Thanksgiving always brings to mind those traditional images of Indians and Pilgrims sharing a harvest feast. Our rosy narrative of Indians and settlers communing together doesn’t so much square with the larger picture of what actually happened, but the happy story lingers. At first blush, you may wonder what harm there is in enjoying the romanticized version. The idea of friendly Indians breaking bread with grateful colonists warms the heart and fuels a unifying image of our people. At least, that’s the effect for white Americans.
For our first peoples, the story is so much more complicated. It brings to mind their early assistance to the white colonists who would later force them from their lands and make war on their governments, traditions, and cultures. Because they have a historical knowledge of the rest of the story, the beginning isn’t so heartwarming. For them, instead, it was the start of dark days. Days that brought attacks from encroaching white aliens and civil war within as their citizens struggled to find a response. Had they known what was to come, perhaps they wouldn’t have taught the Pilgrims how to farm the foreign produce of the New World. Maybe they would’ve been tempted to poison that Thanksgiving feast — and who could blame them.
But, they did not. Oh, they fought the encroachment — by gun and by lawsuit. However, they also provided aid, traded with whites, and even welcomed them into their communities at times. They made treaty after treaty despite the fact that the U.S. government repeatedly broke these agreements and they should have reasonably known then when they made them that they would not be honored. When they suffered the final indignity of being forced onto uninviting and often infertile lands, they hoped at last that they would be left alone…but they were not. Even then, there was more that could be taken from them. Eventually, the U.S. government’s policy became to try to take even their Indian-ness from them and teach them to be white. When there seemed to be nothing more to take from them, there was this.
In Oklahoma, the Muscogee Nation regrouped — what number of them that had survived forced relocation — and adopted the land forced on them. They built a capital in Okmulgee and, having constructed their new council house, attempted to resume native self-government. Their headquarters were built in 1878, but the U.S. government soon decided to take that too. In 1919, it sold the council house to the City of Okmulgee and pocketed the proceeds in government coffers. Last weekend, almost one hundred years later, the Muscogee regained ownership of the building. The City sold it back to them for $3.2 million dollars (thirty-two times what it paid the federal government for the property). While you might be inclined to believe that it adds insult to injury to make the Muscogee pay for the return of their stolen property, they believe it was worth every penny. Thompson Gouge, their public relations manager, said that it was like getting their ancestors back. For this, this November, they are especially thankful.
* Day to Give Thanks, or Thanksgiving Day in Mvskoke (Muscogee)
In the biblical account from the book of Genesis, when humankind dared to reach for the heavens and challenge God in his holy place, He confounded their tongues so that they could not understand one another. Without being able to communicate effectively, they could not complete their tower, and Babel was abandoned. The people, who had been one after the Great Flood, were now scattered and many.
When historians in the late 19th century embraced professionalism as part of the move to create history that was Truth, God didn’t have to bother to confuse their speech. Of professional historians, He needed not be jealous. Although these academics aspired to know like God, they were confounded themselves by being only men. They thought they could know objectively — have infallible certain knowledge free from human bias and perception. With this aim in mind, they introduced a certification process to weed out charlatans and undesirables. They embraced “scientific” standards and required proper training. They believed they were on the path to unquestionable fact.
We find, however, a century later, that our professionalism has not freed us from error or even brought us a historiography built on fact alone. For example, it has become part of the canon of the historiography about John Kennedy that those who watched his debate against Richard Nixon from the 1960 election on TV thought he won, while those who listened to it on the radio favored Nixon. The lesson drawn by professionals is that looks trump knowledge in televised debates. This conclusion has become a sacred cow in the history of the legend of JFK. His charm and good looks won out that night over Nixon, the surly ideologue. Only, now, we discover that there isn’t any actual evidence to support this claim about the debate. There was no definitive survey of listeners and viewers polled afterward for feedback. It turns out that the story was started by a newspaper columnist who based his conclusion on anecdotal evidence from potentially biased sources and personal impression. The lone survey researchers have been able to locate for confirmation was not scientifically conducted and has problems that make the conclusion unreliable (i.e. It appears that the majority of the radio respondents may have been Republicans or Nixon supporters already and the pool of respondents was too small to be statistically valuable anyway.). Still, historians cite unidentified multiple surveys which do not apparently exist in perpetuating the story. The myth was begun and sustained by faith in secondary literature. When someone finally decided to check on it, the story couldn’t be supported. For years, this untruth was the standard being taught in schools — I learned it. I probably taught it too. Not being expert in that area, I deferred on the subject.
