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Alternate U.S. Histories: Telling the Whole Story

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It seems that the citizens of the United States are using all of their extra time at home during the summer of 2020 to make full use of their right to free speech by expressing their views as freely and as often as possible. All of them.

We have a lot of voices in the United States. I see that as a good thing, and I laugh whenever people say that our “Founding fathers would be shocked” because actually, they were pretty nervy guys. Come on, they took on Great Britain, one of the biggest powers in the world at the time!

On the other hand, I do agree with all of the voices getting their chance. I’ve noticed that there is a wave of “alternative” histories being published although I would call them “additional” histories, and I got curious about what they have to say.


I’ve always thought that strength comes from diversity.

This photo is free for commercial use. Click image for source.

Because of the length of these books, I do recommend the “Young Readers” edition where one exists. “Young Readers” editions are abridged and simplified versions of books written for adults. They are usually designed for readers about age 11 or 12 and up; they are not necessarily children’s books.

When properly done, they are good options for high school kids simply because of the time factor, and they are good for adults for the same reason: You can find out about the topic and still finish the book within a reasonable amount of time.

I’m listing them in the order I read…or attempted to read…the books. There are so many, that I bailed on some before finishing them. If you think I closed the book too soon, let me know, and I will give it another chance!

Use this article as your chance to share your opinion…just remember, no personal insults.

Please comment on the article and the books discussed…this isn’t a place to share your personal opinion on the topic if it doesn’t relate to the books.

A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America

Ronald Takaki

I didn’t make it very far into this book at all because I was put off by two things, one general and one specific:

  1. General: the subject is just far too broad. What does the term “Multicultural America” even mean? I have to say, I was drawn into his beginning the book with a visit to the area where the first British colony was founded, Jamestown, VA, but English settlers ARE covered in traditional U.S. history.

  2. Specific: I had to stop when I got to Takaki’s skimming over issues having to do with illegal immigration. I know it’s a complicated problem, but it’s not one that can be ignored or brushed under the rug. I would say Takaki is sacrificing good scholarship to politically correct platitudes. Kids deserved better than that, and they also see right through it. They need to be told both sides of the issue clearly: I guarantee they are going to inherit at least part of this problem. It hasn’t gone away in the last 200 years; it isn’t going away in this generation.

This Land is Our Land

Linda Barrett Osborne

I’m not sure that This Land is Our Land has anything new to say about immigration. I felt that what I learned in history class covered the topic perfectly well, and I was especially put off when the book informed me, right away, that African immigration through slave trade is not addressed. Granted, it is a broad topic in and of itself, but it’s also ridiculous to ignore it since African people immigrated as enslaved and indentured servants in a manner, that at first, wasn’t that different from many Europeans.

To me, it’s a false dichotomy.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

I was really excited about reading An Indigenous People’s History because of some recent posts I’ve done about First Nations have gotten me interested in knowing more about them. I didn’t make it past the first 50 pages though, because of a pretty major factual error: their statement that the Puritans/Separatists, who came to Massachusetts in 1620 were the first permanent British colony, when in fact the colony at Virginia had been permanently, continuously settled since 1607. I’ve read all about how the English interacted with the nations in that part of Virginia, so I was offended both by being ignored myself in favor of what could only be a “preferred” narrative but also confused why the First Nations in Virginia were ignored this way.

I also think it’s a bit of a stretch to refer to the Puritans, who practiced a form of Calvinism, as cult. It’s also off topic and is only mentioned to create a narrative that isn’t true.

Finally though, what is most problematic about this book is that the story of the First Nations is framed by the story of the United States, and frankly, there is so much more to the First Nations that that. The book quickly alludes to some of the accomplishments of the First Nations in both North and South America, but it is so occupied with responding to what is perceived as THE narrative of American history that the wonderful story of the indigenous people themselves is lost.

Also, I have to mention that I was really annoyed that Native words are not put into italics because it “privileges” English. No. That’s not why you do it. You italicize non-English words in an English text so that the poor reader doesn’t freak out. Especially if it’s a language learner, but many people would be confused.

On top of all that, it reads more like a parody of a textbook (really bland writing and dumb exercises) than a trade book.

