust.” That rings so true to me. To keep history alive and in our hearts, it has to become a part of us--it must become a part of “our story.” It has to become part of our literature.
So, now I present the first way to be touched and inspired by history.
Method #1: Read! Read! Read!
Yes, this is one of the usual ways to learn history. And I admit that it is one my favorite ways to learn and be inspired by history. (I’m a writer so I naturally love to read.) But books are different. Beyond just the broad categories of fiction and nonfiction, books are works of art. They can give “the facts” like an encyclopedia. Those are important. But they can also bring history to life. In 1965, Truman Capote coined the “nonfiction novel” when he wrote “In Cold Blood.”
It was a true story about the murders of the Clutter family, the police investigation, the killers and the trials. It was a gripping story that brought Kansas in the 1950s to life. (You might be surprised how interesting that part of the book portraying life in small-town Kansas was to me!) In Cold Blood took us into the simultaneously tortured and complex lives of the murderers as well as the simple and privileged lives of the victims.
For this groundbreaking book, Truman Capote did extensive research, visiting the town, interviewing the local residents, the family friends and sheriff. He spent countless hours interviewing the two perpetrators in their prison cells and even spent time with their immediately before their execution. And Capote gave us the "story" of this terrible crime, which was in the making long before it actually happened. This was an amazing way to bring history to life. Yes, this was history! And it is a far cry from the textbook that is limited to the names and dates of events.
Here’s another great history book.
I recently finished reading The Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King. This book resurrected life in a small Florida town in early 1930s. It painted a unique picture of the lives and experiences of African Americans living in the southern United States after World War I. Many (not all, but many) of the Blacks living in Florida during that time were working in the orange groves. However, some were small business owners, recently returned WWI veterans or house cleaners.
This true “story” had it all: midnight Klan chases, white woman alleging rape by 4 black men, racist judges, a corrupt and brutal sheriff, lynches and attempted lynches, uneducated Black defendants, torture and killings in police custody, FBI investigations, the Supreme Court and talented NAACP lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall.
Who could ask for anything more?! The Devil in the Grove is a true and riveting “story” that brought the early civil rights movement to life in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Undoubtedly, Gilbert King did his own research in Florida, libraries and of course interviewing the "cast" of judges, civil rights activists and lawyers. His creation was nothing short of an historical masterpiece!
My point in mentioning these books is that history doesn’t always have been told only from a textbook, an encyclopedia or some other fact-filled book. It could, and I believe should, be told as a story about people. History should be literature.
Other types of non-fiction books bring history to life. Consider slave narratives. These are “stories” by the Africans who had lived or were living as enslaved people. These are stories by the people in their own words. Men and women tell about their life on the plantation, their sufferings, their triumphs, their families and their determination to survive and create a life for themselves. These are amazing stories. Yes, they can be quite sad, actually heartbreaking, but they also show the triumph of the human spirit.
Slave narratives show manifest courage in the face of overwhelming odds. These are truly inspirational stories and I strongly encourage everyone to read them. I have some favorites like Remembering Slavery, which was written as part of President Roosevelt’s WPA program to preserve the stories of the former slaves.
Another favorite read is Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He is one of the most quotable people on the planet and his book is filled with incomparable prose and an incredible story of a boy born into slavery who endured kind and brutal masters but ultimately escaped and became a powerful speaker and abolitionist. But that is not the end of the story…just the beginning. And his narrative (that was of course the perfect description for this book) reads and flows so well that the words practically melt off the page. No textbook here but there is a lot of history. And even more inspiration.
The following is a quote from the book. It is not a happy quote but it is memorable. And we know that he triumphs over these circumstances.
I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked—no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag, which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out.
These are just a few words from this great historical narrative. By the way, let me just present a short passage from another slave narrative just in case you are unfamiliar with this genre.
When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half so strong.
That quote was from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Harriett Jacobs—written by herself. You see, this is history! And it is a great way to be inspired by history.
David McCullough wisely said “No harm is done to history by making it something someone would want to read.” Reading is so important. So find your author, style and interest. And you will also find history and inspiration.
That’s all for part I. Yes, I started out with books and reading but I hope that I have shown you that books can indeed bring history to life—we just have to go beyond the traditional dry textbook that presents only about names and dates—not people. Not real history. We should never lose sight of the individual—they make history. We make history.
Remember to read, read and keep reading. Inspiration can be found on every page. At Remembering History, we are remembering history and we’re making history. Look for part II of this great and groundbreaking series about fun and easy ways to learn history. Spoiler alert: Makes a great Friday night activity!