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Flat Rock history via a road

Travelling back in time on a Flat Rock roadby Rob Neufeld             If you walk the one mile length of North Highland Lake Road in Flat Rock, you step nearly 200 years into the past.            At the east end, the 21st century reigns.  Fronting six-lane Spartanburg Highway, a super-Ingles sits above a bog; and a CVS store faces an Octopus Garden smoke shop, a chiropractor, a cell phone provider, and a six-lane avenue to I-26 a mile away .            Neither Ingles nor CVS carries the big…See More
Apr 8

My Plea for Humanist History

I write this with some urgency. I had immersed myself in some controversial local history in my history column in the Citizen-Times, Oct. 10, got a critical response, and took the opportunity in today's column, for the first time, to explain why I feel a humanist approach to history is so important. (See links below.)

I had titled my column, “Why I write about Gov. Aycock the way I do.” The newspaper changed the headline to: “Asheville history columnist Rob Neufeld on whether Gov. Charles Aycock was a racist” in the online edition; and, in the print edition, “Aycock’s race beliefs: Deeply held or just politics?”

The headliner got it wrong in both instances. Gov. Aycock was a racist, as defined by his central participation in the 1898 and 1900 Democratic Party campaigns, which inflamed race hatred. I am not taking sides on that. What I am doing is putting the contradiction between his progressivism and white supremacy beliefs in the context of his times and his life.  There is a lot more to his story--and it is very interesting!

The humanities instruct us to understand human actions by putting ourselves in the skin of those whom we study. In this way, we understand why people like us might go wrong rather than why people who are no way like us are worthy of condemnation. This is something deeper than politics. I’m not telling you how I vote, but rather how we all might create a good society through understanding and communication.

Please help champion the humanities cause. There is nothing I feel more strongly about in my profession. Write the Citizen-Times. Contact me about your interests.

See the original article, the response, documentation, and my statement of purpose here.

See the Citizen-Times posting of my most recent article, and a good response from “Bettyinbuncombe.” Many thanks!/Rob

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Comment by Cynthia Drew on October 24, 2011 at 2:48pm

Hello Rob: I read your article early this month, and the response a week later, and thought "boy-o, Neufeld should say something. I'm glad you did.

History is messy, always has been, but it seems to me that the only way to tell it is from the human side. Too, it's unrealistic to visit today's values on those who lived 100 years ago because almost nothing was the same - everything from plumbing to higher education had a different look from what it has today. (The only thing that seems to remain constant in its inconstancy is politics.) It seems to me that a look at history from inside the skin of someone who lived it, whether it is an account of medieval warfare or life in turn-of-the-twentieth-century North Carolina, is the best way to see how and why life was lived the way it was.

I feel this strongly as well - it was the only way I could imagine telling about the experience of two Jewish girls in the Triangle Waist Company fire in my forthcoming novel, City of Slaughter. How better to portray the horror of being locked in a burning building that's on flames than from the inside?

Stick to your guns here - it's a fight worth having.

Comment by Donald Myracle on October 24, 2011 at 10:56am
I agree with and respect Mr. Neufeld's position.  History is far more than simple, dry facts.  Historical personalities and events involving them should certainly be viewed with an eye looking toward their impacts upon our world and lives today.  It is absolutely essential, however, to consider those personalities and their words and actions in light of the world of their day.  Some things that would have been condoned and even encouraged in the rural south of my childhood we would find quite objectionable today.  In order to learn from history we must first strive to understand the special conditions that allowed or even caused events to happen.  I support your battle.
Comment by Nicole on October 24, 2011 at 10:12am
As homeschoolers, we are constantly talking to our kids about the importance of asking questions and digging deeper. Unfortunately, history has been "sanitized", and this is what most folks want, a comfortable story, spoon fed to them. I think you've done a splendid job of attempting to tell a very complicated historical story, in its historical context. I appreciate the fact that you did not "Fox News" the story for me.
Comment by Richard DuRose on October 24, 2011 at 10:11am

Writing about history is difficult.  We are limited to looking at what the person wrote, or what someone else wrote about the person. As someone who has spent hours reading old newspapers, I cannot vouch for their accuracy in many cases.   We cannot cross-examine to determine the person's deeply held beliefs.  We know from recent political campaigns that a politician may not ever let us know his innermost thoughts.  In that respect Mr. Neufeld is correct.  It is relevant to look at the current thinking of the time. And it is relevant to look at the life experiences of the subject.  During Aycock's time, women did not have the right to vote.  We would think it barbaric to take voting rights away from women today.   Does that mean all politicians in the 1800's  were sexist?  I support Mr. Neufeld's approach to writing "humanist" history.  

Comment by Joe Epley on October 24, 2011 at 9:49am
You are right on target, Ron.  For too long we have sanitized history.  It's a shame that not enough folks study history, and fewer still dig for reason and meaning.  Ask most youngsters about Daniel Boone and their will say he was a fearless and noble Indian fighter, yet as Robert Morgan so eloquently wrote in well researched "Boone", this frontier legend hated confrontation and ignored many basic responsibilities to family and debtors. It was good to see the human side of the great explorer.  We tend to think of people in terms of either heroes or villains with no in-between.  And unfortunately that is happening today in American politics in which our national leaders too often accuse those of the opposite party of being unpatriotic, evil, and morally corrupt.    I applaud your effort in the Citizen-Times.

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