A student of history need not rush to publish in response to every detail in the daily press. Important things never go away and are always relevant. The more time taken to connect events and properly sequence and emphasize them, the more potent the eventual story. Racial slander, commercial-political collusion, economic inequality, and popular outrage are ever-present. They are as ubiquitous as the Southern political operatives who sell the future of their fellows, and their own souls, for the sake of power and lucre in mimicry of the luxuries of more established and prosperous climes.
We all re-tell our stories. And the stories are the better for it. I repeat my stories and activities: over and over I rehearse the scripts, twist the unfoldings, and tweak the endings. They are the only stories and activities that I have. The Iliad was recited hundreds of thousands of times and changed with each telling. And the repetitions don’t seem to have hurt it at all.
Dirt, dirt, dirt – we come from dirt; we live from dirt (guided by intelligence, we hope); we return to dirt. There is nothing fearful or shameful in that fact – except when we forget it.
What is history worth and what is worth history? Why study history?
When I returned, at almost forty, to finish my college degree, my two most inspiring history teachers, my first one after returning and my last one, were confined to wheelchairs. Both were near retirement and not far from death. The search started in Italy and ended up in the American South. Proximity to toil and the soil pervaded both perspectives on history. Yet for all of this, there was a wonder at the endless spectacle and peculiarities of human history, especially pertaining to intricate, evolving human cultures. I suspect that I forgot the dirt of life at times in early college days, but I never forgot for long once I discovered history through the eyes, voices, passions, and reading recommendations of these two men.
Both professors were first and foremost storytellers and social beings, highly interested in cultures and institutions – in outstanding individuals and the life patterns of ordinary people. They were more interested in generating interest, materials-management skills and synthesis, befitting any professional, than in frail and filigreed scholarship for a closeted few. Both men shaped and shoved more students into forms of professional life other than academics. If a degree was needed for a career, why not choose a broad area of study that is rife with intrigue and relevance to life in all its connected manifestations over a commercially specialized focus?
For the last course of my belated undergraduate degree, in the winter and spring of 1990, it was my good fortune to study the post-Civil War history of the South at Tennessee State University. A more decent mind and gentle personality than my esteemed professor would be hard to find in academia, or any profession, at any time. He was familiar with his South and its people, he was compassionate but analytical about what happened there. However, he was not overly optimistic about where it might go – neither were my significant teachers at Memphis State University about the course that lies ahead for the people of the nation and the world.
Yet no matter how hard the grind, how pointless the day, returning to my stories – these stories of generations – revives my outlook and my body. How can history do more than prepare the mind and preserve the spirit?
While working on a short essay entitled “Guilt by Association” and its related material, pondering the worth of effort even in my sleep, I had a dream. I was a young boy in an enclosed horse-drawn carriage at a large rural event when a robust baby boy was thrust through the open window in a moment of wide-spread celebration. Years later, in a side room at that very setting, I was presented with an opportunity to ask questions of that, now, wise old man. A lifetime had jumped in an instant from birth to sagacity. In those minutes, talking with the experienced, sage Benjamin Franklin about people, events, and the mechanisms of life, my world view expanded exponentially: dirt and destiny combined to lift me above the common fray and into to it all at once.
That is why we study history. That is why a few magnetic storytellers rise from nowhere to teach it by being themselves.
May these fallen guides, born of practical experience, books, and noble goals, continue to speak in stronger voices that we can understand:
Dr. Marcus W. Orr (1925–1990) – Memphis State University;
Dr. Samuel H. Shannon (1934-2003) – Tennessee State University.