This book is just not good. Awful scholarship. Just don’t even try.

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

Check back for information on these books…I’ve requested them from the library!

 

Michael Bronski

A Queer History of the United States

Since there is a Young Reader’s edition of this book, I went with that, and I read it in about 4 hours. It’s a pretty substantial read even for an adult, and I didn’t feel as though I was being “talked down” to or had the story whitewashed to fit some political agenda.

In short, I was able to finish this book without throwing it down in disgust.

When I flipped through the book prior to reading it, I was intrigued because I saw an interesting mix of people of whom I had heard but did not know was part of the “LBGTQ” community, so I thought, “Cool, now I’m going to hear the real story about all of these people.”

Don’t flip out though: Bronski goes to a lot of trouble to explain how difficult it is to define relationships of people who lived in the past using current terminology.

There are people, particularly women, who cross dressed for defined periods of time, perhaps to accomplish something they couldn’t (such as fight in a war) dressed as a woman. Some of these women returned to traditional female roles, and some didn’t.

There is a story of at least one historical figure who actually denied any gender and eventually got to the point that no one really knew for sure while this person lived.

There is also much discussion of same sex “romantic friendships” that occurred during the 19th century. I think the phenomenon is dealt with fairly and realistically as Bronski acknowledges that the way of expressing oneself was different in that time, and expressions of romantic longing were not necessarily declarations of same sex physical attraction. In some cases, maybe yes, and in others, maybe no.

Anyone who has studied the literature or history of the period knows that it’s called the “Romantic” period. Romantic, in this case, doesn’t necessarily refer to what we think of as romantic love but rather a focus on feelings and emotions rather than ideas. So expressing attachment in terms that would seem “flowery” and perhaps erotic to modern readers, simply may or may not have been.

This distinction is made clear in this book.

You may be tempted to dismiss this book or single out kids who may be struggling with these issues to read it, but that would be a mistake. The thesis of this book is one that really, we all need to hear, and that boils down to: You are who you are. The label is secondary. You can be completely heterosexual and still have characteristics of different genders, in fact, most if not all people do. That’s normal; not something to be ashamed of. Also, and this is rather new, I think, how you identify yourself in terms of gender and sexuality (which are two different things) may change over the years. That’s also ok. Or you may have attractions that you choose not to act on for one reason or another, and that’s ok too.

An annoyance with being told that certain traits, that I may or may not have, are “female” or “male” has annoyed me off and on my entire life. I remember being very upset by Women’s Ways of Knowing when I read it in graduate school because of its assertion that I understood as saying that women are not as analytical as men. So did that mean if I’m more analytical and less intuitive than I’m less female? Was I lying to myself about gender or sexuality? I concluded that I was not: that I simply have certain traits that may occur less often in females…and I came to see that as an advantage, because people don’t expect it.

But anyway, I’m glad to see that we have moved on from some of those ideas.

Here are some more pros and cons of this book that I noticed:

  1. The history of the “Queer” community is primarily told through biographical sketches of individuals.

    Bronski addresses the strengths and weaknesses of this structure at the beginning. In general, studying history sole through individual stories is not good practice. Teachers like to do it because biography lends itself well to school projects and also, among other reasons, because focusing on individuals allows the class to skim over questions that might be troubling and cause problems among the students or with the parents.

    I realized right away that this particular history, up to a certain point, almost needs to be told through individuals because gender identification and sexual identification have been such private things, and anyone who “deviated” from the “norm” faced severe repercussions by going public. Without a biographical approach, this history would be very short.

    Students reading this book should be aware of this shortcoming and the reasons for it.

    On the bright side, the approach Bronski uses makes the book very episodic and easy to use in excerpts on other topics, such as the study of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s poetry, which are both often studied in high schools.

  2. Bronski does an amazing job of producing a well written book that also adheres to use of the preferred pronouns of every individual discussed in the book.

    Look, I’m a former English teacher. I will go back and edit every noun in a piece to make it plural so I can use “they” to be gender neutral while still avoiding sins of agreement. These things bug me. But also, I realized that once I had figured out what to do, it really isn’t difficult.

