I have always been a very self-involved person, and have not considered history to have much relevance to me personally. The Baptist Church in which I was raised was very keen on various forms of "Sins of the Father" guilt-mongering, and I rebelled against this with a vengeance. Having been named first, middle and last after my Father, I even went so far as to go through the legal process of changing my entire name. I did not consider myself in any way connected to the actions of my ancestors, and thus did not have any great curiosity about them. This was made easier because something about my origins were considered shameful by my extended family and they treated me accordingly. I still can't be sure I fully know why, and have always maintained that I don't care.
I did not consider the imperialism torture and slavery my white ancestors visited upon the world, nor the continuing actions of my contemporaries, to be in any way connected to me.
These convenient pretenses have been eroding very recently. Within my own selfish life I began to realize that the past is as real and important as the present or the future. Eventually, it occurred to me that my life as it is, including great privileges that I take for granted, cannot exist other than within the context of a vast web of history and current events, people of the past and present, which I can only hope to understand in the smallest way.
I am beginning to feel that it is important for me to understand as much as possible, for my connection to it cannot be denied.
In particular, I have been trying to fill in the vast gaps in my knowledge of the history of the United States of America in which I have lived my entire life. Part of this comes from being old enough to be horrified at how little generations of adults younger than myself really know about the small span of history through which I have lived.
The earliest curiosity I developed about the ongoing economic imperialism of the U.S. was when I left the hard but necessary work of farming and moved to the city to do the dehumanizing and needlessly dangerous work still being done, back in the 1980s, in factories here. I was aware of the great amount of regulation that had been developed over decades and even centuries to make working conditions in U.S. factories safe, humane and fairly compensated, but the "ground truth" of life on the factory floor fell far short of the ideal. Then I noticed how most of the manufactured goods used in this country, in my life, were made in other countries where the scarce worker protections I enjoyed might not even exist. I could only imagine how much worse it was for those workers.
I had long been vaguely curious about monuments in the downtown Portland, Oregon park blocks celebrating the bravery and heroism of local soldiers who fought in a war in a place called The Philippines. I was previously unaware that there had been such a war, and the name of the place where it happened only sounded slightly familiar.
Then a few years later, I find myself in a long distance internet friendship with a kid who lives in The Philippines and shares, even exceeds, my great enthusiasm for a surf-punk band called "Man... or, Astro-Man?" (and many typographical variants of the same). For many months I have been providing what small help I can for his grand project of re-creating the rather complex staging and sound design of the band, very specifically, during their 1999 tours.
I began to get curious about a history that includes some kind of past war between his country and mine, and ends up with his passion for an American band that has never even played in his country.
I turned to YouTube and a history educator for whom I had developed some trust for telling the whole story as best as his own research, often involving multiple consultants, could allow. I recently watched his video on The Philippine-American War, which as it turns out, was a sort of spin-off of the already ongoing Spanish-American War, about which I also knew almost nothing. The Philippine war started in 1898 and lasted until... well sometimes it's hard to set a specific date when something like this ends. Sure there are dates for treaties and such, but those don't always mean terrible things just stopped happening.
If you want to watch it, the video is here:
And of course, as with any important subject, seek your own sources as well.
At this juncture I don't know how to reconcile my horror and shame about my own country and my realization that these same horrible and wrong things make the life I mostly sort-of enjoy possible.
Side step in world and personal history a few years, and I was briefly working for a sub-contractor for customer service for the shoe and fashion company Nike. During training for this job, we are treated to many videos, including one that features a very positive story about the wonderful work being done at one of the Nike factories in The Philippines. Even with all of the positive spin, I could tell this was not a manufacturing workplace like those I had known here in the U.S., and the vast contrast between that sweatshop and the gleaming modernist dream of the Nike corporate headquarters just a few blocks away from where I live, is hard to express adequately.
And all of this is just a small sample of the atrocities of the relationship, past and present, between The United States and The Philippines.
I haven't even touched upon the vast sources of shame based upon just the internal history of the country that made me who I am.
I don't know what to do with this, about this. For now, I am just trying to learn as much as I can about the country, world and history I have for too long considered mostly irrelevant to my life.
Of one thing I am increasingly sure: there were no "good old days", much less any past standard of "Great" to which we should return. The farther back in time one looks, the less "great" things were for pretty much everybody, but especially anybody without my privilege of being a white heterosexual male.
[Editorial note: I have done a pass through this to correct some of the most embarrassing errors in spelling, syntax and readability. Along the way I found a tangled web of tenses that, if I were to try to untangle it, I would give up on this essay entirely. In a way, shifting and conflicting tenses are intrinsic to one of the central ideas I am trying to put forth here: that the past, present and future, as well as the individual and their small place in the world, are all inextricably, interdependently connected, like it or not. For a lot of my ongoing "awakening" process, I would also like to thank Roccie Hill and her powerful book of historical fiction "The Blood of My Mother", which I am still reading, but can already recommend.]