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Freedom, and lessons in fortitude

By Henrietta Buckmaster / February 18, 1982

''History'' is one of those convenience words without any real meaning. It can arrange to be all things to all people. Its convenience is measured by its availability in emergencies or emotional crises. It may have academic usefulness , but that seems to be subordinate to its willingness to surprise.

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As a child I loved it. It explained cathedrals and controversies to me, paintings and points of view. It was the only subject in which I got unbroken 100s. I was very selective about the dates I remembered because I had satisfied myself, early on, that dates and facts had very little to do with what really happened.

History's only purpose, it seemed to me, was to give perspective and comfort. Look at what mankind has survived! I could say. Look at our innate good sense and perspicacity! Look at how evil rose AND fell. The principal lesson, I believe, was to get the eyes open so that one might be skeptical of assumptions, view stereotypes with astonishment, and take heart.

It's time that I say this essay is not about history. But it is about one very important personal experience which changed my life. Its impetus came from a nagging conviction that history might have different information about some of the fantasies and ambiguities that were grouped under ''conventional wisdom'' and written down by historians.

I was young enough to think that any relation between ''conventional'' and ''wisdom'' must be a solecism. What made me question it most were the black people.

I was white. I never saw any blacks except the very nice colored woman who came to clean once a week, or the porter who carried my mother's bags as we went back and forth to the country. There were none in my school, none in the congregaton of our church, none on the outskirts of my parents' friends, none in our apartment house -- except the janitor's assistant -- none in the movies I saw except the chronic lazy-good-for-nothing. I wondered why and got ambiguous answers. Our cleaning woman was treated with the utmost kindness and given the things we didn't need. There was no ill will, just a great deal of abysmal darkness on all sides.

When I took my questions outside my family, I did not like any of the suggestions offered, such as: Blacks were blacks, an inferior people. It wasn't their fault, but we'd only make it harder if we pretended otherwise. They had been brought here from the Dark Continent (which had no history) and held in slavery (which automatically made a nonperson). As for slavery, it received two paragraphs in my history book and was brought to an end by Abraham Lincoln.

Slavery was very unfortuante, my teacher agreed; it shouldn't have happened, but if anyone had to be enslaved -- and even Thomas Jefferson held slaves -- it was better that it be a people with no background, no memory, no culture, and brought to a country where at least they learned English.

It's funny how these things affect one. It sounded as though a race had been collectively aborted. If history had so little common sense, I needed to reexamine our friendship with her.

Yet the uses and abuses of history were no surprise; since I had read around and through it from the age of ten and knew with my intuition that people made of it what they wanted and concealed what was awkward. This had seemed a grown-up ploy, but now I was eighteen -- grown up -- and chose to see this as a moral issue. I began to separate history from historians. I began to make remarkable discoveries. I began to find what I was searching for.

During the summer of that year I spent each day in library files. It was a pleasure being obliged to do what you liked doing. It was a pleasure to see a people and a culture begin to take shape. It was all there, documented but ignored -- the great empires of Africa when the Europeans were forest dwellers, the great centers of learning from Timbuktu to Zanzibar before the universities of Italy, France and England were more than a dream. The first black men brought forcibly to America came as indentured servants, not slaves; one was already so admirably educated that he won his independence and a place on the faculty of Cambridge University in England.