KATHERINE BYER: Books, Poems Make History Come Alive
I recall a symposium in which novelist Lee Smith, asked why she wrote novels, answered, "So I can have more than just one life." She explained that this was also why she read voraciously when growing up.
I, too, recall those Saturday afternoons when I would lose myself in a novel for hours on end. My mother had to call many times before I let go of my book to set the table for supper.
My brother recently returned from a trip along the journey of the Lewis and Clark expedition. After he shared his photos and descriptions, I told him I had been taking my own trip along the same path, reading Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker's book of poems titled "York."
Walker gave me a way of entering the expedition from another perspective, that of Clark's African American slave, one of those characters so long voiceless in our history books. Walker speaks as York, merging the contemporary and the historical. One of our state's own poets, Asheville resident Allan Wolf, has also brought the Lewis and Clark journey to life in his a verse novel, "NewFound Land." His evocation of the young Indian woman Sacagawea, for example, allows her to step out of the mist of legend into our own world.
Novels, plays, and poems make history come alive in ways that our textbooks and classes often cannot, and I've long wondered if using such work might revolutionize the teaching of history in our K-12 classrooms.
Assignment: Imagine your way into one of Columbus' sailors on the Santa Maria, seeing land for the first time. Or the natives catching sight of that ship! The billowing sails, the strange men who came ashore, in their odd clothes, speaking a funny sounding language. Now, begin to speak as that sailor or that native in a poem or a story. Listen to what they have to tell you.
So much to imagine in our history! The way the shoes fit, or the lack of them. The dust that rose up from the wagon wheels heading west, the women and children growing ill from bad water, from diseases that we think of as harmless today. The women giving birth in the back of the wagons. Imagine the American Indians watching these caravans passing through their territory, the passengers lumbering westward into a landscape none of them knew how to understand.
When our students are encouraged to imagine the lives of historical figures, even those we consider less than admirable, we help make our history real. What did Abraham Lincoln eat for breakfast? What did Sacawagea sing to her baby at night while the campfire glowed? What did the African slave in eastern North Carolina remember of Africa while toiling in the fields or emptying the chamber pots in the master's house?
Out of all these questions come stories and more stories that keep our culture alive and fresh and give us hope. Without stories, the wells dry up. The mouth fills with the dust of advertising jingles and the silence of the bored, the anger of the hopeless.
Writers like Allan Wolf and Frank X Walker have given Lewis and Clark, York, and Sacawagea back their stories, as well as enriched our own. I loved history when I was in school. Now I know why. Story, after all, is its root, and story is the root of all language.
Kathryn Byer is North Carolina's Poet Laureate.
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