As Charlotte North Carolina explodes in senseless violence, not too different from Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Ferguson I am reminded of the way journalist Alan Barth wrote in 1943 , “News is only the first rough draft of history,” a quote normally attributed to Washington Post Publisher Philip L. Graham. The attribution is irrelevant. What is important is the use of what I call ‘raw history’ in writing about the past.
I am writing a history of a twentieth century figure, a person known by his first name, who died in a senseless way. I am reluctant to name him because right now his story is continually evolving in my head. No, I take that back, it is not his story. I know that cold, better than cold, I have visited his birthplace, spoken with those who seek to maintain his legacy fifty plus years after his death, even viewed videos of his press conferences and speeches. Books on him splay across the back of my desk and academic journal articles are in labeled folders.
While there is plenty of news to find thanks to the ability to Google actual digitized articles, I am stuck by how correct Barth’s statement is. I would add that those books written in the first ten or so years of his death are also raw history. Why? Because the writers are using the limited data of the time–the newspapers, the eyewitness accounts, the minutes of meetings, the recordings of speeches to enliven and capture the essence of the man.
Those writing after fifty years work to bring a different thesis to a new and maybe an uninformed audience, so they are important in how they construct their stories. One writer wants to canonize him, something I am sure he himself would find abhorrent. Others want to redefine his accomplishments in light of new information released from government vaults, information not available in the twentieth century. And others relegate him to a lower status because they see those who grew in stature because of him–without seeing the trend line from the him, something I think he would smile and ignore.
So Charlotte North Carolina? An hour from my home but as terrifying to watch as any of the other cities with violent protests. We are involved in a fight I never thought would occur in the United States during my lifetime. It is not just a fight, it is almost a civil war. While we have this amazing technology like body cameras, CCTV, we have highly charged narratives competing for that ‘first rough draft of history’, the news. These narratives do not have the benefit of perspective, nor do they always have the benefit of clearly described and documented facts. Where are these narratives taking us? What questions have we asked? What questions should we ask?
Let me ask some. Why do these young black men have guns? Will gun control change this? Were people always this angry? What changed? Why is unemployment for minorities, especially blacks, the highest in the country? Why are we opening our borders instead of finding ways to give our own an opportunity to find dignity in work? Why are vouchers and/or charters not available to each and every child in the US so that parents can make the decision about education of the child?
It is really to early too see all of this in perspective, we are still writing the rough draft.