The Winner Writes the History Books

History of Eritrea

Mama's favorite book about Eritrean history

I asked a young woman the other day how her first day of school went.  She is a bright teenager with a real thirst for learning.  I was interested in hearing what most captured her attention on such a busy and exciting day. Here is what she told me:

“I already know who my favorite teacher is! And yes, before you ask, I’m sure I won’t be changing my opinion even though today is the first day… it’s my history teacher.  He is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had!!”

I, of course wanted to know what it was that this man could have done that was magical enough to impress this young lady to the point that she was bubbling over with excitement about his class; so naturally, I asked her.  She then began to tell me a story which brought me back to the time I heard about a friend’s history professor, which I’ll tell you about later.

She said that her teacher began his class, and therefore the school year, with a basic piece of information that many of us forget and that many of his students, given their young age, had never heard before: “History is written by the winners.  And, furthermore, history books are written with one perspective, and almost always with only one perspective.”  He went on to tell his students that he knew very well that most textbooks (like the educational system at large) had a liberal slant.  His goal as a teacher was to give his students a variety of perspectives on history; therefore he would be giving them additional readings to supplement what their textbook might say.

He made clear the fact that if he had only given them the additional readings in lieu of a textbook; they would have also received a skewed version of history.  In essence, he taught them what you and I already know:  There are 3 versions of every story: “Yours, mine and the truth,” (which is often found somewhere in the middle).

He has it right! Such a simple concept; and yet, so few people keep it in mind.  History is something that many dismiss as boring or uninteresting.  But, it shapes who we are because it shapes our world view.  If you were on the side of the conquered, you will never see things from the perspective of the conqueror… unless you intentionally seek out his view and he yours.  Additionally, looking to only the most commonly accepted sources for your information will drastically (and often dangerously) limit your knowledge.  How can you make a fully-informed opinion or decision with just one side of the truth?  Answer: you cannot.

Slavery as it is known to have existed in the American South was a terrible thing.  It deprived human beings of their rights and was cruel and abusive at best.  But, many aren’t aware that the practices used by white plantation owners came to them from practices used for centuries before by Arab slave traders and owners.  In a world where information is scrutinized by virtue of whether it is politically correct (instead of whether it is accurate)… we have simply erased entire portions of history.  They are not allowed to be discussed at all.  Were Whites in the South morally wrong for treating Blacks in the manner that they did?  Yes!  A resounding yes!

But, if we are to treat the teaching of history to our children as a fact-finding mission; we must also include the other view.  It may not be pretty; it may just turn out to be as limited and flawed as we expected it to be.  But, without the dialog; we are, by design, unable to reach our own conclusions.  We can certainly not fix a problem if we don’t sincerely know what it is and what causes it.  We should leave our comfortable boxes and reach out.  Not only should we; but we must.

This is the question I am posing to myself and to others: What have you done to learn the other perspective?  Life, like history, dear friends is shades of gray.  Slavery, imperialism, wars, racism and yes, even human rights… none of these issues are black and white.

I mentioned earlier that I would tell you a quick tale about another great teacher I’d heard about in the past; so here it goes: One of the closest and most respected friends I’ve ever had told me that his favorite college professor taught history, world history to be precise.  He said that the reason he enjoyed the class (and the professor’s perspective) so much was that the man had assigned a different World History book to each student in the class.  Each book covered the same (or similar) topics.  So, each day, the students would read the appropriate chapters in their own book and come to class to give “their perspective on the historical event”.  I am sure you have already figured out how different the views were on issues such as the slave trade, the independence of the US from Britain, colonization of India… the list goes on.

He still mentions that teacher from time to time, and always with a smile.  So thank you to all of those incredible history teachers out there who remind us that “the winners DO write the history books”; but it is up to us to learn the other side.

I know there is some aspect of history that you are passionate about, be it a historical figure you love (or love to hate), the founding of a nation, the Black-American struggle for fair treatment in the South, Martin Luther King Jr., socialism, democracy, human rights… the list is endless.  Now, I challenge you to go learn the other side(s).  You might just find out that it isn’t as black and white an issue as you first thought.




One thought on “The Winner Writes the History Books

  1. Very well said, Mama Afrika. Many years ago I was one of the hostesses for a group of foreign students at Christmas time. Among the students was an Assyrian Christian from Iran (before the Islamic Revolution). In discussing the Old Testament he explained that there were differences between the version used by the Jews and the one used by the Assyrians and that difference feeds exactly into what you have just postulated. I cannot remember the exact book or incident that he enjoyed telling me about but it had to do with warfare. The Assyrian version said that they had won. The Jews also claimed victory. It is true that history is written by the winner (usually one side or the other) but sometimes there is a dispute about who actually won and then both “winners” have their own version. Fascinating stuff!!

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