I’ve written before about Loewen’s take on history as presented to American students, but in Lies Across America he’s taken on the other history texts that we see all around us. They’re ubiquitous (except, apparently, in Maine), sometimes invisible, sometimes easily overlooked, sometimes a destination for interested visitors. These are the monuments, roadside signs and historic sites that personalize and define American history for many.
Loewen points out that these sites fall into two categories, which he calls sasha and zamani. (If you want a terrific fiction take on the same idea, try Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History of the Dead.) Sasha essentially means people or events retained in the memory of the living; zamani denotes events or people that occurred before anyone currently living could have experienced. The monument to Arthur Ashe is an example of sasha: there are plenty of people who remember him firsthand. A statue closer to home is zamani – no one living ever encountered Norbert Berkeley. There’s another aspect to these sites, which falls into the zamani realm – who controlled the landscape when the memorial was established?
There are some extreme examples of this: a monument to the Confederacy where there was zero link to the War? The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that doesn’t have any actual, you know, miners? Plantation houses all across the South that talk about the design of the silverware, but never mention the people who did the work that produced the income to buy that silverware?
More common are the roadside signs that leave you scratching your head. (As an inveterate reader of those black-on-pewter signs, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a U-turn, parked in a questionable spot, then scratched my head at the astonishingly vague text.) “One mile north of here the Whitaker house was built.” When? Why? By whom? If Mr. Whitaker did it, did his wife help? Were there slaves? Was it built in a special way with special materials? Where can I find more? Plus, these signs are nearly always written in a generic passive voice that deliberately deflects reflection on any deeper topic.
Loewen couldn’t visit every historical marker or monument in even one state, much less in the country, but was able to read an enormous proportion of them. He offers a set of penetrating questions to ask when visiting historical sites, most guaranteed to put docents on the spot; if they can’t answer those questions, perhaps it will trigger a reexamination by the site’s managers. He also offers a tongue-in-cheek alternate for the proliferation of roadside markers.
The book is structured so that each entry is self-contained, with footnotes and a complete list of the sources that Loewen used to critique the 100 entries he limited himself to. He also cross-references entries with the same topics or themes, which means a reader can bounce around without losing interest, then go back and read new material with a fresh perspective. Best of all, he is able to balance outrage over the hijacking of history with humor, making this a great resource for teaching students how to critically evaluate what they read and hear from history.
Check the WRL catalog for Lies Across America