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Bad Historian

In college, I sometimes felt like an outsider in the History department. While I perceived that my classmates were intellectually engaged with our professors discussing the latest book by David McCullough, or worse, an author I’d never even heard of, let alone read, my advisor and I usually ended up casually chatting about running.

“Great job on that Progressive child-rearing essay. How’s the half marathon training going, though? On my 10 mile run this morning…”

It’s perhaps no wonder that his office is on a completely different floor from the rest of the department. At the time I felt, and still feel, that this position outside the circle made me “well-rounded.”

Yet, I also felt like an imposter. A pseudo-historian. I did my very best to avoid internships in the archives, honors theses, and a career in history. And I never watched John Adams, okay, sorry! I swear I actually do like history…why else would I have tortured myself with this major, researching a single topic until I didn’t even know what reality was anymore?

One summer, I made myself read a history book. A real, honest-to-goodness, non-fiction history book. I read The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, and I found that I actually enjoyed it. I’ve always, even since I was in elementary school, loved historical fiction, though this is often unfairly disregarded by historians. Gordon-Reed’s work showed me that I could also pay attention throughout a non-fiction work. Since then, I’ve read a few more books on history, not assigned for class, not to feel like a “real historian,” but for my own pleasure. Even now I’m reading On the Rez by Ian Frazier, a book suggested to me from which I am gleaning a lot, but, I also just finished Monkey Hunting by Cristina García, a novel about a Chinese immigrant in Cuba and his descendants, a topic I knew almost nothing about previously.

Most of the time, though, my interest as an historian is peaked by the little things, not books at all, and I believe that’s typical. On a bus ride from the valley of Morocelí to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, a friend began to tell me about his hometown on the Caribbean coast. He talked about the Garífuna people and their traditional music that still influences what he had playing through his phone. He described the long bus rides from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula and Tela, and the boat rides out to the little family home where his grandmother lives on the ocean. He showed me videos of his uncle and cousins fishing, something these people have done for centuries. Hearing about his family made the history so much more authentic. That’s why I like historical fiction and biographies, because I can almost touch the humanity in the history. That’s why if I ever do choose to write about Honduras, I’ll write about this friend, his story, and the stories of the people I’ve met and want to know so much more about. Though I’m by no means an expert, I think this curiosity is what makes a good historian, but humanity is what makes a better story teller.

 

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