“History Yes, Nostalgia No”

Melissa Harris-Perry, Professor of Political Science, Tulane Univ.

I’m a member of a group on Facebook composed of current and former residents of my hometown, Greenfield, Ohio. This group was formed several months ago by a woman who lived in and went to school in Greenfield during the early 1960s. She, like so many others, long ago moved away but never forgot what growing up in a small town was like.

There are over 300 members of the group now and most of the conversation centers around “do you remember” kinds of things. It’s been a wonderful experience and I’ve learned much from being privy to the collective memories of those who take part.

One recently asked question was, “What do you miss most about Greenfield?” My answer was different from many. While many people could generate a specific list of things they seemed to genuinely miss, I could only create a list of those things I enjoyed experiencing but wouldn’t particularly want to experience again. I have fond memories of, but don’t miss the past.

Last night I watched a video essay by Professor Melissa Harris-Perry on the difference between history and nostalgia. Her words explained perfectly why I feel as I do. I am by nature and training a historian. As such, I haven’t forgotten that not everything about my youth was good. The 1940s-60s were good times if you were a man, if you were white, if you had the correct surname, if you owned property, if you had the right job. etc. And, those were decades when a great many people didn’t have what I just listed.

In my Facebook post I mentioned living my life in chapters, having enjoyed the writing of each, being fairly satisfied with the chapter being written, and looking forward to writing the next one.

While there are many serious problems today with many demanding great change, the solutions don’t usually lay in the past. Harris-Perry says that nostalgia does history a disservice because it doesn’t portray an exact picture of the past. I think she said it best with, “There is no better time to be a black woman in America than now.” Think about that. What woman, black or white, would want to return to the life women lived in the 50s? I can look back into a former chapter of my life and without the filtering effect of nostalgia, see that there is little I would really want to go back to. Nostalgia may lead us to think those time were near perfection. A clear knowledge of history says otherwise.

Following is the video from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show on which Prof. Harris-Perry was substituting for Rachel. It is brief and thought-provoking.

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