Merely Temporary Fashion

C. S. Lewis on why we should study history.

C.s.lewis3In his fascinating new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs quotes C.S. Lewis from a sermon he gave at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 1939.

We need an intimate knowledge of the past not because the past has anything magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

What Lewis says here about the basic assumptions undergirding different periods of time is what I find most profitable about reading history, including biographies and memoirs. It’s not only that life looks different in these previous eras from our current vantage, it’s that the assumptions themselves about life can be seen more clearly with the benefit of historical distance.

There are ways of reading history that are either arrogant or nostalgic. That is, we have a tendency to think that we’ve progressed beyond whatever it is that strikes us as remedial about the past or we look wistfully back to what seems better than our current age. Lewis, I think, is suggesting something different- reading history for what it reveals about the assumptions we take for granted. It is a rare, almost impossible thing to have one’s most deeply held assumptions to be revealed for what they are, assumptions that have not been universally held. This is the gift of history.

In addition to Jacob’s book, here are a few others I’ve read this year which have helpfully challenged my assumptions: Grant, Ron Chernow (2017); City of God, Augustine of Hippo (426); Demanding Freedom, Brandon O’Brien (2018); Black Elk The Life of an American Visionary, Joe Jackson (2016); and, The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter (2011).

He Remembers Emmett Till

“What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.”

14EmmettTillBefore_(2534273093)14-year-old Emmet Till was lynched in 1955 down in Mississippi. His funeral – open-casket at the demand of his mother, Mammie Till Bradley, and attended by thousands – was held at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, just a couple of miles from where I sit on Chicago’s South Side.

Conceptionally I understand the likelihood that at some point I’ve crossed paths with someone who remembers that funeral, someone for whom Till’s name means more than a history lesson about America’s obsession with policing young black men’s bodies. It’s been a mere 63 years. I’ve been inside the church. But still, it seems a very long time ago.

Or it did. On Saturday my friend Mr. Young, a lifetime resident of the neighborhood, remarked almost casually that he’d been at Emmet Till’s funeral. He was eleven and his grandmother insisted on bringing him, wanting to instill a deadly important lesson about white people’s capacity for violence. It’s a lesson, he confessed, to which he never paid much attention. But he was there. He processed passed the casket of a child just a few years his elder, beaten beyond recognition. He saw people much older fall out in that church, the grief too heavy a load, at least for the moment.

I’m not sure what to take from this. I read enough history to know that historians lament the average American’s disinterest in the past. Maybe that’s true. But Mr. Young’s testimony is about more than remembering what shouldn’t be forgotten; I think it’s about how close these things are, about how incredibly quickly we relegate flesh and blood to memory’s sterile shelf.

In 1965 James Baldwin wrote an essay, “The American Dream and the American Negro”, in which he explored the country’s fraught relationship to its history. “The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors, through 400 years and at least three wars. Why is my freedom, my citizenship, in question now? What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.” Maybe that’s what I felt listening to Mr. Young’s firsthand account of the Till funeral. We’re so accustomed to historical obfuscation that when someone says something plainly – I was there – it’s a revelation.

Baldwin goes on: “When I was brought up I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and that neither had I. I was a savage about whom the least said the better, who had been saved by Europe and who had been brought to America. Of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. These were the only books there were. Everyone else seemed to agree.” Baldwin’s reflection on his own childhood in Harlem is one he applies more broadly to each of this nation’s citizens, that what passes for our history is actually a collection of history-obscuring myths. The fog of memory leaves poor white people consoled that “at least they are not black” and young black people, as Baldwin remembers himself, thinking that you “belonged where white people put you.”

I wonder whether we leave these malicious myths unchecked because they seem so distant, built deeply into the foundation upon which too many of our assumptions are built. But Mr. Young remembers walking into Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in the fall of 1955 to memorize his contemporary. And, to take another example in my community, Michelle Duster, Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter, is raising money for a statue to commemorate the woman who is the singular figure in the anti-lynching campaign. The threads are everywhere, ready to  traced backward to people and events whose influence remains brilliantly latent, available to dissipate myth and fog. Our historical amnesia might be intentional but it isn’t inevitable.