Telling the Story of History

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Richard Albert Canadian Bicentennial Visiting Professor, Yale University; Constitutional Law Professor, Boston College Law School


Years from now, when history strokes its pen to tell the story of the 2008 presidential election, how will it capture in words a moment whose full meaning can be conveyed only with emotion?

How will historians, whose scholarly norms demand dispassion, give voice to feeling? How will they paint the portrait of our time, sculpt the stone of our day, recount a story not even the most imaginative among us could have foreseen?

That will be the challenge for tomorrow -- to speak the pulse of our hearts, which today beat more spiritedly and expressively than perhaps ever before.

To tell that story--the story of history--is to step inside the very soul of a people. It is to chronicle the dawn of a new day in the life of a nation, in the trajectory of the state, and indeed in the fate of the larger globe. It is to stand both apart from and within an era in which much of what we thought we knew has changed, and continues to change, even as we ourselves are evolving. It is to remain, at once, tethered to our present, anchored in our past, and oriented to our future.

It is a story whose unfolding began long ago, in lands both far and near. From 1804, on the island of Hispaniola, where women and men broke from their chains to reclaim for themselves the blessings of freedom, through the American centennial period when a president became a statesman, grew into a shepherd of unity and the builder of a broken nation, and to the modern day liberation of a saintly giant who would lead a troubled country from apartheid to democracy.

It is a story whose arc curved toward its denouement when a little-known senatorial candidate from Illinois, whom the stars had endowed with the power to touch and inspire, and to lead and assuage, launched the narrative on a new course with the simple majesty of his spoken words, an entrancing speech delivered in song at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

It is a story as improbable as it is cataclysmic, a sequence of extraordinary events that shook our world and ourselves from our moorings, recasting the impossible into the possible, transforming despair into hope, and filling our hearts with the re-imagined joys of Juneteenth.

Yet it is also a story whose chapters are still being written, the end unknown to us all.

This story, the story of our history, lived in historic times and against our historical backdrop, will surely be told. And it will be told by many. But we cannot know now whether the story that is told tomorrow will evoke the feelings we feel today, nor whether it will move those who come after us to breathe, as we do, as though we are breathing our first breaths, nor whether it will reveal the world itself anew, as we see it today, unveiled in its renewed splendor. For the descriptive abilities and analytical tools of historians cannot express what the story of history means to us, to all of us, citizens of the world.

That is why the story of history must be told not only by historians, who will bring to bear their facility with details of dates and places and persons. It must be told by those whose fluency extends beyond the specificity of facts and reaches into the metaphysical space of our hopes, our fears, our passions, and of the timelessness of the enduring struggle for peace and justice, for the reconciliatory settlement of women and men too long divided by difference.

We must look to the poet, to the artist, the songstress and the preacher. To the sociologist, to the artisan, the filmmaker and the architect. To the photographer, to the sculptor, the pianist and the teacher. For in combining their craft and lived experience, they are the ones who will tell the story of our history.

And we, too, will tell the story of history. In the way we live our lives and the choices we make, we are all storytellers, narrators of the past and stewards of the present, and makers of the myths that will sustain us tomorrow.

The story of our history is therefore in our own hands. For only by living today the way we wish to live our future may we shape the stories that are told about our time.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.