| The Path of the Humanist Historian
||[Feb. 7th, 2012|10:08 am]
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I consider myself to be a bit of an amateur historian. Ask anyone who has been to my house and they can verify just how many books I have on my shelf that have to do with some sort of historical subject. I work at Academie Duello, which teaches swordplay, renaissance martial arts and is home to Vancouver’s only arms and armour museum. If you look onto my computer’s hard drive in hopes to find a movie “The Big Lebowski” is the only non historical film I have on there. I am currently learning archery as well as how to ride a horse- which some of my friends find amusing as I don’t know how to drive a car yet! I don’t just love history, I am living it, albeit living it within the comforts of our modern society.
I never went to post secondary school and all my knowledge has come from the research I have done on my own over the years. I do, however, have friends who did go to university and have a degree or their masters in history. I am glad to know that many of them consider me an equal when discussing and debating historical topics. My friend, Eugene has even said he sometimes envies the freedom I have had to study whatever aspects of history I wanted instead of just what he had to study for university. I love that I have been able to go off and research any aspect of history at any time I desired based on whatever tickles my fancy at any given time! There is so much to know I couldn’t possibly ever study it all, and not too mention I am going to be drawn to certain things more so than others as I learn more and more.
For the last few years I keep being drawn to these moments in our World’s history: The American Civil War, and the various rebellions in Ireland that took place for over 700 years and lead to the Irish Civil War and the Troubles. I have, however, had flings with other moments in history in between. I have watched many documentaries on the first and second World Wars and ever since my youth I have been fascinated by the ancient Celts, the Roman Empire and still find myself enthralled by these today. I also am a Western Martial Artists and am constantly immersed in the history of medieval and renaissance Europe on a daily basis. Just recently I read a few books and articles on the War of 1812 as well as the North West/ Red River Rebellion as I have been just eating up these incredible stories of my country's history. Yet, when I am done with these "flings" I always find myself avidly coming back to the American Civil War and Irish rebellions. I feel a certain passion and resonance within myself when I am immersed in the stories and battles from those particular moments in history. One of the reasons I am so fascinated by the past is it allows me to understand where I am now and how we all got here. It allows me to appreciate all that I have and it also inspires me to keep seeking and advocating change in today’s world as we continue to evolve and improve ourselves looking toward future generations.
When I read about the woman of the Easter Rising, I feel my heart begin to pound and I like to imagine what it would have been like to be there that day in April 1916. Sometimes I like to picture myself as Constance Markievicz, or one of the brave woman of Cumann na mBan like Winifred Carney armed with a revolver and pistols. Perhaps I may have been acting as one of the Red Cross workers healing the wounded, or maybe I would have been one of the couriers sneaking through the streets of Dublin relaying messages between the General Post Office and St. Stephen’s Green evading the British checkpoints. However, this is how I would see myself through my modern day perspective and the person I am, having being born and raised in this generation.
What if I had been a poor Catholic mother living in the slums off of Bachelor’s Walk wondering where the next meal for my children was going to come from... and at what cost? If I was this woman chances are I would not have been fighting for the idea of an Irish Republic- I would have been fighting just to survive day to day for my life. Perhaps I could have been one of the more privileged residents of Dublin who had a flat in the heart of the city? I likely would have felt frightened and at best inconvenienced by yet another violent rebellion- which was just going to give the British one more reason to tighten the leash they’ve held over Ireland for centuries.
Many people of Dublin felt torn as to where there sympathies lay right after the Rising. Though many of the public were sympathetic to the Republican cause, the Rising swept over the city so quickly- without warning- and caused a lot of death and destruction. However, when the British military quickly occupied the city and executed all the predominant political members affiliated with the Rising, it caused a huge sway in public sympathy and outcry. Perhaps I would have like many of those Dubliners who finally had something awake inside me as I read about the executed Republicans. Those men were school teachers, barristers, poets and journalists who were fighting for a dream- for a free Ireland- and were now laying in an unmarked grave in the Arbour Hill prison yard. All I can do is speculate as to what sort of person I could have been and how the events of my life and the times would have shaped me. I can only react to them as the person I am now.
I can only imagine what my life would have been like growing up as a woman in Dublin at the turn of the century. I cannot possibly know for absolute fact what life in those times would have done to my psyche and what my unique perspective and experiences would have been like. I was born in Canada as a third generation Irish woman- of mixed heritage- and I can only look back to that time from the perspective of the person I am in this time. As a poet when I write about these times in history I feel my heart sing with the inspiration of those women who fought and defended their vision for a new way of life. I like to think and even hope that had I been there, I would have been one of those women.... but, I am not one of those women. I am me and all I can do is strive to understand and learn as best I can.
We are all products of our history, but we are not solely our history. We are born in this generation and have felt the ripples and live through the waves that were created by those who came before us, but… We are not our history. We are the here and now. All I can do is try to relate and understand as best I can through my own perspective that is an accumulation of my experiences of my generation. I can share what I have found with others and hope to gain their perspectives which might in turn open up new ways of understanding the words of our past.
