Rewriting History: Possible Effects on Seniors and Society

George Washington

Recent news can be upsetting for many seniors — especially the ongoing discussions about removing statues, renaming buildings and banning books from schools and libraries.

These topics may raise concerns about other parts of their history being questioned or ignored. We need to consider how seniors in our lives feel since many fear that important aspects of history that they have witnessed may be forgotten in the future. As a society, we need to step back and assess these concerns and consider developing a balanced approach to reviewing and re-assessing history.

It is a natural reaction for seniors to express concerns about aspects of history that have been a significant part of their lives. It is important to realize that their reactions are not always political but based on the need for their stories to be told. They may wonder what changes will occur next and if these changes impact their contributions and, in many cases, ignore their contributions.

A senior recently expressed concern that her family’s sacrifices during World War II may be forgotten if public opinion focuses only on the mistreatment and internment of Japanese-Americans in the United States or President Roosevelt’s decision to turn away boats carrying immigrants.

She acknowledged that history should include a strong concentration on the negative mistreatment of Japanese-Americans but also recognize the difficulty that her family and many other families experienced during WWII while their loved ones served overseas. She cried when she recalled how her mother never lost faith in her brother’s return and recalled that he never recovered from the war upon his return due to both permanent physical and mental problems.

When we focus on how our founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were slave owners and some fathered multiracial children, will we ignore their contributions in founding our country?

A senior recently discussed her visit to Mount Vernon and feared that Washington’s home could be destroyed because of his slave ownership. She felt that her visit gave her new perspectives about Washington’s strengths, while learning about many aspects of his life that she did not support.

Another recent discussion with a senior concerned her fear that her favorite novel and movie, Gone with the Wind, could be banned due to the mistreatment of the character Mamie and the negative depiction of slaves.

Once again, this book, like Huckleberry Finn, which has been banned in many schools, can be used as a teaching moment for students about the evils of slavery while acknowledging the strength of the writing. Similarly, a fan of cowboy and Indian movies expressed his concern that this genre could be forgotten since American Indians have been mistreated throughout history and suffered the loss of land.

With the continual changes in society, one can wonder if beloved Disney movies will be discarded. Walt Disney was an anti-Semite, and minorities in many Disney movies were portrayed negatively, such as Uncle Remus in Song of the South; Aladdin, whose skin gets lighter as he wins the heart of the princess; and the crow in Dumbo, who was named Jim Crow.

What steps should we take as a society to help reduce the fears that many of our seniors are experiencing, while advocating for a balanced approach to history where we acknowledge individual’s weaknesses and mistakes while focusing on their accomplishments?

It would be helpful to be sensitive to many seniors’ concerns and acknowledge that they have witnessed major changes in society while being contributors to our past.

When making decisions to remove or ban statues, books or lessons taught in history classes, let’s think about focusing on our society’s evolutions, changes and progress. Consider not rewriting history but developing a balanced approach that could be a teaching opportunity for all of us. Why not talk to a senior about aspects of history and culture that have transformed the world around us? Assure them that their contributions will be remembered.

Letting our children learn more about George Washington’s strengths and mistakes will not obliterate our history if they hear more about him than just about how he cut down a cherry tree.

Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D, is a staff psychologist at Abramson Center.


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