Cultural history always important

Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:16 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Looking across at the sloppy piles of paper lining my work table, it’s hard to forget that it is tax time. I think the whole income tax deal would be a lot simpler if we could just take our paperwork to the people at the Internal Revenue Service and let them figure it out. On the other hand, they would probably have such stringent rules and regulations on types of paper and number of sheets that they would accept, it would be a more complicated procedure than it already is.

Fortunately, for me, tax time coincides with Black History Month, a time when I’m usually busy with enough projects that I don’t have the time or the energy to give the IRS the full measure of dread it deserves. This year is no exception.

I’ve stopped being surprised at how little people know about any American history. I gave up on the idea a few years ago that the day would come when folks would realize its importance. Now, I sit by silently and watch history vanish into the distance, day after day.

My book, “Hoecakes, Hambone and all that Jazz,” was published last year by the University of Missouri Press, and because it is one of the few books that deals with African- American customs and traditions in Missouri, it has found a good audience. I have found that a lot of people share my curiosity about why people do things in certain ways. And I do believe that the more we learn about people who are different than ourselves, the easier it is to learn to live together in peace and harmony.

Black history is not universally as popular as say, Civil War history. But I think that as our population becomes more diverse, the history of each group that has contributed to Missouri culture needs a place on the shelves of our public libraries.

As more immigrants merge into our midst, these new citizens need to know about the people with whom they co-exist. It is a disservice to everyone to ignore the contributions of people who have made our state what it is today and to limit distribution of that information.

For the past 20 years, I have been collecting black history books and have amassed quite a number of them. I have requested that these books remain in my family in the event that somewhere down the line someone develops a hunger for knowledge that is not easily available elsewhere, even on the Internet. Why is it important? Because, like all education, it broadens one’s mental horizons.

I also collect bits and pieces of local history, and I am constantly amazed at how little regard some people have for the individuals who carved a civilization out of the wilderness. For a lot of folks, it seems they think the world simply didn’t exist until they were born. This, I believe, is not only the fault of the education system, but also the people’s failure to demand a product of higher quality.

The good news, though, is that the current interest in genealogy and, to a lesser extent, scrapbooking has given folks an incentive to try to preserve their history and the history of their families.

On a recent project, I had the privilege of interviewing a woman whose father was important to the political history of his region. With painstaking effort, she had assembled newspaper clippings, magazine articles, photographs and every item that detailed the events of the man’s life, a video. Not only does her collection have value for her family history, but also it has value because it records an important segment of Missouri history.

A friend who recently decided to take up scrapbooking learned the hard way about the necessity of preserving paper documents properly. Like a lot of folks, she had put away many of her treasured family photos in the same stacks with their negatives, and many of them suffered damage and were unusable. She, unfortunately, failed to use acid-free paper or plastic sleeves, and she stored family letters, diplomas and other paper memorabilia in cardboard boxes that allowed the papers to deteriorate. She knows now that there are kinds of products available at stationery stores to preserve her valuable paperwork.

I’m glad that more people are paying attention to history, even if it’s only their personal history. These people also belong to clubs and organizations whose histories — if preserved — will tell people of the future a lot about the way we worked to maintain our way of life. Old church histories, for example, are fun, fascinating and make wonderful family keepsakes.

Many history books are devoted to political events that have shaped our world, but I think social and cultural histories are equally important. Personally, I’m always interested in what everyday people are doing and thinking during every period of history. Much of that information comes from personal diaries, family Bibles and old letters.

When you think about it, we’re all writing our own history, every day of our life. It’s exciting when you remember that we are all the authors of our own life story.

March is Women’s History month. On the remaining cold, dreary days of winter, why not take some time out to learn about another group’s history and culture that’s not your own? It might open the door to greater understanding.

It’s worth a try.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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