History shows how far we’ve come

Published 7:00 am Saturday, September 5, 2015

I love history.

What brought me to Mississippi was history. I had the opportunity to get a masters in Southern culture at the University of Mississippi and for two great years I read books on everything from the slave trade to the history of the timber industry in the South and aside from a very few books, I enjoyed all of it. It’s interesting to find out where we’ve come from and it can be instructive in so far as we can learn from history.

What I like most about history, however, is how political and complicated it is. If you study biology, for example, then you’ll study deeply interesting scientific facts about life. But history is not a series of facts so much as interpretations, memories and flat-out opinions. And history, no matter how old, can still inflame the sensibilities of otherwise calm men and women. To hear some tell it, we’re still debating the cause of the Civil War. Just today, I heard on the radio that members of ISIS—who are not calm men and women—have continued to destroy ancient tombs in Syria. These ancient ruins date to about AD 44, and archaeologists tell us that they had been some of the best preserved sites from that era. They’re gone now, blown up. The terror group also destroyed some nearby temples.

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I have no idea why ISIS is targeting archeological sites, although I gather from news stories I’ve read it’s just pure meanness on their part.

It’s well known that the Taliban, in March 2001, destroyed the ancient and giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan. The popular understanding is that the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas because the extremist group considered the statues to be heretical and un-Islamic. But, months prior to their destruction the New York Times reported that the Taliban had put word out to other nations that they’d spare the statues if they could raise enough money from museums and whatnot. The archaeological world, rightly, refused to pay ransom to the thugs. Frankly, I don’t know what’s worse—holding antiquity hostage or destroying it out of ignorant belief. Either way, most of the statues are gone.

I think a lot about the South when I hear these stories. As I am sure most of you know, we’ve lost so much of our architecture and our history through violence and accidents and ignorance. For years in the Delta, and in fact until very recently, farmers would flatten out mounds made by native Americans. Those mounds were erected for temples and ceremonies, and they’re part of a massive mound-building culture—remnants of one of the largest North American pre-Columbian cultures. At the turn of 19th century, the Smithsonian sent a team of researchers to Coahoma County and the archaeologists recorded more mounds in that county per square mile than anywhere else in the US. For the most part, the mounds are gone. I think maybe five or six left up there.

As much as I enjoy reading and learning about the past though, none of this is particularly upsetting to me. The past, our history, will always bump up against our present and our future needs. Sometimes we make poor, hasty decisions and erase part of our history. Sometimes we preserve it in a museum, taking it away from all context. It doesn’t really matter though, because if history teaches us anything, it shows us that there will be more. History is being made, brick by brick, second by second and whatever is torn down today makes space for something else, something that will eventually fade into history.