Let’s Go Living in the Past

I just discovered CNN’s podcast, Lectures in History. I was setting up to do some cooking last weekend and thought how I didn’t want to listen to music or a book. And then I thought, “I want to listen to someone talking about history.” And I was so bent on finding that for myself, I didn’t even spare any time to fall on the floor laughing at that entirely hilarious thought. Who says that to themselves? Well, apparently, I do.

And so. I searched for “history lectures” and found a lot of annoying minute-long clips from lectures. Definitely not what I had in mind. And then I found Lectures.

I’ve listened to a few lectures so far. And I’ll for-sure listen to more. I’m still amused by my sudden and burning desire to hear “someone talking about history,” but I’m glad it led me to this podcast. In truth, this desire isn’t surprising. I already subscribe to The History Chicks and Stuff You Missed in History Class and a few others that could be considered history podcasts. And much of the nonfiction I read is about history. I’m still amused by myself.

Maybe that amusement stems from the fact that I specifically went looking for lectures. The podcasts I listen to are definitely not lectures. There are, for one thing, usually a pair of hosts talking about the subject or interviewing some expert. Just sitting and listening to a professor go on and on about a thing? Not usually my sweet spot.

As a kid, I wasn’t much of a history fan – or, to be most precise, I didn’t enjoy the history I was made to study in school. It was uniformly dry and boring and had nothing to do with my life. The history I was introduced to at home – through comics about famous Black folks and stories from The Negro Almanac – was far more interesting.

I took some history classes in college … and they continued the dry-and-boring motif. I mean, Renaissance and Reformation England? Seriously? And there was a course on ancient Greece that was interesting because the professors who taught it argued with and contradicted each other all the time, but the subject fell flat for me. And European intellectual history? Um, no. Why didn’t anyone smack me, give me a good shake and tell me to study something I actually found interesting?

I discovered that I enjoyed reading and studying history when I became and adult education teacher. The bits of history covered on the GED exam frustrated me – a lot of out-of-context information that didn’t invite digging in and learning anything. So I started digging in with my students. We read Howard Zinn’s People’s History to start, and that opened plenty of new doors, plenty of new things to investigate.

And I realized I actually loved history … when I got to take it on my own terms, when I was studying things that had clear connection to my life, when I went beneath the surface and had the chance to look at the inner workings of systems and the deeper causes for the surface manifestations we had seemed to focus on in school.

My students routinely tired of my intensive digging, of the ten thousand Aha! moments we’d have in the course of a particular unit. I don’t blame them. I’m pretty obsessive when I get into something. I learned how not to overload my beleaguered students, but my own digging continued.

As I said earlier, much of my nonfiction reading is history. I love history written well, written as if it’s fully alive and on the gallop. Books like The Boys in the Boat and When the Garden Was Eden. The first is about the gold medal-winning men’s crew team from the 1936 Olympics, and the second is about my heartbreak team, the New York Knicks, back when they one their championships in the 70s. And yes, there is a theme there. I love good sports writing. Love. It. I’m no one version of a sports fan as much as I have my teams and my faves. But good sports journalism wins me every time.

And then there’s Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet. Other loves: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, The Songlines, Life and Death in Shanghai, White Rage, and The Warmth of Other Suns. So I’m pretty steeped in history on a regular basis. Sometimes, even when the history is terrible, it’s a good break from present-day terrible. Sometimes – as was the case with both White Rage and Warmth – what I read introduces me to myself, to my family, shining a light on something I hadn’t found a way to see before stumbling across that reading. Both of those books showed me my parents in various ways, showed me things I thought I knew and realized I had only focused on the smallest piece of the story and not a fuller telling. Both sets of revelations hit me like a wrecking ball. Both made me grateful.

I’ve been discovering great stuff as I’ve listened to these lectures. More things for me to dig further into and look at more closely. The first lecture was about enslaved people suing for their freedom. It centered on a particular family, but covered other ground, too. This has been my favorite so far. Next was a talk about Feminism and popular music from the 60s and 70s. And then I took a bit of a misstep and listened to a lecture 50s and 60s counterculture. The professor was a little too charmed by his cleverness, which I always find irksome. And, too, at that point I’d started to wonder if any of the lectures would be by women as all three of my choices had me listening to men (I checked the show notes then and yes, there are women, but men definitely get the lion’s share of episodes. Feh.)

Okay, enough time has passed since I started writing this essay (two days) that I’ve listened to a couple more lectures, including the first I’ve heard by a woman. I’ll keep listening, but my pace is going to slow down. Bingeing these lectures hasn’t been all that nice. Half of them confirm for me that we’ve been ugly for a good long time – as a people, as a country, as a civilization. Our history has bright spots but the broadest strokes tell stories of oppression, violence, and evil. Also, I do miss the back and forth I get on the other podcasts.

The biggest reason I need to slow down in this consumption is that – in the instances where professors elicit responses from their students – the students often say really problematic, wrongheaded things … and the professors mostly let those comments pass. Rather than push students not to be lazy thinkers and fall back on tropes and racial biases, they either affirm the nonsense (!!) or gloss over it with responses that imply the students’ comments are at least partially correct and then they move on to pull answers from other students.

Obviously, I never want professors to respond the way I did when I heard some of the students’ questions and comments – saying aloud, “You’re an idiot,” or “Thank you for your racism.” Not that, but I expect professors to make their students see that they have to do the work, have to examine ideas, not just relax in the comfort of what this society has spoon-fed them. Ugh.

I’m sure there will be other lectures that don’t trigger this particular disgust or annoyance. I’m also sure that, even with the moments of disgust and annoyance, I’ll keep working my way through the back catalog of episodes. Because yes, I am a “historophile,” not a history buff, not hardly, but a lover. And Lectures in History feeds my habit.

We’ll go walking out
While other’s shout of war’s disaster.
Oh, we won’t give in,
Let’s go living in the past.

It’s always nice to slip a little Jethro Tull into the conversation. The lyric isn’t exactly accurate for my feelings about discovering this trove of history fabulousness, but I like it all the same.

Oh, we won’t give in,
Let’s go living in the past.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Go Living in the Past

  1. woaca2008

    Thank you for telling us about this podcast. I love history, have loved history since a teenager and reading historical romances and then wanting to find out “what really happened.” And Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time,” a mystery that revealed how much history we learn in school was written by the winners and could be downright wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

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