I learned from a reader that James Audubon, the famous naturalist painter, was black. I was really surprised, since I visited the small, local Audubon Museum in Key West and the docent never mentioned it.
The reader was right, Audubon was the son of a slave-owning French Sea Captain and an enslaved Creole woman. Surprisingly, Audubon (who looked “white”) was an ardent racist, owning black slaves, and writing critically of emancipation. In school, I learned of his art and his talent, but not his heritage or his views.
I was taught the history of propertied, white men. I am not critical of that; these men had the platform. Our country’s founders were white, mostly-privileged males who were courageous and selflessly worked to build a country. And since I learned history through those eyes, I didn’t know, for example, that there was a female Paul Revere, named Sybil Ludington, who also warned of the approaching British Army.
The historical narrative that I was taught was a pretty simple one, good vs. evil. But even the best people have shortcomings.
We now know that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with Sally Hemmings, his slave. He died in debt, unable to fulfill his promise to free all of his slaves upon his death.
Ben Franklin was a lothario.
One of my heroes is Margaret Sanger. She dramatically changed women’s lives by advocating for birth control for all, regardless of race or economic status. The widespread availability of birth control has arguably done more for women’s rights than any other innovation. Birth control allowed women to become educated, pursue careers, and explore their sexuality. Yet, Sanger also supported the racist philosophy of Eugenics (although, according to Wikipedia, she stopped short of some of the more virulent racist forms).
Other heroes, such as Gandhi, had shortcomings as well. In his younger days, Gandhi was prejudiced against Black South Africans.
St. Paul is often reviled for his statements about women, yet his statements were a product of the misogyny of the day (for example, daughters of famous biblical figures are rarely mentioned). Women were among the first and most revered patrons of the early church and St Paul recognized and supported their leadership.
Famous historical figures also had interesting talents and interests. Richard Nixon was an accomplished musician. George Washington and Helen Keller were animal lovers (Helen Keller introduced the Akita to America).
In school, I learned about the ruthlessness and brutality of Genghis Khan. But he also was progressive (for his time), allowing religious freedom and prohibiting the capture and enslavement of women.
Today’s students learn more about different kinds of people. They are taught about largely hidden contributions (like Black American, Lewis Latimer whose filament patent was an important contribution to the invention of the lightbulb).
But most history still ignores frailties or achievements that don’t fit the narrative, giving us an incomplete picture, either canonizing or demonizing.
Today, we love to tear people down. Celebrities and politicians know all too well that the higher they rise, the more likely that they will become a target.
And I wonder, if we learned the full history, the frailties, and accomplishments of our historical figures if we would be less likely to venerate or demonize them. Recognizing that even our heroes suffer from the same human condition that we do, making mistakes, being flawed, may help us to accept the flaws in some of today’s heroes.
Just a thought.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.