Storytelling is the art of passing on, in oral prose, the feelings, observations, and experiences of living beings. History is defined as “the systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, etc.”* Though one is considered an art and the other a science, the two obviously have a great deal in common. I propose that in creating History Stories, we can take the best of both and, with honesty and intelligence, do what historians have been afraid to do for centuries: acknowledge our biases, illuminate them, and present them. By presenting a broad cross-section of historic vantage points, via story, our listeners are called upon to analyze the lessons and themes that history presents from multiple perspectives. In doing this, we achieve two significant goals. The first is to create a wider, more inclusive window through which to broaden our understanding of the past. The second is to draw the listener closer to understanding the perspective of another person and the culture they represent. A global audience’s discovery of new perspectives of history may ultimately lead to greater cross-cultural tolerance.
Events have occurred, but how we perceive and interpret them is a very personal process. Grounded in one’s particular gene-pool, set in a specific social, economic, political, and psychological milieu, none of us will see the same event in the same way. History may be the blueprint of our past, but the interpretation of it depends upon who is reading that blueprint. I propose that through the creation and telling of History Stories we can share a broad array of viewpoints, opinions, and interpretations of any single person, era, or event. For example, there is no one correct interpretation of the American Westward Movement, but in sharing many honest stories and perspectives about this event, we gain the capability to broaden people’s point of view. When I studied American History in high school, ‘The Westward Movement’ was always featured. Framed by covered wagons, cowboys, and Manifest Destiny, it was a window onto an exciting picture of a nation’s growth. As a young adult, I came to understand that these same facts also entailed the genocide of Native Americans. I believed that it was the new Americans complete lack of understanding, disrespect, and incorporation of violent imperialism that catapulted them toward the destruction of an indigenous culture. Now, I realize that each story was true for the people who told them. The European immigrant saw only new hope, new land, new beginnings. The Apache, Navajo, and Sioux saw their land, faith, and way of life brutally destroyed. Only after hearing both accounts told, can we learn about 2 powerful forces that shaped our past. Only then can we honor one another’s journies and make intelligent, informed, heartfelt decisions about our future.
I’ve had the opportunity to create stories for many historic organizations. Among these was a commission from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The story, From Her Arms to His, is about the women who manufactured M1 rifles during WWII at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. During the researching and writing process, many facts, documents, and interviews of employees were made available to me. It would have been a simple task to create a drama based on this existing information, but I wanted to offer another perspective of this era, its women, and their work. It struck me that the most interesting information is often not recorded, but merely intimated by historic documentation. The world knows that these women constituted 55% of the work force, sacrificed on many levels, and maintained the most remarkable production rates this nation have ever seen. These facts would all be included, but further information was necessary. What was it was really like for a woman to enter a man’s world? How did the extensive sexism and racism that was the fabric of this nation effect people? Did the women who worked at the Armory really give up the work readily to homecoming GIs? One of the Armory’s historians warned me to be careful about ‘revisionist’ interpretations. “These were the forties. Women and Blacks didn’t expect to be treated equally.” He was telling me, “Don’t try and skew history to meet your own biases.” I knew the facts. Women were not treated equally. African Americans were treated abominably. My historian friend was correct in saying that official structures did nothing to address these issues nor were they recognized in the provided literature. But is that the end of the story? In interview after interview, I did not find a single woman who joyously or even passively accepted lower pay scales. I never spoke to an African American employee who believed that his or her lack of promotion was ‘acceptable.’ Both groups spoke in loud voices that were never officially recorded. The newspapers of the period reported on a suit against the Armory, in the midst of the war years, that claimed prejudice in job assignment. Calls to the local African American churches brought in more details about work experiences at the Armory during the war years. Expressing their experiences within the appropriate historic context, became my job. In the midst of a glorious national effort to maintain production-levels during a world war, there were other stories too. These were the stories of women finding their strengths in a high-powered, non-supportive, industrial environment. These were the stories of African American women who were tossed off of machines because their production-levels enabled them to make too much money for the comfort of their gang bosses. These were the stories of middle-aged women who, despite specialized training and work-experience during the war, were destined to work minimum wage jobs for the rest of their lives once victory was announced. These stories are also history. From Eisenhower’s glorious battles, to Rosa Ward’s legal suit against the Armory for bias in job assignments, we must tell all of the stories. By hearing all of them, we are more able to understand the diverse forces that shaped our past. If we cannot get a full, honest picture of our past, how can we make informed, intelligent decisions about our future?
