The History We Don’t Know


Karen Gross

Note: This is an expanded and edited version of a piece posted on LinkedIn on January 13, 2017.

The topic of this essay came to life in the context of two recent events: (1) a public conversation at the Aspen Institute with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., who spoke about his work on race and class, as well as his recent documentation of the civil rights movement; and (2) the truly remarkable movie, Hidden Figures, that details the lives of three African American women “computers” who worked at NASA and enabled the U.S. space program to successfully launch its early flights and the moon shot. Both events displayed actual footage from the 1950s and 1960s. It was footage I knew—and remembered when they appeared on the screen.

Here’s one important realization: at these two events, I treated times in my life as if they were already history. Seriously: I somehow didn’t think of events in my own experience as “history;” at least psychologically, “ancient” is the word that precedes “history” in my mind. Perhaps that is why I look in the mirror and see a person who is decades younger than I am in real life.

But the truth is that the Civil Rights Movement and the space program’s early years were decades ago and are history. I lived through and was a part of them. I am old enough that it is time that I admit that parts of my life are now “history.” And with that insight should come the capacity to reflect back with some clarity of vision and some wisdom.

I should have already known that parts of my past are “history.” When I teach younger students and raise certain topics that seem fully integrated into the lexicon and are just part and parcel of my life, they look at me (quite understandably) as if I were making things up. My “lived life” is history to them. They did not live through the Civil Rights Movement (though discrimination surrounds them still, albeit evidenced somewhat differently). They don’t remember Ed Sullivan and The Beatles. They don’t recall Patty Hearst and her life with the Symbionese Liberation Army. They don’t know about Kent State. They are unaware of how we treated returning Vietnam Veterans. Timothy Leary’s name doesn’t even ring a bell. They would not be able to name 10 colleges, let alone a historically black college or university.

But, what is most striking to me is not the history I lived and of which I have some awareness (even if my contextualization of it is incomplete). It is the vast history that many of us do not even know about—that rich history, filled with insights into who we are/were as a nation and who we are/were as individuals. It is the history about institutions that educated many Americans when no one else did or would. That missing history has lessons to teach and wisdom to proffer and too many people do not even know this history exists. It’s hard to know what you don’t know.

Let me be clear: we all know some bits of history that is not widely shared. Take our own family histories (something Skip Gates knows all about and has shared with many). We know about the immigration of family members and their escape from frightful regimes. We know about family members who went off the beaten path and landed in strange places, and even stranger situations. We know of basement inventions and illicit, and then illegal, relationships. We know about hidden treasures and collections packed in boxes. We know about traditions even if we don’t know how they came to be part of us. (The best example is the Marranos lighting candles on Friday in their basements even to this day.) We know about educational institutions our family attended (assuming they pursued post-secondary education).

Many people (myself included) have done research and have written about people and institutions time forgot. These individuals and organizations contributed mightily to our world and they have gone unrecognized. These are often individuals toiling in the trenches when even their peers and sometimes families were unaware of their influence and impact. You can find these people in business, in education, in religion, in medicine, in science, in law. They were and are everywhere.

One example: when many scholars were exiled from Germany in the 1930s, they came to the United States. Those who were older and famous were taken in by well-known universities—Princeton, Michigan, Harvard. But, there were younger, excellent scholars who did not find academic positions easily and over 1,000 of them went to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs); they went from being the persecuted to the perceived persecutors. And, some of these professors, like Dr. Ernest Manasse, stayed at “their” HBCU (in his case, North Carolina Central University) for their entire academic career, despite opportunities to “move up.” Indeed, in a recently released book, the previously unknown role of Dr. Manasse and his wife in improving the integration of faculty and students in North Carolina was disclosed. This book, The Secret Game, is being made into a movie and perhaps then, as with the movie Hidden Figures, the world will meet some extraordinary men and women who changed how race, ethnicity, and religion played out in some parts of our nation.

By not recognizing or learning about these individuals, we are deprived on many levels. First, their impact is worthy of recognition. Second, their experiences can inform the story of our past; these are people who changed the trajectory of what has happened across the disciplines and in their communities. In a sense, these hidden figures are treasures we have yet to discover. And, perhaps most sadly, these are individuals who lived lives we did not respect,honor, or even acknowledge—except on rare occasion. Perhaps that’s why I feel compelled to write an essay about Dr. Manasse. His remarkable life and influence need to see the light of day—for educators, for students, for civil rights leaders and religious leaders.

Events like that at the Aspen Institute and depicted by the film “Hidden Figures” do more than expose us to people and events of which we were unaware and about which we would be enriched if we knew about them. That is the easy part. These events make me (and I hope others) poignantly aware of how incomplete and distorted our history and storytelling have been. And, it suggests that that defect persists. Not only do we not write these people back into history, but we do not recognize those among us—today—who are reifying a false history and obscuring or obliterating a past that is often ugly and harsh and embarrassing for us. It is far easier to tell a pretty history, even if incomplete.

There is no easy solution to these deficiencies in history telling. The problem is actually more about who we recognize as history-makers. But, here’s the real issue: it’s that we don’t know that we don’t know that is debilitating. We have this assumption that we have learned “history.” But the truth is that we progress ahead, unaware of vast quantities of history—of people, of cultures, of struggles, of discrimination and marginalization and values and quests and talents and improvements and contributions. Think about it this way: it is as if we have a detached retina that has blinded us to so much around us. We don’t see. Literally.

We need more than new glasses. Glasses won’t illuminate the dark. We need the equivalent of laser surgery to reattach our collective and individual retinas. And we need to know they need to be reattached. For me at least, the Gates event, the movie “Hidden Figures” and my work on the life and times of Dr. Manasse serve as a clarion call.

I worry about those in power today who think they know all there is to know. I worry if folks don’t know enough to ask questions. I am concerned when folks cannot admit they have much to learn. I am troubled by distortions caused by a failure to see and a willingness to change. I worry for our children to whom we tell a history that is incomplete at best and distorted or false at worst.

There are no easy answers to uncovering our real “history” (and what is “real” is in and of itself a complexity). But, we could do well to recognize “history” as we know it as if it were a book with missing pages and absent illustrations and the lack of key names and events in the indices. I f we see the emptiness, even if we don’t know what fills it, we are one step ahead of where we are now. And we can start to fill in the deep existing trenches when we stumble into them – knowingly or unknowingly.

And we can ask questions. Good questions. Tough questions. There are no stupid questions. And, without these questions, our history as we know it and tell it will be flawed. You don’t get answers if you don’t ask questions. Start with this one: Who was Dr. Ernst Manasse?

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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