    This text, which remember I read in a ghost written form, simplified for teenagers, abundantly proves this point by employing smooth and well written prose that complies with the preferred pronouns of every individual, including Publick Universal Friend née Jemima Wilkinson, who accepted no pronoun at all.

    Sometimes American schools in particular are so busy covering the broad scope of the program in literature that they skip the finer points, such as style, but anyone who thinks there is little or no style in nonfiction should take a close look at this book.

  3. This book is not afraid to address opposing sides of the issue.

    I have abandoned reading some of the histories I’ve read because the author’s efforts to rewrite history to fit the thesis or agenda is so labored, it actually becomes painful. It also isn’t accurate.

    One of the best chapters in this book deals with the controversy that Anita Bryant raised when she tried to keep gay and lesbian teachers out of the public schools in Florida.

    I remember seeing Bryant on her television commercials for orange juice, and my mother, for some reason, told my she was conflicted about her…Mom was a pretty devout Southern Baptist, which taught (and sometimes still teachers) that homosexuality is wrong, but as I recall, my mom, a teacher, did not approve of Bryant’s stance. I ended up with some negative feelings towards her that didn’t come from the commercials, which did make me want to drink orange juice!

    Bronski contrasts Anita Bryant’s story with disco celebrity Sylvester, and from my perspective, fairly treats both while shedding light on the situation at the times.

    I remember disco too, as it was popular when I was an older child, just before middle school, and funnily enough, I never associated with LGBTQ issues…I mean seriously, the whole decade was nuts!

  4. Richie Chevat is an excellent ghostwriter/adaptor.

    I need to give a mention to Richie Chevat, who adapted the original version of this book (below). I have found several “Young People’s” editions of these books to be unreadable because of the poor revising. It’s a difficult job…the adaptor has not spend years studying and researching the material in the way that the author has…and largely thankless.

    If you are a teacher or like to read nonfiction in its easier format, which I recommend, look for Chevat as a ghost writer/adaptor. He has also done the revision of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.


The original edition of A Queer History of the United States:

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A Disability History of the United States

This book might be another one that would seem to be only for a select group of people, but again, the author posits a thesis that affects everyone. The central question of this book is “What constitutes a disability?”, and the general answer is that most of the time, “disability” is measured in terms of one’s ability to work. Perhaps a secondary consideration might be one’s ability to have and support a family, but for most people, if they can’t work to support a family, a family is out of the question. If you think about it, historically, even when the woman did not need to financially support the family, she needed to physically stand up to the rigors of childbearing and of caring and providing for the family at home.

Following through with this thesis, these issues are less of a problem when the “disabled” person has more money, so in a way, having money can make the person “less disabled” and really almost a moot point.

The book traces how that definition has changed throughout history, affected first by the industrial revolution and then by the switch to a service economy.

The book also gives some attention to how indigenous Americans traditionally dealt with disability and also how immigrants were affected.

The reason I think this book is MOST important for all people is because we are all gifted or disabled to some degree depending on our unique set of characteristics. What might be considered a “gift” in one time or place could well be considered a disability in another.

There is also the consideration that not all disabilities occur at birth. Many occur as a result of life, from accidents or war, for example. We even can accrue “disability” from age.

Seeing issues that were once viewed a big problem that are now a matter of course can help us all see how we can move forward.

This book is not available in a “Young Reader’s” edition, but the full adult version is manageable for high school students.

A Young People’s History of the United States

Howard Zinn

I have wanted to read this book for a long time, and I finally did it.

A People’s History of the United States is a classic of this genre, but if you don’t have time for the full adult book, the “Young People’s” edition is a good alternative.

The main thesis of this book is that the United States was not founded on the principles of freedom and democracy as we are taught, but that things have always been, for the most part, about keeping the money and power in the hands of a few, and only giving people…and certain people at that…just enough to keep them from revolting.

Yes, yes, all very Socialist. I get it.

And definitely, there is no question that in the modern era we spend a lot of money on “defense” when many social needs go unmet. That’s what I think anyway.

I don’t know enough to know, but I also wonder what would happen if we pulled out. I know the United States is far from perfect. I would not argue that we are even “good”. But the realm of what is realistically possible, where do we collectively stack up?

That’s what I wonder.

