One of the last books I read as a part of my book challenge between January and May was History the Betrayer by E.H. Dance. This fascinating book (published in Norwegian in 1964) was one of my grandfather’s, and my bookshelf recently became its new home. I was a little surprised at first to find this book in an old, conservative man’s collection because it is quite modern, but it also makes sense. He was very interested in history and he probably knew very well that history books, especially those he had to use as a teacher in a college prep high school, had a certain amount of prejudices and political propanda.
The historian E.H. Dance gave examples from several countries, but focused on history books used in German and Soviet schools. He also mentioned Britain, the USA and France, as well as asian criticism of how these Western countries have presented Asia. Dance claims that western historians have ignored Asia, except for Middle-East, and that still seems to be the case more than 50 years later. How much do we really know about Chinese history for example? If people know more than the communist history it’s probably because they decided to read it themselves, but we are not encouraged to look for this information.
This starts early. I remember a cartoon my daughter was watching when she was 4-5 years old, The Little Einsteins. These children travelled all over the world helping other children, and it seems to have been about teaching appreciation for other cultures. They presented art and music, but not necessarily relevant to the culture. In Dragon Kite they went to China and the music was by the Norwegian Edward Grieg and in A Tall Totem Tale they went looking for totem poles in Alaska. The music used in this episode was by Johan Sebastian Bach. In Rocket Safari they went to Africa supported by music by the Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Does this mean that these cultures haven’t produced any music it’s worth listening to? I told my wife once that Africa hasn’t contributed anything to our modern civilization. It might be implied, and not explicitly said, but that seems to be the message from a long education in the Western world. I don’t think anyone told me, but it was something I assumed because Africa was completely absent from the books.
Africa is a very complexed continent and the rest of the world has never really tried to understand Africans. When Europeans colonised Africa they described Africans as very primitive, yet these people had everything you expect to find in a very advanced society. They had religions that in some ways remind me of native Americans or aboriginals in Australia, but many Africans also believed in a main creator. The most typical about Africans is probably that they are very spiritual. Many believe that African religions are polytheistic, but that isn’t necessarily true. The concept of monotheism actually came from Africa (akhenaten). There are many interesting African creation myths, and although they have multiple gods, and may appear pagan to us, they resemble our own creation myth. Yes, I do believe most of Genesis is pure myth.
One of the most interesting things is that Africans didn’t just rely on an oral tradition. This video shows some of the work done to save the manuscripts from the world’s oldest university, which was in Timbuktu in Mali.
This is a part of the Africa I never heard about when I went to school. If you study African history you basically find that the Africans have a bad habit of not living up to your stereotypical expectations. It turns out we can’t even trust our own history. When I was growing up there was a song I heard a lot on the radio. It was a Norwegian version of Davy Crocket (written by Thomas Blackburn). One of the verses deals with Alamo:
He heard of Houston and Austin
So to the Texas plains he just had to go
Where freedom was fightin’ another foe
And they needed him at the Alamo.
Davy, Davy Crockett, the man who don’t know fear.
The truth was less glamorous, however. In the book Exodus from the Alamo, Dr Tucker claims that the myth was created because the Americans chose to disregard the Mexican version of the battle. That gives the phrase Remember the Alamo a new meaning. Read about it in Mail Online.
There are of course a lot of myhts in European history too. I am reading some books about racism now because I plan to write about it later, and one of them had some interesting information about enlightened Europeans. Some of the great thinkers from the Age of Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Kant, encouraged racism. These philosophers are often mentioned as rational thinkers that showed how much better we are without God. Is that so? Kant wrote for example about the strong smell from Africans that no amount of cleaning could remedy. So they seemed to have challenged the old, established mindset at the same time as they continued it. This was more actually because they also gave the rulers a justification for new prejudices based on science (I believe philosophy was almost regarded as a science then).
By the way, one thing everyone knows is true is that the vikings wore horned helmets and that they were so busy raping British women they hardly had time to fight. I already knew the helmet-story was nonsense, but it surprised even me when I read in Mail Online that the vikings didn’t leave their DNA on the islands.
That was new information, but it is also important to remember that what you read is not something unchangable. It’s not past events; it is a narration of past events. That reminds me of a painting by René Magritte. The Treachery of Images is a painting of a tobacco pipe with the text “this is not a pipe”. It was of course an image of a pipe, which isn’t the same. Images can be manipulated. Do you remember the iconic photo of the Soviet leader Nikita Krutsjov holding his shoe and banging it? This supposedly happened when he gave a speech at the UN in New York, but it never happened. We are still being manipulated