It has always surprised me how history seems so much more riveting in retrospect. One of the advantages of living into old age is that a lot of history has happened in a single lifetime. If one is fortunate enough to reach the octogenarian stage then you have been around for one-third of our history as a republic.
In the last 80 years the cataclysms which have surrounded us are astounding. Even of more interest is that while we were in the midst of them, life went on in spite of the chaos that was current at the time. If the wars were on distant continents, or the natural disaster was on the other side of the world, concern was quite different than had it been present in our own backyard.
That observation is far less than revealing; things that occurred all around us, events that changed history, seem at least to me, much more startling a half-century later than they did when we were in the midst of them.
This recently came to my attention in watching Ken Burns’ series on Vietnam. We were aware at the time what was happening and opinions were strongly held. For those of us on active military duty during those years few of us realized the implications of what we were being told; the truth about that terrible conflict was quite different.
Looking back a half-century later, we can be truly surprised that the enormity of the engagement seems so much greater than it appeared in real time. History was happening, but it does not seem that it was receiving the attention it definitely deserved. The passage of years is required to bring into historical focus events from the not-too-distant past.
The retrospective view of the civil rights movement has brought many to wonder why it took so long to recognize the centuries of frightful injustices that were accepted by the white population as perfectly normal. Current events have shown all too vividly that remnants of racism are still viable.
To emphasize the point that while history is being made we tend to be seeing its creation through a lens that is not entirely in focus there is a book that will supply a strong corrective. Isabel Wilkerson, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner in history, has provided just the measure we need.
The Warmth of Other Suns details in a first-hand account the terrible privations of the Afro-American population from 1915 up to modern times. Done by chronicling the lives of four families from the Deep South the reader will be shamefaced and astounded that, in the midst of it all, we really understood only a tiny fragment of the problems they faced. What millions of our fellow citizens went through and are still experiencing shows the dangers of living in the midst of history and not responding with the mandatory courage to alter its course.
We are in the midst of a similar crisis and unless we are more proactive than we were a half-century ago we will still be plagued by our lack of involvement. It is far from acceptable that we accept the status quo with a sanguinity that has served us so poorly in the past.
If there were simple solutions the problems would have been addressed with more success than is apparent. Just because uncomfortable truths have been only partially addressed stands as a condemnation which continues to wash away the foundations of whom we claim to be.
History is not made for future analysis . . . it is happening all around us. We will be held rightly accountable if we do not stand up and react in a positive way rather than philosophize in the future about what we might have done.