While studying history in college, I learned a new word called “historiography.” The basic definition of it is “the study of historical writing.” Basically, it is the history of history. Historiography is the study of how something from history is recorded. It is important because, believe it or not, many aspects of history are not entirely clear. History is written by flawed human beings, with inherent biases and limitations. Beyond that, history is almost always written from the perspective of the powerful. The various biases, limitations, and uncertainties involved in history mean that the way an American historian and the way that a German historian write about World War II might be drastically different. Historiography is a way of investigating the way that these stories have changed over time and, if done properly, can help us better understand the truth.
One particularly important example of historiography has to do with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. From elementary school through high school, my education about MLK and the Civil Rights Movement went something like this: Before the 1960s, white people (especially white people in the south) were incredibly racist and oppressive. Then a guy named Martin Luther King Jr. came along and through his iconic speeches, widespread influence, and commitment to nonviolence, united America, helped end desegregation, and eradicated racism in America once and for all. The end.
There are a lot of things wrong with this “history” of racism in America. In 2017, after an especially divisive year, it is easy to see how wrong this history is. Yet so many American citizens, especially white, suburban American citizens who have never had to think much about racism aside from when they scroll past that one friend on Facebook who actively talks about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, are stuck in the mindset that racism is a thing of the past and that we celebrate MLK day to commemorate the man who solved everything. These are the same American citizens trying to figure out “why is everything about race these days” when so many things are very obviously about race.
We have to learn a better history about Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and racism in America. We can not go on pretending that MLK Day is simply a day of celebrating his victories and commemorating that time in history when America finally got past racism. As a 22 year old white male, I can’t pretend to know or understand everything about race in America. What I do know is that as we celebrate MLK’s legacy, we must be aware of the fact that it is an active and living legacy. That the problems he addressed and the challenges he faced are still present, and that this nation is still working towards equality, towards achieving the dreams that he spelled out so beautifully in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
My hope is that as we celebrate Martin Luther King day, it would go beyond a thought of gratitude to the many ways that he served, molded, and changed this nation. My hope is that we would honor his legacy not just by celebrating the incredible man that he was, but by actively working towards the dreams of hope and equality and reconciliation that he so fervently fought for. My hope is that we would learn a better history, and that this better history would inspire us to look with love towards our neighbor.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?'” – MLK