Is History Only In Our Textbooks?

Is history something that happened only if we read about it in a textbook? And conversely, if something is not in a textbook, does that mean it didn’t happen?

What if you read about it in a family-history story or see it in a video… as my client’s daughter did.

Last summer, my client Monette was thrilled to give the gift of a documentary video of her parents to help celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Her parents grew up during the 1940s and came of age when Brown vs. Board of Education passed and they were suddenly thrust into integrated high schools. As African Americans who grew up during one of the most volatile periods in our country’s history, they obviously had some important stories to share and pass on.

The half-hour documentary was shown at a Saturday night party in June for all their friends and family to see, including their seven grandchildren. A few months later, their second-grade granddaughter was in school when the subject of segregation came up. She shared with the class how her grandmother had fought back at the injustices she saw in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s, by moving a sign on a bus that delineated where she could and could not sit.

The teacher was in disbelief. “That did not happen,” she told her young student. “You must have misunderstood.” The granddaughter was indignant. “It did! I saw it on the video she made of her life.” The teacher was so frustrated by this apparent blatant distortion of the truth, that she called the girls’ mother at home, my client, Monette.

Not only did Monette tell her that this incident did in fact happen, but she brought in the DVD for the teacher and the entire class to watch. (I’m hoping there was an apology by the teacher.)

Now consider if that same scenario had happened, only this time there was no video to share, and no grandmother to come in and recount the story in her own words. I imagine the outcome might have been quite different.

When I was in school, I learned about individuals like Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks and what they accomplished. But what about the countless black women and men who did something, in their own small ways, to make a difference that I didn’t get to learn about. Do their stories not matter because they weren’t recorded?

Of course they matter. Just because something is not written in a textbook or archived in a library, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Particularly for minorities and marginalized communities, it is not only important, it is imperative that their stories are captured and recorded.

This kind of historical record is no longer just about your own family, though they will be thrilled to be a beneficiary of it. It’s about making sure these important pieces of history—all of our history—is preserved for the generations to come.

Think of someone you know who grew up in an era or within a community that had its own set of challenges. Did they practice some act of kindness or rebellion that made a small difference in the world? Think hard—I bet you know someone, be it a person across town, across the street, or sitting in your living room next to you.

Capture those stories before they are gone and that piece of history is lost forever. Capture those stories so that no other grandchild will have to go through the humiliation of not being believed by a trusted adult, just because the story she knows to be true wasn’t written about in a textbook.