Usable Pasts: Identity

While many of your response papers this week warned against seeking an “escape into the past,” the value of seeking personal or national identity in the past resonated strongly — though not perfectly — with many of you.

SARAH: History may prove to be the most useful and avoid potential loss of value when used to assist in the formation the identity of a particular nation or group of people. Without a sufficient understanding of the past, the question of identity often becomes impossible to answer. Notions of freedom and liberty would not prevail in American society today had the events surrounding the American Revolution not developed into common and pervasive public knowledge (Fea, 37). Thanksgiving was responsible for the forming of a broad American understanding that all were immigrants at one time, although this idea was uniquely influenced by the fears surrounding the mass immigration of those from Eastern Europe at this time (McKenzie, 165). The past, when truthfully communicated, can inspire patriotism among the young (Fea, 38). But, although this use seems to hold more of a deeper application of usefulness, it can become controversial when events in the past are sugarcoated or seem to only focus on one aspect as a means of propaganda. This is demonstrated by the fact that Native Americans are not able to identify with the American corporate identity as immigrants and through presidents’ appeal to the Pilgrims to urge for soldiers to “fight for a better world for all” and for survival, forgetting that peace constituted an important value for the Pilgrims as well (McKenzie, 168). Despite the problems in this use of the past, its use as a national identity tool proves to get at a higher end than the mere consumerist mentality that characterizes the goal of many Americans’ efforts.

AIDAN: The most important place that people use the past is in shaping their identity. We are as a society very individualistic, and we do not like telling other people telling us what are identity or our character should be. That being said, everybody grounds their identity in something because it is really hard to have a baseless identity. The past gives us the best of both worlds. It gives you something to ground your identity in, but it allows you to still be individualistic, because it’s your past and you get to control it. Dr. McKenzie talks in The First Thanksgiving about how the holiday of Thanksgiving has been changed during the years from a religious holiday, to a family event, to a cultural celebration depending on our nation’s focus and identity. In the same way, we as individuals reshape our personal view of the past by highlighting one part of our history and putting less focus on other parts depending on the circumstances.

In your lifetime, do you think that the past has become more useful or less as a source of national identity? To what other kinds of pasts-as-source-of-identity do you personally turn? (e.g., Does the past shape your identity as a Christian? Or a woman or man? Or [insert other identity]?)


2 thoughts on “Usable Pasts: Identity

  1. I think that Aidan makes a very fascinating and strong point about how we can “reshape” our identity using history. I agree that we latch on to different parts of history to help define us. I think in our lifetimes, the past has become a more useful sense of national identity. Many Americans look at 9/11 as a defining moment for our country. 9/11, as terrible as it was and still is, provided an opportunity for Americans to define themselves as resilient and hard working. It gave a sense of national pride that continues to exist today. This is a prime example of the past contributing to our national identity as Americans. As a Christian, I think the past helps to shape my identity through the Bible. Christians do their best to learn how to live by past examples in the Bible. This would be another great example of finding your identity through the past.


  2. I really liked the way Aiden discusses how the past gives us the best of both worlds, but also helps us ground our personality in something. As a nation, we identify with our founding fathers for their work, and use them as a sense of inspiration for what Americans can accomplish when we put our minds to it. As a Hispanic I draw from leaders like Cesar Chavez to ground my beliefs in both labor and civil rights for all.


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