As a western martial artist I see this being done every day in my community as old texts are being translated and re-translated and reinterpreted all the time. No single book or, single teacher can possibly give us the entire picture. It is important to read and study all of the different perspectives in order to try and put together the pieces of the puzzle. I take what I can and apply it as best I can and try to share what I have come to know with others as well. Every time I take a class from a new instructor I get unique perspective on how to apply the martial techniques and body mechanics I am using. Every time I teach one of my students and I see the way they interpret my teachings and make it their own, I gain more knowledge of my martial art as well. I love learning from many different people and applying the techniques I learn with them as it helps me to create my own interpretations of the Art. I find it is important not to allow myself to get stuck in just one way of perceiving how something can be done- or has been done before. It is important to go into everything using all of your previous experiences as your foundation but, with the open mind to allow new things to become known.
I was born in 1983 in Toronto, Ontario. Thanks to modern technology and medicine I survived infancy despite being in and out of hospital frequently until the age of three. I grew up with the use of all my limbs, and I have no major physical or mental disabilities. I am Caucasian, am told I am fairly decent to look at, and some might even call me attractive. I have never had my home invaded or found myself in the midst of a war zone. I have never gone without shelter and have never been hungry for more than a few hours, let alone a few days. I know that I am one of the most privileged people born on this Earth. I keep this in mind whenever I am studying any perspective, or story in history- actually let me rephrase that. I keep this in mind whenever I talk to anyone about any subject and when I research anything. It’s the best I can do and despite how hard I try I am going to develop certain biases and opinions... and so are you. I wouldn’t expect anything less. This is why I crave to know people. This is why I am eager to talk to them and learn their perspectives on things. How do others see the world? How do they see their history? How do they perceive and interpret their experiences that make them the person they are today?
I may not agree with your perspective and if I don’t I will likely be all the more enthralled to know why. It is important for me to be able to understand what drives people to believe what they do. I try to know how it is that they have come to their conclusions through their own experiences. As I learn and try to understand the perspectives of others, it allows me the chance to understand myself- and the world- all the better. My own opinions may or may not be swayed by what I learn, but at least I can understand and perhaps even relate to other points of view. That is all I can do and that is all I can ever ask of anyone else.
Many of the books and texts I have on the American Civil War include collections of letters, journal entries and newspaper articles written by those who lived and breathed in that time in history. When I read the autobiography of Frederick Douglas, or the journal entries Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain I am given a taste of the perspective of a person- an individual- who was a part of another time. I am transported back to a very unique and amazing perspective of someone who was immersed in the American Civil War. Naturally, I am going to have some prejudices when I enter my research and no matter how hard I try to “leave them at the door” some residue will still cling.
When I read old letters sent by a Confederate soldier to his wife, how do I choose to perceive this man? Do I chose to see this Southern man as an anti-abolitionist with no regard for human rights, or do I chose to see him as a farmer from Georgia who was fighting because Union soldiers came and burnt down his home. Is there room for him to be both? And when I sympathize with the people of the South- who were practically starving by the time the war came to an end- does that mean I am someone who supports a slave labour economy and society? Does that mean I can’t also feel sorry for a mother in Maine who had lost her husband and all her male children to the cannon ball and dysentery while fighting for the Union?
When I read about Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st 1863, do I see him as a hero for human rights, or do I see him as a crafty politician who only issued the formal order as a means to gain more votes and a second term in office? Not to mention, most people on both sides of the conflict never thought he war would have dragged on for so long. Many of the Union soldiers were coming to the end of their terms of service and both sides were eager to see this horribly bloody war end. Many supporters of the Union in the North were willing to lose the South if it meant that war could finally be over. When Lincoln moved forward with the Emancipation Proclamation it gave white men a reason to renew their term of service and it also allowed for black men to finally sign up and fight for the freedom of their people- despite the fact they were only to receive half the pay a white soldier made.
I am going to have my own strong feelings when taking this information in and it is key that I try and keep myself in check and not allow these emotions to get in the way of my acquiring new knowledge. It is important to me as I study that I continue to maintain and keep striving to explore and research all these different perspectives while I find my own conclusions. It is through the building of such understandings that we (as a people) have been able to gain more victories and forward momentum in the ongoing battle of human rights.
It is important for all of us to keep sharing and to keep spreading what we have come to know. This is what will plant the seeds for the next generation to grow with. New understandings and ways of living can be achieved as we continue to evolve as a civilization and as a common people. The fact that we are here- where we are now- today is proof of this. I try to take things in from a humanist point of view and try to relate to what I am studying through these eyes. This is what gives me such a passion to know history. I want to get a taste of the varied and vastly different lives of those who were there, who lived and breathed in those times. I want to understand why it happened, why it was important, and why my world and the people in it are shaped into who they are today because of it.
This is one of the reasons why I love history. This is one of the reasons I love living here and living now.