Tag Archives: Taylor Branch

Reading Your Own History

When do you think you read your own history? Or maybe it’s read history during your own time.

I think the first time it dawned on me was when I was reading a book about Twyla Tharp  and I realized that the days and dates she was discussing I had lived. And I could remember things I was doing.  Not anywhere near her circle, of course,  I was west coast, she was east, she’s about four/five years older than me. Then it happened again when I read Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters and I realized at a very visceral level that while those young men and women who were a scant one or two years older than me were sitting at the lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina while I was maybe in class or eating lunch in the open Quad, or more likely, pranking one of the nuns at Bishop Alemany High.

Now I am reading Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly and I am struck by how much is not history to me, but memory. Not of the personal issues of the Kennedy’s [those came out only much much later after Jackie had solidified the ideal-falsely I think-of the administration as Camelot] as closely told in the book. Mine was the view of a teenager watching the entire presidency and then assassination take place. Even then I was something of a political history wonk. Somehow I remember being in school, it was my senior year at Alemany, but as it was the Friday after Thanksgiving that’s doubtful. I do remember Sister Roseanne, SJC, our principal announcing something over the loud speaker and all of us being shocked. But again, I don’t think we went to school the Friday after the holiday.

What I do clearly remember is the hours of television over the weekend devoted news in Dallas, in DC. The video or was it pictures? of Johnson taking the oath of office. I remember the reporting about the feuding between the two families, the play, the name I can’t remember, that intimated that  Johnson was complicit in the assassination. I remember the naming of the Warren Commission, mainly because Earl Warren was from California. I even read parts of the Commission Report.

The funeral was on Monday. Nobody had school. We all sat and watched. The country stopped.  I have picture of the funeral cortege made just for me. A friend, Pete, a couple of years older and in the Defense Language Institute outside of DC was able to attend the funeral as part of the people on the street and sent me copies of the pictures. They are color, little, maybe 4X4 inch. But it was a clear, sunny day, not warm, as you can see people in the crowd wearing coats. There are pictures of  the riderless horse,  and the horse drawn caissson. And the crowds. Sigh.

Why am I blogging about all of this? Two reasons. I am writing a creative narrative non-fiction about a person in the twentieth century and as Rosenstock-Hussy wrote, “Memory is Tyrannical” and I believe that to be true. I need to sort what I know from what I remember.

The second is about how we remember–even days that are not part  of our own personal history. More on that later.

But for now, I am deep in the throes of having lived history. Daunting.

Living History

I’ve always read, and I like reading history. I thought I would be a historian, someday, but no. I had a great aptitude for business [and little patience with academics and academicians] and that’s where I spent my time, but I read. History could be anything from the where paper clips came from to the journey of mankind, and just about everything in between. My favorite history is biography, maybe it is because I grew up on all the lives of the saints books at Villa Cabrini, that small library off the quad, right next to the fifth grade classroom, or history is personal for me, we all have our story. The origin of history, late Middle English (also as a verb): via Latin from Greek historia ‘finding out, narrative, history,’ from histōr ‘learned, wise man,’ And, because it is our stories, together, that make up who we are and what we are.

When we first moved to North Carolina I read the just published Taylor Branch series about Martin Luther King. I knew the MLK story, but this time I was struck by where I was during the story, a freshman in high school while civil rights were being challenged in Greensboro, North Carolina. And it felt a lot like living that history and I understood how memory works, the whats and whos and hows of history can be funneled through a lens not of your making, but of your living.

And, on Saturday I read a recent review in the WSJ of Isaac and Isaiah, about the back and forth of what followed the World War II: East versus West, Capitalism versus Communism, and Freedom versus Oppression. It dawned on me how much we’ve been losing in the decades since the mid-twentith century. We lost the intellectual battlefield, the high concept discussion about philosophical difference, the ability to shape cogent arguments about our belief systems, be they religious, political, economic or ethnic. We’ve sunk to invectives, slurs, name-calling, rallies and protest.

A powerful article is a case in point to one side of the argument of the issue of race.  Shelby Steele on The Decline of the Civil Rights Establishment  points to the how much progress has been made and yet how many victims still exist, and not necessarily the victims you suspect you know.