Past to Present to Purpose: Creating Stories Out of Our National Past

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.” 1  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,2 we can take the best of both and, with honesty and intelligence, do what historians have neglected to do for centuries: acknowledge multiple truths about any time, place, or event, illuminate them, and present them in a way that enables people to identify with the lives and struggles of all peoples.

There might be a single set of cold facts that illustrate an event or movement, but the truth of what happened depends upon who is telling the story.  As storytellers, equipped with historic fact, we have the opportunity to tell about the past from a multiplicity of vantage points, thus illuminating history in a broader and more inclusive palate than any text has ever attempted. By presenting a broad cross-section of experiences and thus  ‘truths’ from any single time and place in history, our listeners are not told what to believe, but called upon to analyze the many lessons and themes that emerge.  This cognitive dissonance empowers our students to be thinkers rather than rote learners of facts. Further, by being drawn into and identifying with a new vantage point, you come closer to understanding what informs and motivates those outside of your comfort and knowledge zone.  A global audience’s discovery of new perspectives of history can only lead to greater cross-cultural tolerance and understanding, bringing us a hairs breath closer to a peaceful planet.

Events have occurred, but how we perceive and interpret them is a very personal process. When I studied American History in high school, “The Westward Movement” was always featured.  Covered wagons, cowboys, and Manifest Destiny were rolled into an exciting picture of a nation’s growth.  Talk with a Cherokee and this same episode from our national past is depicted as genocide. It was the new Americans’ complete lack of knowledge or empathy towards the indigenous cultures, brewed with a greed for the land and fear of the unknown that catapulted them toward the destruction of native cultures.  Now, as an “old broad”, I realize that each story was true for the people who told it.  The European immigrant saw only new hope, new land, new beginnings.  The Apache, Navajo, and Sioux saw their land, religion, and way of life brutally destroyed. After hearing both accounts told can we learn about the forces that shaped our past.  Only then can we make intelligent, informed, heartfelt decisions about our future.

I was commission to create a story by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  That tale, From Her Arms to His, is about the women who manufactured the M1’ rifles during W.W.II 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 other perspectives of this era, its women, and their work.  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 what 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 the armory workers?  Did the women who worked at the Armory really give up the work readily to homecoming GI’s?  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.  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 a lower pay scale.  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.  Creating characters that expressed their views, within the appropriate historic context, became my job. If we can’t get a full, honest picture of our past, how can we make informed, intelligent decisions about our future?

We learn through windows and mirrors.  A good story allows the listener to identify in some way with the main character.  That is the mirror we enter through. The window is then the new way of experiencing and seeing the world.  When we enter that reality outside of our own, our intellectual and emotional understanding of “the other” is broadened. This ability to identify and empathize with someone else’s experience is an essential variable for living peacefully in a multicultural world.

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 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 other stories and points-of-view.  She has become the central figure of an organization that brings together the children of Holocaust victims and the children of perpetrators.  They tell each other their stories.  The process is painful, but ultimately, in being privy to one another’s lives, hopes, desires, fears, and idiosyncrasies, all the people involved start to see the others as individuals. They discovered that both generations of children are laden with unspoken guilt’s and fears. They emerge from the experience capable of seeing each other’s lives as detailed, conflicted, and hopeful as their own.

When in conflict, if we can understand and empathize with the conditions that created our adversaries, we are more able to shape 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 that horrible scars of ethnic cleansing will be washed away, chances are we’ll all lean further in one another’s direction, after knowing their story.