I found myself getting annoyed at this book because of what it leaves out, but the mere fact that I KNOW what it leaves out shows me that I have been decently well educated in the other point of view. Seeing another is not a bad thing.

And usually, before I got too disgusted or simply thought the book was too inaccurate, there would be a sentence or two acknowledging the other side.

Some of my frustration may have stemmed from the fact that the sentence structure in this edition is simplified for younger readers, which means that contrasting ideas cannot be easily expressed in one sentence.

If you are working with middle or high school students, don’t forget to pull some extracts from both versions to allow students to compare style. Just saying.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States

Paul Ortiz

After reading so many of these histories, I have to say that I’ve finally hit a wall with the African American and Latinx History. When I first found it, I honestly was a bit annoyed because I think African Americans deserve their own history, so I at least wanted to take a look.

Ortiz’s seems to be drawing the two groups together through their shared history as workers, especially agricultural workers and especially in the southern U.S. Ortiz’s approach, however, leaves out all other ethnicities on the one hand, and on the other, draws a parallel between African Americans and Latinx that I think is forced.

I’m not a historian; my stance is that of an informed reader. As an informed reader, I am not convinced that the Latinx experience in the United States is anywhere near the same as the African American because African Americans are Americans Americans Americans as far as I’m concerned. The ancestors of White Americans forced the ancestors of African Americans to come here, and we have pretty much been treating them badly ever since.

The Latinx community are, however, by and large the descendants of Spanish people who did the same thing to the parts of the Americas they occupied as the English, primarily, did to the rest.

Are there issues with the treatment of the Latinx community in the United States? Definitely. I’m just saying I think the juxtaposition of African Americans and Latinx people without the rest of the workers in the United States is a false one.

There is no “Young Readers” edition of this book, and the adult version is not especially long, but it’s rather dense reading.

The Revisioning American History series, which includes this book, A Queer History of the United States, A Disability History of the United States, and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, does have a sort of “free standing” book about Rosa Parks.

Biography should not replace history, but this is what is available.

I hope someone will write a history of African Americans that will cover the full scope of their American experience. Their period of enslavement and the Jim Crow period were both important aspects of it, but there is more, much more, and it’s a shame that history has not been comprehensively outlined, for teenagers and adults.

A Black Women’s History of the United States

Diana Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross

I really wanted to like this book, but I have to be honest: I was put off by the format and the tone.

I’m sympathetic to the problems that the authors had that made them select the format they did. Each chapter starts with a discussion of a particular women who is meant to be somewhat representative of the issues and time period being discussed.

In general, this format is flawed. I find myself frustrated because too much is extrapolated from the stories of the individuals while at the same time, I don’t feel there is enough detail.

On the other hand, I recognized the difficulties of writing about illiterate people: by necessity, a lot is extrapolated from cursory information available.

I’ve come to see what a huge crime denying literacy is: not only do people lose a non face-to-face means of communication during their lifetime…they also lose the ability to communicate from beyond the grave.

For an excellent example of dealing with illiterate historical figures effectively, I recommend The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reid.

The second issue I have with The Black Women’s History of the United States is harder to forgive. The authors allow their anger to come through and cloud the story they want to tell.

First, the stories are shocking and awful enough just told objectively. Believe me, further comment is not necessary and only detracts from the power of the stories the author do uncover.

Second, the authors run the risk of making their subjects come off as “other”. In the quest for truth and honestly it’s too easy to separate people even more. And that is exactly what the style of this book does.

In conclusion, I didn’t find the ideal “alternative history”. The two books I liked the best were the Queer History and the History of Disability. To me, it seemed that the authors of those books were the most objective and allowed the stories to speak for themselves.

I know perfectly well that Americans are not perfect. Like any other group, we do some things better than others, and there are other countries who do some things better than we do. Many who do. No question, some parts of our history are shameful.

I don’t know the answer more than anyone else, and I don’t know what books are best. As a rule, I don’t like divisiveness, but on the other hand, it’s not right to avoid the whole story in an attempt to be unified.

The best I can say is take a look at these books, and use what you find there to put the “dominant” story in perspective. If these books can help us achieve some balance in their depiction of history, they have done their job.

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!