Editorial: Nostalgia is not history

The York Dispatch

A museum in Philadelphia has taken a step to recognize that our American history belongs to all people, not just wealthy and powerful white men.

This Thursday, April 13, 2017, photo shows an actual piece of the Annapolis, Md., Liberty Tree, embedded into an 18-foot-tall tree replica as a touchable element at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Museum of the American Revolution, which opened this week, seeks to show visitors that the Revolution was a set of aspirational ideas founded on equality, individual rights and freedom that remain relevant today, said president Michael Quinn.

Case in point: The inclusion of the story of Mumbet, an enslaved black woman in Massachusetts who, upon hearing the document read aloud, announced that its proclamation that "all men are created equal" should also include her.

In response, her master hit her with a frying pan. Mumbet sued him, won her freedom in court, changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and became a nurse. Her case set a precedent prohibiting slavery in the state.

The story is a reminder that during the struggle for our nation's liberty, the 400,000 African Americans who lived in slavery in 1776 also longed to be free, an Associated Press report by Errin Haines Whack reminds us.

The museum is rife with the stories of all Americans, not just those who made policy and war — and who feature prominently in textbooks.

This is crucial because consuming a primarily white male nostalgia without acknowledging its historical context is hurtful — hateful, even.

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While the study of our battle history is a nostalgic pastime for some — primarily older white men for who our history is about diners, muscle cars and flexing our muscles in battle — in America, oftentimes, our nostalgic reminiscences neglect to present the true story of all Americans regarding our founding and subsequent civil rights struggles that continue today.

We had a visitor to our news offices one day in the not-too-distant past point to photos on our walls of historic York City and say that for every privileged white person depicted in the photos, it was certain that poor black people were just out of frame, behind the buildings, living very different, limiting lives.

Displays like those honoring Mumbet begin to create a more honest picture of where we have been. Because often women and people of color are largely absent (unless in subservient roles) from the story of who we are.

"These ideas rallied people from all walks of life, and they took those ideas to heart," Quinn said "What unifies us as a people is our shared, common commitment to these ideas."

Unsung heroes abound in the stories of America’s founding and growth through today as a relatively young nation. Never before has it been more vital to understand that turning back the clock and using nostalgia to drive our perception of who we are is hurtful, hateful and counterproductive.

For every benefactor of white privilege, there are dozens of stories of minorities who fought alongside the privileged to ensure the freedoms we hold dear today.

Isn’t it time we stopped deluding ourselves about our past because denial is a more comfortable posture to take or because we willfully seek to marginalize anyone who is not white and male by excluding their plight from our cozy reminiscences?

"For over two centuries, if you said the words 'founders of this country,' the image that would pop to most people's minds would be a white man," said Scott Stephenson, vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming. "Increasingly, we at museums have realized we have got to tell a broader story."

Americans are resilient champions of liberty, it’s true. But liberty and justice, we proclaim, belongs to all. We can’t ensure that idealized fate for our future until we reckon honestly with our past.