There is another, possibly more profound reason for shaping and telling History Stories. By sharing stories that represent a very specific, personal viewpoint, different from our listener’s, but we are drawing them, heart and mind, into another person’s world. When we enter that world, our intellectual and emotional understanding of ‘the other’ is broadened. We are exercising both their and our empathy muscle.
My friend Anna is the child of Holocaust survivors. Her parents both survived Auschwitz. To say that this experience marked her parents and their family, would be an understatement. There was never a day in her life that my friend was not reminded of the horror her parents suffered. While, Anna could have chosen to accept the cloud of victimization, suffering and death that surrounded her life, curse all Germans and Poles as her parents did, and live with a pall of fear around her, this was not the life she wanted to live. She no longer wanted to be a prisoner to the one story she knew. So Anna decided to broaden her world with the stories and points-of-view of others. She has become the central figure of an organization that brings together the children of victims and perpetrators. They tell each other their stories. The process is painful. Among other things, they learn that all share survivor’s guilt, and it infuses their lives in a constant, gnawing, debilitating way. They press themselves to look at one another, see the individual before them, and hear their story. Ultimately, they become privy to one another’s lives, hopes, desires, fears, and idiosyncrasies. They resonate with what is common and shared and try to reach for those twists of tales that are beyond their ken. They stop thinking of themselves purely as victims or perpetrators, and emerge from the experience capable of seeing each other’s lives as detailed, conflicted, and hopeful as their own. They are set on the road towards peaceful coexistence.
When in conflict, if we can understand and empathize with our adversaries cultural past, needs and wants and the events that lead them to the conflict, we are more likely to be able to create a compromise that will best meet the needs of all involved. While I can’t claim that Israelis and Palestinians, upon hearing one another’s stories, will suddenly unite into a single peaceful democracy, or divide into two cooperative ones, the listening and hearing is an important beginning. Noa Baum, an Israeli storyteller now living in Washington DC, created such a tale out of her experience. When she was a young mother, living in graduate student housing in California with her American husband, and missing her homeland deeply, she spied another young mother with her child on the playground. She wanted to run over, throw her arms around the woman and cry “Don’t you miss home.” She feared that the other mother, clearly Palestinian, would sneer at her, and so she kept her distance. Each day, though, they did this dance with their children, that brought them closer and closer until one day they had the courage to greet one another. What they both missed was greater than what separated them, and a deep friendshipensued. Only within this growing trust, were they able to tell and hear the stories of their respective families, which Noa now shares in her program A Land Twice Promised.* A story is a welcoming window into someone’s world. Once you have been there it’s a little harder to shoot through the window pane, and a little easier to knock again at their door.
Traditional history books tell us what happened through the sieve of those who shaped and controlled the events being written about. The other stories, the ones of those who lived within that world, must be heard. Without them, we can never understand the full historic thrust of any event. These multiple perspectives will stretch our own capacity as human beings to understand and empathize with those whose experiences are different from our own. Without this ability, we can never master the gifts of empathy and tolerance. Without this ability, we cannot master the skill of collective decision-making. Without this ability, we sabotage our efforts to create a peaceful world.
1 Random House Dictionary
2 Let us define History Stories as stories whose characters’ lives (real or imagined) are based in authentic, well-researched, fact and detail.
* For more information about Noa Baum’s program: http://noabaum.com/business-law/a-land-twice-promised/