If history is written by the victors, can we change who wins by changing the stories we tell about the past?
David Mura asked the above question in the context of a discussion about lies in textbooks and public history displays, cultural appropriations and distorted and offensive depictions of Indigenous and Latino people.
It is a wonderful question, one that is central to arguments about reparations and stopping the patterns of repression.
Resistance to colonization and imperialism past and present are central themes for Latina writer Teresa Ortiz. Rhiana Yazzie sees history as circular– the repression of the past happening today. Emmanuel Ortiz addressed Mura’s question of history and victors, noting that “our definition of victory is not the same.”
Mura brought up the recent effort to secure apologies and reparations for the deportation of Mexican Americans — U.S. citizens — during the Great Depression. An example that illustrates the danger in making corrections for the past with without explaining the hierarchies they upheld, documenting the struggle that led to change, and recognizing recurring patterns, like the uptick in deportations following the 2008 recession.
As R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. talked about monstrous depictions of Native Americans painted on the walls of the capital and offered himself as a subject of replacement portrait, I imagined a painting of him pointing at the old depiction, and his words speaking truth to the history of misrepresentation.
In Detroit, someone laid a tomahawk in the forehead of Columbus on October 12, of this year. A permanent display like that, vilifying St Paul’s Columbus statue, and explaining the history of it erection is better I think, than taking it down and pretending it was never there.
Minneapolis’ Lake Bde Maka Ska, was for 180 years called Lake Calhoun after John C. the slave holder, Mexico invader and Indian killer. Now it needs only the Dakota name, but on each sign there should be a plaque explaining how it came to be named Calhoun, why that was offensive, what people had to do to change it back to its original name. That history includes people like Bree Newsome who climbed a flagpole in South Carolina to remove a confederate flag this past June, accelerating the push to de-confederate Minnesota as well.
The days after Mura’s panel, I had two conversations with African-American students questioning their majors in Ethnic Studies “because the information is too depressing.” I took those conversations as a challenge to spend more time in my classes exposing the human determination and struggle undergirding all social progress.
We go back and tell truths, not to live in the past, but to change the future.