The Lies That History Tells Us

Wicked Logo
Wicked Logo

I finally did something last week that I have been looking forward to doing for months. I saw the musical Wicked. Based on the book by Gregory Maguire the story essentially inverts the Wizard of Oz on its head and and asks “What if the Wicked Witch of the West Wasn’t Wicked?” Its one of the “certain point of view” stories and the musical is filled with incredible performances and musical numbers that do everything a musical is supposed to do: make you laugh, make you cry, and make you sing.

Here are some lyrics to start this discussion (for those who haven’t read the book or seen the play, Elphaba is the Wicked Witch):

Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true.
We call it – “history.”

(sung) A man’s called a traitor – or liberator
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist

—the Wizard, “Wonderful”

When we think about and write about history we take some facts as exactly that—as facts. Hitler was evil, the Holocaust did happen, but historians know more than anyone that the “label” that persists sounds very much like the adage that “history is written by the winners.” In the case of Wicked we’re brought into a world that begins long before Dorothy takes her first steps into Oz, a land that is inhabited by animals who can talk and teach but are mysteriously becoming uncivilized and speechless.

Enter Elphaba who, in the classic hero’s journey makes sacrifices and choices to right a wrong, and ultimately finds herself vilified in the process. The ultimate strength of the story is its ability to turn the “wicked” into the underdog, and Dorothy into a footnote.

As a historian I can see how this applies. Every source we read, every oral history we listen to comes form someone with a point of view. We know that social history (that which looks at the slaves, the women, the ordinary people instead of merely the Big White Men) changed what we know about various facets of American History, and that different administrations are looked at and analyzed differently based on how conservative and how liberal our own bias’ are. We make choices as to what is important and what is not based on training and the ability to interpret and read between the lines to piece together history.

Now I’m not saying that if we looked a little bit harder the great evils of our time will miraculously be not as bad, or that the invaders will turn into “liberators.” I guess I’m merely acknowledging that what we do in thinking and writing about the past is as much of an art as it is a science and that sometimes opposing views give us a bigger picture of what actually happened.

Consider this image for another point of view:

Better History, Bitter Future
Better History, Bitter Future in Chelsea, NYC
Liberty from the Highline

While I was in NYC we walked by this piece of graffiti in Chelsea, just near the bottom of the High Line. It provides another interesting perspective. Histories document the good, the bad, and the ugly—but to some it seems like it is all with the wide brush of progress, rather then with strokes of reality. I believe that we document the past so that our futures are better, that injustices can be prevented before they happen. I’d like to think we aren’t writing better histories while ignoring the future, but do know for some, that is exactly what seems to be happening.

I am, in the end, ever the optimist, and so I’ll leave you with a few lines from another of Wicked‘s hits:

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap

—Elphaba, ‘Defying Gravity”

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