Similarly — if less solemnly, historians have also been able recently to exonerate Mrs. O’Leary’s cow from its previous vilification as a doer of a dastardly historical deed. We no longer point our fingers that way when assigning blame for the Great Chicago Fire. Apparently, a review of the testimony and evidence indicates that human beings were to blame after all. Initial accounts judged it a bovine blunder — caused by the thoughtless upending of a lantern in a barn. As a result of the cow’s ineptitude, the city burned for two days….or at least that was the tale. Long after the fact, a newspaper reporter confessed that he made up the accusation against said cow. His copy sold, however, and was passed word of mouth. It became part of the historical tradition, and you still hear it today. The inaccuracy lives even though the story has been debunked.
If the latter story is a harmless vilification, the larger point remains. If we are making small errors, we must certainly also be making larger ones. And the implications of the former story certainly give pause about our perceptions about American political campaigns. Now, this erroneous knowledge helps shape the lens through which we view televised presidential debates. Are we more inclined to focus on the looks of the participants, knowing this story? In both cases, these falsehoods have been long perpetuated and continue to shape the way we understand the world around us — which is clearly a false knowledge. These are prime examples of things I must unlearn now, thanks to my education and professional training. These are just two errors, but we know there are many more. There isn’t enough room to cite exhaustively here (even of the ones I know). Such error is the cause of our need for revisionism, which not coincidentally was born about the same time as our professionalism.
So, professionalization has not brought us even factually truthful history, much less objective history. We still struggle for veracious factuality. Certification has perhaps brought us the illusion that we have achieved accurate history. Unfortunately, it has not brought the actual credibility hoped. We are now burdened with a guild that gives us Truth apparently no greater than that of the priests who came before us. Yet, we revel in our false confidence.
I have, on occasion, received a well-intentioned but highly unwelcome review of my work as “professional.” I know it’s meant to be complimentary. This is one of the most laudatory kudos you can get in regard to your efforts in our society today. Calling someone a professional means that you find the person efficient, effective, and educated. More importantly — and subtly — it means you believe they are credible: their work appears to be unbiased, legitimate, and logical. Who could be offended by such a characterization? I am.
It’s because what the author is really getting at is that they find me and/or my work respectable. We are fit, proper, and decent. Were we not, we would be disreputable — the work shoddy and my character impugnable. Perhaps I was disparaging in my conclusions or in my recitation of the facts, or maybe I used sources that were untraditional or biased. Even worse, perhaps I engaged in some kind of scholarly immorality. Gasp. Did I swear? Did I dress in a slothful or inappropriately sexual manner? Did I propose interpretations that were offensive or hostile? Did I not use the third person and voice only neutral, objective comments? In short, was the history I presented palatable and prudent?
Note that professionalism does not aim to create work that moves the reader or amuses. Its intention is to perpetuate work that is clinical, reasoned, and emotionless. The presentation of the work should never be fervent. Rather, academic work should be dispassionate and appeal to reason. It should be classless; one must not use diatribes against the rich, the poor, the oligarchic. Our collective work should bear the identical markings of educated skill. The flip-side of that is that it must conform to certain standards of being. This includes avoiding foul language. (The word “fuck” is not appropriate in an academic setting. You may occasionally be able to slip in a WASP-y “damn” but “mother fucker” or “dick weed” is verboten in scholarly essays. Please note.) Also, footnotes are a necessity, even though no one will ever check these as long as your apparent credibility is sufficient. Do try to use an authoritative tone, too, so as to promote the legitimacy and respectability of the guild. You are one of us; you are representative of our discipline. Try not to drink too much at conferences or mash on students. Sobriety, solemnity, and sterility are the hallmarks of professionalism.
Of course, it doesn’t make your work any less true or meaningful if it uses inappropriate language or lacks an academic construct. You aren’t a lesser scholar if you prefer not to wear a tie or pantyhose to class. Opting to entitle your work Our Racist Forefathers and Their Legacy of Ignobility instead of Founding Brothers doesn’t discredit your conclusions. It just makes it…unseemly…and disreputable to the academic prigs that dominate the field. I’m really not the least bit interested in all that. I absolutely reject the role of scholar as socializing agent. The intent of my practice is not to make anyone behave or groom them for bourgeois manners. I am too busy trying to get people to be conscious. As long as I aim to speak truth to power, I will never seek respectability. In a million years, I’d never choose to be professional over being passionate. Vulgarity before valorization! Take your professionalism and shove it. Respectability has nothing to offer.