The Bleaching of American History

Posted on March 9th, 2012 by

Many people say that Europe has so much more history than the United States.  In fact, that was the subject of my last post.  I described the layers that currently exist in France: layers in land, language, people, and buildings.

Not only do they have more history, but because of that richness, they put huge efforts into preserving it.  When they have an unused building lying around in France, like a château or a train station, it’s not a problem!  It’s great, they can put a museum in it!  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be room to store and display all the historically significant items they have sitting around.  They have to protect the history because if you just up and replaced something in Nantes, you might get rid of a building where Jules Verne wrote a book (he’s from here).

Unlike in France, almost all of our buildings in the United States were constructed after the advent of indoor plumbing.  My house in North Dakota is younger than my parents.  I think the house in which I live in Nantes may have been built before Theodore Roosevelt was president.  With less history at stake, we are also more likely to tear down and rebuild.

But all of this ignores the underlying question:  why?  There may be more preserved history in Europe, but how can any of us dream of saying there is less history in the United States?  When we say this (myself included), it reveals and perpetuates the purging of history that corresponded with the growth of our country.  We forget the history that came before.  Is this because that preceding history doesn’t count?  Is it because those cultures, religions, languages, and peoples were less important?

I am also wrong to say that because Europe has more history, they protect it more.  Instead, I submit this proposition.  They do not guard their history more diligently because they have more, they have more because they preserve it.  They have seen a richness in old buildings and in old artifacts, all of which they feel belongs to a legacy worth treasuring.  We have less history because we have only guarded what we thought was our history.  As we do with our old buildings, we bulldozed what came before.  Not caused by a lack of history, but the cause of it.

Certainly, as a political body, the United States has less history.  But that is a youth imposed upon predecessors unvalued and uprooted by those who called the Americas the New World.  To those who lived on it before, who sang, and thought, and lived, and loved, there was nothing New about the Americas (so named after a European).

It is not the New World to everyone.  To some, it is a very old world, full of history, full of stories, full of land where their people lived and loved and worked and thought and prayed and danced and cried.  The term New World is a relic from a time when we mistakenly called the conquering of the Americas the discovery of the Americas.

When I say, or anyone else says, that our country has so much less history than Europe, it is only because of the intentional bleaching of what could have contributed to a rich, deep, old, magnificently diverse history.  It is not because the New World is remotely new.

I am not able to attend the Building Bridges this year, but I hope everyone who can takes advantage of the opportunity.

Speak of the devil, a big, glorious, honorific pillar devoted to Columbus in Barcelona. I bet it's nice to be on the top of the pillar.


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