Revise, Revise, Revise — that’s how history works
Every few years, Minnesota becomes embroiled in a debate over our shared history. Currently, two of our state’s most important cultural institutions, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society, are coming under fire for “historical revisionism.”
The University of Minnesota is painfully reckoning with its past by debating whether to rename a handful of buildings based on convincing scholarship that shows several former high-ranking administrators maintained discriminatory practices aimed at African Americans and Jews. At the same time, the Minnesota Historical Society has run afoul of state senators who find adding a Dakota place name to a welcome sign at Historic Fort Snelling to be “highly objectionable.”
Among professional historians, revisionism refers to the regular process of revising historical interpretations based on asking new questions, finding new evidence, or gaining new understandings of older sources. This is something we do regularly and is at the heart of the profession.
Revisionism is not something to be feared or rejected, nor is it something to be celebrated or revered.
It is what historians do, and we do it all the time.
History is different from the past. The past is everything that has happened before the present. The problem with the past is that there is a lot of it, and it is neither organized nor already made into stories.
Historians give meaning to the past, and that is why we sometimes become controversial. According to political scientist Benedict Anderson, nations (and by implication, a state like Minnesota) are “imagined communities.” They are created though the printed word and generate a broad sense of shared identity among masses of people who will most likely never know one another.
Some nations can claim ancient lineage, and can trace their origins back to creation stories (the Germanic or Dakota peoples, for example). But for the United States, or our state of Minnesota, we needed to create shared stories to believe in. Often, these stories are not consistent with the facts. In some cases, they are pure fiction. The famous story of George Washington and the cherry tree was made up by Parson Weems at the turn of the 19th century. Did you know that Betsy Ross made the first U.S. flag? This was a story popularized for America’s centennial celebration. As for Paul Bunyan … well, I’ll leave that myth undisturbed.
The project of turning the past into history is the work of historians in partnership with archivists, librarians, curators, publishers, editors, and teachers. Historians work together to advance our field. We share our findings and subject them to public criticism through various forms of peer review.
The “problem” of revisionism emerges when the world of historical scholarship clashes with cherished myths (a military fort with an honorable and unblemished record, or a racially tolerant University of Minnesota led by wise men).
Historical revisionism cannot be stopped in a free society. New people become historians and tell new stories by asking new questions. In the end, our stories become more complex and include people formerly left out because their voices were excluded from official narratives.
Consider the way we have interpreted the Civil War and Reconstruction. In my lifetime, I learned that there were many causes of the war, none more important than the other. When I was little, I learned that states’ rights, southern honor, “the Lost Cause,” the agrarian South and the industrial North, northern aggression, southern secession, or slavery all contributed equally to the war. Though some of these interpretations are still active, based on overwhelming evidence, historians have concluded that slavery was the cause of the war.
Likewise, Reconstruction has gone from a failure, marked by corruption and violence, to a period where black and white elected officials created a legal framework for equality in the aftermath of slavery while building schools in every part of the South.
Or look at the ways we have understood the Vietnam War since it ended in 1975. In the 1980s, it was common to understand the North Vietnamese struggle against the French and then the Americans as part of the larger story of decolonization that followed WWII. Ho Chi Minh was a Communist, to be sure, but he was a nationalist first.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and a recent declassification of Chinese documents relating to the war, we now know a lot more about the massive support of the People’s Republic of China for the Vietminh cause and also the ways the Soviet Union played a crucial role over time. Based on this new evidence, we have revised our understanding of Ho’s nationalism.
I could go on, but if you really want to learn the benefits of revisionism, study the incredible history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For a short course, I would begin by reading Dr. King’s magnificent narrative, “Stride Toward Freedom” (1958). From there, you could turn to Jo Ann Gibson Robinson’s incredible memoir, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It” (1987).
And you could cap it off by reading Danielle McGuire’s pathbreaking “At the Dark End of the Street” (2010). In the course of these three books, written over some 50 years, you will discover much about one of the most dramatic, hopeful, and inspiring events in U.S. history.
More importantly, if you complete these books in the order listed above, you should be cured of any lingering doubts about revisionism.
Adding “Bdote” to the sign at Historic Fort Snelling diminishes nothing and deepens our understanding of history. Changing the names of four buildings at the University of Minnesota is not an attack on sacred memory, it is an opening to honor other deserving members of our community (Dr. Josie Johnson’s name might look nice on a building.)
My fellow Minnesotans, let’s agree to embrace our changing history and move into the future with open minds and hearts.
Jeff Kolnick is a history professor at Southwest Minnesota State University.