This piece was originally published on Medium on 13 September 2017.
I leave my home of over twenty years in less than two weeks to start a new adventure. Or continue the old adventure. I’m not sure which is correct yet. But between the logistics of planning a three year move for an intensive degree and saying goodbye to a place I have only grown to love more in the last year, I also have the chance to see something I worked on for months at the newspaper come to fruition in a way I didn’t think possible.
Back in May, while working on a historical piece, I noticed that there were glaring holes in the narrative small-town Connecticut tells about its history. Despite the fact that their names cover the landscape, indigenous people are often absent from the colonial narrative. Despite the fact that trade based on their use in industry across the globe is what made New England financially strong during the colonial period, slaves, too, are notably absent. So I started working on a piece using local experts on the history of slavery in Connecticut, and why it is important to look at this history to better understand some of what we face, socially, today. It was finally finished, and published, at the end of August.
Digging into this topic turned up far more questions than answers and easily about ten times the information than I could write about in that article — local papers only have so much room. But while I ponder what to do with the rest of it, and where to go from there, I get to host a panel discussion with my sources at a local museum before I leave. As a journalist, it is a wonderful way to end a chapter. But as I frame what this event will be, and what will be discussed, it is forcing me to interrogate what and why I write, and why story and history are so important to me.
History is a collection of facts that continues to grow, that we weave into a story to help us explain who we are and where we are from. What we choose to remember helps us decide, as individuals and as a larger society, who we will become. And that is something that we are grappling with on many levels right now — who are our towns, our states? What does it mean to be an American, or even, human — and who gets to call themselves either of these things without someone else thinking that they have the right to question its validity.
When we cut out parts of our history, whether it is intentional or not, we erase people. We refuse to see them as part of that fabric of the past, and so it becomes easier to tell ourselves that they are not us, but something other. They are not us, and so they are not ours to protect and respect, to treat as part of the country we inhabit today. We give ourselves permission to ignore the events that lead to social disenfranchisement in the present, and to make excuses for our complicity.
Acknowledging complicity has been a major underlying thread of this narrative. Something I learned as a facilitator is that we cannot start to have conversations about how to solve problems without first considering the ways in which we ourselves might be compounding or contributing to the problems. If I’m playing a game to facilitate leadership training, and I’m not listening to what my peers are saying — or not saying––then I am part of the problem. I cannot reasonably be angry that a) things are not working or b) that the problem seems to only get worse. This remains applicable when dealing with larger problems as well. Part of what we are seeing right now is different groups of people who are disenfranchised in different ways by the way our society is constructed, saying “help, you are hurting me,” and getting all sorts of reasons why they are wrong or why someone else, who doesn’t live those experiences, doesn’t think that their pain is valid. It is a form of silencing, and in the context of all the ways we have silenced people through history, it is no small, excusable thing.
The tides of the world change, and so too must the stories we tell about ourselves. So too must the ways in which we look at our history, or else we will never grow. A more comprehensive view of history, with more voices represented only helps us, though there are those who are working very hard to convince people otherwise, that the bubble should not be burst because it would ruin the idyllic vision that has persisted. And this is what really drove me to pursue that story from May to August, to want to continue to find ways to interrogate the history I grew up learning; the bubble has to burst. Whether as a journalist or an academic, or something in between part of my job is to interrogate these things, and put it on the record. An article, a panel, these are small things, but it is the way I can stand witness.
So maybe this panel, this piece of closure will be nothing, and maybe no one will show up. Or maybe there are enough questions about why we are doing this at all that people will want to come and learn more. But there are things that have to start to be said in the most idyllic communities, and this is one place to start. So, if you are around the CT River Museum on Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m., I hope you’ll join us. And otherwise, I’m sure I will be checking back in here as the adventure continues.
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