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An elephant in the room of American History.

2 December, 2011

Ok — this is perforce a short really long version (because I couldn’t take the time to edit to something short and sensible), but it seems important to me that I put it down while it’s fresh. And since I’m cooking dinner, I figured I could take the few minutes and do that without feeling too guilty.

For reasons I won’t go into, I was at one point today surrounded by people with an interest in American history, and more specifically, the history of where I live. The conversation was largely about immigrant populations that made America.

Except that it wasn’t. It was about the immigrants who made an America. To be fair, it is the America of the textbooks. But I didn’t grow up east of the Appalachians, or the Mississippi, or even the Rockies. There were lots of immigrants in my part of the country before the Revolution, but then, that’s not America. Well, it is now, but.

Suddenly, it really hit me how different the American history narrative is from anything I’m used to.

The American history narrative only works as the history of a nation. Not only that, but it only works as the history of an Anglo-centric nation.

The textbooks I use for East Asian history are histories of areas AND of the peoples who formed kingdoms, empires, and eventually modern nation states. Histories of European nations are also like that. In those histories — and I supposed in that particular sort of historiographical paradigm — we have to deal with really difficult and hard-to-define ideas: what is nationhood? what exactly is ethnicity? what do we mean by the history of Germany, or France, or China? Is it where the people who identified as Germans or Franks or the French or Chinese (which Chinese? Han? but there are non-Han in China, and they were both Chinese and not…)

But in American history, it’s as if there is a curtain. Good revisionism has forced the inclusion of Native Americans, but the history is still one written in ways best played out in cartoon graphics. There is a continent, and there are natives. White people from Europe show up, but only the British count; the Dutch are bought out, and the French exist as foils for the British settlers. They are there only to be driven back to Canada, as if they were not only invaders of Native American lands, but of British lands as well. Slowly, the borders move west. The Louisiana Purchase is added. We got it from France, you know. It’s a big honking piece of territory, parts of which were inhabited by actual French people. Who spoke French. Presumably, they had some influence on the places they settled. Well, duh! Hello, New Orleans! cajuns! (with some explanation of Acadia, if you’re lucky) weird legal traditions that aren’t English Common Law!

Because, well, their traditions aren’t part of America, really. They’re foreigners, even though they might have been born here. In America, the place. Not the nation. Which is a place.

Skip ahead to the Mexican-American War, and Gold Rush. Watch as Americans — real Americans, who include immigrants from other parts of Europe — move west. See the horrors of the clashes with Native Americans — on the plains, mostly. And in parts of the southwest. But there’s not much on the Pueblo peoples (unless they fought back, nor until they were forced onto reservations). And there’s almost nothing about the remaining Native Americans in California, except as survivors of Spain’s imperial endeavors. But the Spanish cultural influence, and then the influence of Mexico (also Hispanized), are glossed over. The areas are part of America, but they weren’t American. The people and the culture that could not be categorized as Native simply stopped existing. America was there now, and they were not part of America’s history. They were foreigners — not even immigrants — to be absorbed or ignored.

Or at least it seems that way to me. The American history narrative is one that grudgingly allows Native Americans a place, although only in relation to Europeans. But those parts of the country that developed differently, that had different cultural influences? We can ignore them, and their heritage, because, well, they weren’t American till they became part of the nation.

Given my expectations for dealing with areas where many different populations and cultures have lived and often influenced each other for a couple of millennia, I really have a hard time getting my head round this sort of narrative.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    2 December, 2011 5:59 am

    In giving a job talk in California, I suddenly realized how provincial the Atlantic perspective was. Of course, what I do is Anglo, but still, I know it’s more complicated 🙂

  2. 2 December, 2011 12:34 pm

    The US national narrative works the way it does because there is a single dominant political state formed by British settlers that expands westward. Most older narratives of Russian history are similar with the principality of Muscovy becoming the core of the Russian Empire and expanding eastward, westward, and southward with very little attention to the history of peoples on the Steppe, the Caucasus, and Siberia. Traditional Russian historians like Riazanovsky are so Russian centric as to make the most racist Anglo-centric US histories appear downright multi-culti. It is only in the last couple of decades that this has been changing. Andreas Kappler’s work on the Russian Empire as a multi-ethnic state is a good example of a work that addresses these issues well. That said I think there are plenty of historical works including older ones that deal with the US from different geographic and cultural perspectives. When I lived in Arizona I came across a number of old state history textbooks. While quite biased, they did not neglect the fact that the first Europeans to come to the region were Spanish and they encountered a number of different peoples already living in the area. So the first part of the text books up until the Mexican-American War don’t have much on Anglos at all. It is all on the Spanish, Apaches, Navajos, Pimas, Hopis, and later Mexicans. It can be argued that the coverage of these textbooks presents a skewed narrative of these earlier people failing to successfully harness the resources of the harsh desert land of Arizona like the later Anglo-Americans. But, they were not ignored or deemed inconsequential.

    • 2 December, 2011 1:22 pm

      That’s one of the reasons that this struck me. I grew up with those state history textbooks. So listening to people talk about the earliest immigrant history of country in a way that just ignores the other colonial narratives is jarring. I think it also has a lot to do with current anti-immigrant (which really means anti-Spanish-speaking peoples from south of the border) feelings.

  3. 2 December, 2011 3:50 pm

    ADM, you’re right at home with most of the Europeanists (of the modern period) I know. I had to teach US History a while back, and was so appalled at the triumphal tone of the text that I instructed the students to return it to the bookstore for a full refund, and went through your argument here with them. I was just horrified. I just got a book on World History Through Islamic Eyes, and it’s another eye-opener.

  4. 2 December, 2011 9:27 pm

    1066 and All That points out that the Roman Conquest was a Good Thing because the Britons were only natives at that time.

    The attitude persists.

  5. 7 December, 2011 12:13 am

    It gets out, as well, to the unthinking. A blogging contact was explaining to me that they’d never been able to get at all the records they needed to do a cultural history of their part of the US. They’d got at the ones in Louisiana, and those in Madrid, but the ones in Cuba just weren’t really available to Yanquis, and not by the Cubans’ choice either. Because Louisiana (though yes, French) was part of the Spanish province for a while and most of its records went overseas after the Spanish-American War that most US citizens only ever hear about through the Onion’s spoof founding editor’s column, to Havana, and then back to Spain… I’d never clocked this, at all. (And it’s stupid that it’s not the furthest ones away that aren’t accessible, too.)


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