The plot of the classic episode of The Simpsons “Lisa the Iconoclast” had Lisa Simpson researching Jebediah Springfield and discovering that her hometown’s beloved founder was in reality a massive fraud. It turns out that Jebediah Springfield’s real identity was Hans Sprungfeld, a bloodthirsty pirate who once attacked George Washington. This man who was credited with founding his town on the quote “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man” in reality hated the people who would inhabit his town.
Lisa being Lisa, she does her best to spread the word about Jebediah Springfield’s true identity and predictably, everybody she informs (except Homer) reacts with hostility and denies her revelations. Even Marge, who is usually in Lisa’s corner when she gets caught up in issues like this, flatly refused to hear a thing about the beloved Jebediah Springfield being a pirate. The episode ends with Lisa getting the whole town’s attention at the bicentennial parade about to tell them Jebediah Springfield’s true identity, but at the last second decides against it.
Jebediah Springfield obviously isn’t a real person, but the…um, “finer details” about many actual historical figures often get forgotten as the decades and centuries pass their respective times. The accounts of these figures get retold generations later as tales of valor, heroism, and inspiration. The false account as Jebediah Springfield as the noble founder is a tale that has inspired generations of Springfielders up to the current day (even a cynical, unhappy guy like Moe Szyslak holds Jebediah Springfield close to his heart). It is for this reason that Lisa decided not to tell the whole town his true identity when she had the perfect opportunity. The spirit of the myth has brought the whole town together and the best in everyone (especially in a town where large gatherings like this usually end in riots), so the false story is justified.
To make my point, allow me to bring up an actual beloved historical figure.
Of all the US presidents, Abraham Lincoln is probably the closest one to achieving Jesus Christ-status in the country’s collective mind. His legacy is as the president who abolished slavery in all states and kept the country together when a civil war threatened to divide it. His assassination further cemented him as a martyr for one unified, stronger, and slavery-free United States of America. You can draw so many parallels between Lincoln’s story and the story of Christ.
Before you do that, however, make sure to keep in mind one of Lincoln’s very poignant quotes “history is written by the victors” (my favorite quote of his after “don’t believe everything you read on the internet just because there’s a picture and a quote next to it”). The accounts that we are given of historical people and events are formulated to drive a particular narrative about that person/event, the context surrounding it, and about how life/society work in general.
The narrative that I (and the rest of us collectively) learned about Abraham Lincoln in elementary school is as a man who dared to use his bully pulpit to speak out against the horrors of slavery during a time when it was ubiquitous. This was the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in every state, including the Confederacy, once and for all. I learned about Abraham Lincoln as America’s first civil rights hero, as the white Martin Luther King 100 years before the actual Martin Luther King. That’s a beautiful story, right? The type of Oscar award-winning story that’s worthy of being immortalized on film by a director like um…let’s say Steven Spielberg, right?
That heartwarming narrative gets a little muddy when you find out that the humanitarian reasons for Lincoln’s abolition stance have been overstated. His reason for passing the Emancipation Proclamation were strictly strategic. As a matter of fact, although he ran on abolition in his presidential run in 1860, he was as racist as anyone else at that time and proposed that all the freed slaves would be deported back to Africa (because America belonged to the white man, in his view). Not to mention that the more radical abolitionists (like Frederick Douglass) that pushed Lincoln to take a less calloused abolition stance often get ignored in the greater narrative too. And he also suspended habeas corpus as president. And about that Oscar award-winning Spielberg-directed Lincoln film we eventually got, Dave Chappelle once described it as “a movie about black people with no fuckin’ black people in it”.
I got another example.
The narrative of Rosa Parks that has been fed to our collective consciousness is the story of a tired old woman who on one fateful day, just could not take the discriminatory practices in public transit anymore and refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger. However, what is missing in this narrative of Rosa Parks is that she and her husband had been involved in civil rights activism long before and after she took her stance against bus segregation in 1955. As a matter of fact, her famous demonstration on December 1, 1955 was not the first time she had done that protest on the bus. Rosa Parks wasn’t even the first person to do that type of protest against bus segregation.
That honor belongs to Claudette Colvin.
However, Claudette Colvin was not promoted by the NAACP as the symbol of the bus boycotts because she was 15 years old, pregnant out of wedlock at the time, and described as having a bit of an attitude. Worrying that the optics wouldn’t look good, the NAACP opted to promote Rosa Parks as the face of their protest due to her more “respectable” image. From their point of view, the image of a woman like Parks who can be perceived as affable and demure unable to take the injustice anymore was a more sympathetic symbol than a woman like Colvin who could be perceived as a derelict or someone just looking to stir up shit.
Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks are just two examples. Take your pick for any other historical figure. How about Theodore Roosevelt? Susan B. Anthony? Martin Luther King? Alexander Graham Bell? Che Guevara? John F. Kennedy? Thomas Edison? Malcolm X? Woodrow Wilson? Ronald Reagan? Nelson Mandela? John Lennon? Andrew Jackson? All of the Founding Fathers? Christopher Columbus is too easy. Heck, this even includes the narratives of people who are still alive like Bill Clinton, Eric Clapton, or Fidel Castro. Recently, in light of San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the Star Spangled Banner, I and many others have come to learn that this song that celebrates the valor and perseverance of our country in the midst of a harrowing War of 1812 has more verses that we don’t sing for some reason…
I stated before that I disagreed with Lisa’s reasons for ultimately refusing to disclose Jebediah Springfield’s true identity. If Abraham Lincoln’s mythology as a humanitarian crusader against slavery or Rosa Parks’ mythology as an everywoman who just couldn’t take it anymore one day bring people together and bring out the best in people, what’s the harm of these myths?
I don’t think these mythologized narratives actually do that nor do I think they’re constructed to do that. In some cases, I think these narratives attempt to construct images of historical figures that have their more radical aspects watered-down. The image of Martin Luther King and his principles of nonviolence have since been co-opted by the structures he protested against in order to discourage protests or support for protests of the generations after him. This (purposely, in my opinion) ignores the contexts of the surrounding contexts of protests today and in MLK’s times, the nuances of his views, and how his views evolved over the course of his life. The image of Malcolm X as the scary Nation of Islam member with the gun who talked about “by any means necessary” allows to collectively ignore the poignant issues he brought to light (that we are still grappling with to this day), the contexts that informed his views, the nuances of his views, and how his views evolved over the course of his life.
I also think these narratives about historical figures portray them has immaculate and transcendent Herculean gods among men who fall out of the sky to save the rest of us. I think that image of people discourages great action from all of us more than encourages it. These narratives present flawless images of the historical figures that no actual person can ever live up to. We have to remember that people like Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and whoever else were just as complicated or flawed or even more flawed as any of us, so any of our ability to live up to their standards of greatness is closer than we tend to believe. It also ignores the collective action and fervor that informed their actions. Lincoln had to be pushed by more radical abolitionists throughout his presidency to amend his views on abolition. Franklin D. Roosevelt had to be pushed by more radical labor activists and socialist/communist third parties in order to advocate for the New Deal policies. Conversely, Adolf Hitler could not have exterminated as many Jews as he did without wide support and complicity he got from many citizens who weren’t Jewish, countries that were his allies, and countries like the US who may not have been allies but turned a blind eye to most of the Holocaust.
I’m sure the future legacy of Barack Obama will be retold in the future as a testament in how far the United States has come in regards to race relations by electing its first black president, which will be used to promote the idea that racism is no longer an issue in this country. The narratives of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln’s abolishing of slavery is used to promote that same idea too. I was never taught in school about how the end of slavery and the Civil War triggered a reactionary response from Confederate sympathizers that led to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize black citizens and that the failure of Reconstruction brought about Jim Crow laws that would persecute black people for another 100 years. I was never taught in schools that after MLK’s assassination, the FBI established counter intelligence programs in order to destroy radical activist groups or about how certain policies created after the ’60s like the War on Drugs or tough-on-crime laws are racist in their intent and in their practice. These future narratives about Obama are unfortunately going to ignore the racist and xenophobic hysteria against Muslims and undocumented immigrants or the epidemic of black men and women being killed by police with impunity that has marred his presidency in favor of that damned, untrue “post-racial America” narrative. The festering reactionary bigotry that has propelled Donald Trump’s presidential campaign should not be but likely will be seen as a minor glitch if not completely glossed over, not unlike the reactionary Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run for president, especially if Trump ultimately loses his bid for president. In its place will be a new narrative that America is now “post-sexist” or whatever buzzword they come up with in light of Hillary Clinton becoming our first female president, ignoring the many structures of patriarchy that are still in place or the incoming sexist backlash that threatens to cast a shadow over her presidency.
To quote Abraham Lincoln again, “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it”. When we are presented with these watered-down and incomplete portraits of our historical figures, we don’t examine the full spectrum of the issues they dealt with and we end up recreating or never solving those problems. There would be harm in perpetuating the false narrative of Jebediah Springfield if he wasn’t a cartoon character. This isn’t hero-phobia, to quote Moe, or dead white male bashing from a PC thug, to quote Ms. Hoover.