The Color of History: On empathy and learning from history

Feb 10 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, NEWS & VIEWS, Op-Ed, ViewsNo Comments on The Color of History: On empathy and learning from history

A few days after the Seahawks passed on a Super Bowl repeat, I found myself at the library, looking for Steven Barnes novel “Lion’s Blood.” I skimmed it last year, forgot most of it. February seems like a good month to catch up on reading and remembering.

“Lion’s Blood” is a literary novel, and likely to improve empathy, at least according to researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, social psychologists at the New School for Social Research. They recently found that people who asked to read literary fiction did better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence than subjects who were given nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all (October 2013 Science). Well-drawn characters in complex stories give us a chance to see the world through the eyes of another—at least for a little while.

For over 20 years, we’ve medicated kids for the ADD outbreak, but it seems that the bigger epidemic is that of EDD (Empathy Deficit Disorder). That disorder afflicts adults probably more than kids. If reading fiction is a natural empathy enhancer, “Get thee to a library!” may be at least a part of the cure.

“Lions’ Blood” is also an “alternative history” set in North America during the 1860s. But it isn’t one of those “what would have happened if the South won the ‘War Between the States’” tales. There is no Civil War, no North or South, no United States, period. Barnes creates a believable world that starts from, “What if Alexander the Great had gone to Africa instead of Asia?” He figures the Greeks would have conquered, then partnered with Egyptians and other African kingdoms. Rome would never have risen. Without Roman state-sponsorship, Christianity would have stayed a backwater sect, and Mohammed’s revelations would have carried the day. African-Egyptian empires would have settled the Americas and enslaved bands of technologically inferior Norsemen. The history of Western Europe (white history) would have been irrelevant.

I plugged the info into the library search engine at a workstation next to Harold. Harold grumbled aloud about Black History Month and the film festival at the main library (301 Chestnut St.) every Sunday in February. “As soon as Obama was elected, he should have used one of those millions of executive orders to stop Black History Month.”

“Like Lincoln used one of his to end actual slavery, right? Isn’t it enough we rolled back the Voting Rights Act?” I took a breath, recognizing that Harold and I were both at the library, meaning we both want to learn something.

“We shouldn’t have a Black History Month; not unless we get to have a White History Month,” Harold said.

I wanted to tell him about the powerful and plausible role reversals in “Lion’s Blood.” Instead, I agreed with Harold.

Well, sort of.

“James Baldwin suggested a White History Week a long time ago,” I said.

“Whoever he was, they probably strung him up for being a white racist, politically incorrect,” Harold said.

“He didn’t seem to mind being politically incorrect, but he was in fact black,” I said.

“Sounds like my kind of guy,” Harold said satisfied before wandering off to find a book on painting.

 It’s sad but not surprising that Harold has never heard James Baldwin’s powerful voice. I got through all my so-called higher education without ever being formally introduced to Mr. Baldwin. Mr. Baldwin did suggest a White History Week at a National Press Club dinner in 1986. I doubt it was for the reasons that would please Harold. Mr. Baldwin observed:

“One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from. And as long as you pretend you don’t know your history, you’re going to be the prisoner of it. It is not white, this world. It is not black either. The future of this world depends on everybody in this room and that future depends on to what extent and by what means we liberate ourselves from a vocabulary, which now cannot bear the weight of reality.”

Almost 30 years later, it’s still not a black world or a white world, and it seems even clearer that the color of history depends on who is holding the brush.

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