Seeing the world differently

November 23, 1997|By Elise Armacost

BURIED IN A drawer somewhere is a snapshot of me and my sister, smiling on either side of a Confederate flag at the Antietam battlefield. It is a good picture of us, taken on a pleasant family outing years ago. We meant it not as a reverent gesture, for our genealogy was more Yankee than rebel, but as a playful response to our New England relatives who always behaved as though Maryland were the Deep South. It never occurred to us that that photo might be interpreted in a way we never intended.

So oblivious was I that I put it in a photo collage in my office cubicle. Then a black friend and colleague demanded to know what I was doing with ''that thing'' on my wall. Suddenly, I saw what he saw and, embarrassed, took the picture down.

Politically correct

Some would accuse me of caving to political correctness, but I did not see it that way. My friend asked me to see through eyes other than my own. Unless we learn to do that, how can we ever reach a truthful convergence of our different views of history, historical personages and emblems? How can we ever resolve the conflict over whose interpretation of our past will be the accepted one?

Recently, the New Orleans school board stripped George Washington's name from an elementary school because he owned slaves. The school is now Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary, after a black surgeon known for developing methods to preserve blood plasma. The change generated little opposition in mostly black New Orleans, but it will undoubtedly strike many Americans as heretical.

Shouldn't Washington's slaveholding be considered in the context of his achievements and times? Isn't it true that by the standards of his day, he was moderate on slavery, and that he freed his own slaves after his death?

Shouldn't we conclude that his role in establishing this country outweighs his failure to go against the grain of his generation?

The answer to all these questions is yes. The civil rights leader who has led the campaign to change school names in Louisiana says that ''to African Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke.'' It strikes me as offensive to compare a regressive, blatantly racist 20th-century politician of no talent or importance with Washington. Significant historical figures are always complex; it's troubling if African-American children are being taught to write off the Founding Fathers as nothing more than slaveholders.

And, yet, when I do my best to look at Washington through eyes other than my own, I can understand why many black Americans may feel no particular reverence for him. The perspective of that New Orleans civil rights leader is too simplistic and one-sided, but no more so than the pervasive Eurocentric view. For generations, the fact that the men who aspired to liberty and justice for all contradicted themselves by owning slaves. It was treated as a footnote, when it was mentioned at all. It was dismissed as a shortcoming, rather like a bad temper or a fondness for drink. African Americans feel, rightly, that amounts to an insult. But many whites like me grew up blissfully unaware of their side of the story; it was almost entirely overlooked in my history classes until I went to college. This is changing, but even now the black experience too often is treated as a sidelight, not an integral part of our heritage.

Powerful people

History has always been defined by those with power. Today we argue over that definition because Americans who once didn't have the power to protest the way the record was being written now do. Occasionally, they go to opposite extremes, but in most ways the debate they have provoked is constructive; it has forced us toward a more accurate telling of the way things were. The Confederate flag was co-opted by arch racists after the Civil War. Washington and Jefferson did tacitly uphold an immoral institution.

Words, Lewis Carroll wrote, mean many different things. So do icons and events. A truthful history balances disparate perspectives. Americans will find it when we all learn to see past the confines of our own experiences.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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