Until a few years ago, I wasn’t a fan of history. I didn’t hunt down explanations of the present from the past. My lack of curiosity about how history informed the current day was largely based on a perception of African-American history as entirely painful, a misconception I’d gleaned from the bits of black history I’d learned at school and my inability to remember what my family had supplemented my school lessons with as more than a recitation of black firsts that didn’t beat out or balance the pain. I was proud to be black, but also convinced that I was living in the best era that black people in the United States had ever lived in, and sure that looking to the past would mostly remind me how many layers of personhood history had shaved off us in official retellings.
But in 2015 an editor assigned me an essay about a topic I’d been curious about for a while. It was October, when the air gets a little colder, the leaves turn, and it’s time to lean into the annual argument about the merits of pumpkin, whether it appears in a spiced latte, a slice of bread, or a pie. As someone who’s convinced pumpkin tastes like a cinnamon covered wet sock, I was intrigued when that editor asked me to look into why many black people eat sweet potato pie instead of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. She and I were both black women who were proudly raised in sweet potato pie households, and had terrible memories of trying to pretend the pumpkin pies we’d had in our lives had any value other than as doorstops. Because of my deep hatred of pumpkin pie and my equally deep love of sweet potato, I’d always wondered how the former won the culture.
But the answer to that question didn’t lie in the present. So I dug around in the long, highly racialized histories of the pumpkin and the sweet potato for quite a while, through the thousand or so years since South Americans bought sweet potatoes to Polynesia because they tasted great, and the hundreds of years since people started using pumpkin for beer when they ran out of barley and bread when they ran out of wheat. Pumpkin, a food for lean times, until abolitionists decided pumpkin pie was the perfect symbol of their cause. That inspired white Southerners, who were convinced abolitionist support meant the pumpkin was a sign of northern encroachment, to link pumpkin eating with black people, who gave it up, unwilling to be defined by slave owners. Sweet potatoes were embraced by Southerners because they grew well in tough Southern soil, and regionalized and racialized by everyone else until sweet potato pie was considered a fringe food.
I’d started out with a simple question which required a dig through history deep enough to look at the pie issue from the vantage point of the competing sides of the Civil War. But in the process, black people’s sweet potato pie habit turned from an unexplained cultural tradition to a sword in the centuries-long fight against racial stereotyping. Putting together that essay turned me from a history skeptic into someone convinced that a healthy dig through history was necessary to narrate black stories to any point beyond the hints and rote memorized facts that most schools’ briefest of sweeps through slavery, sharecropping, and the Civil Rights Movement gave their students.
So many other types of stories could be fleshed out the same way. I poured through forty years of promotional materials to chart the switch between Banana Republic’s pith helmet-laden pro-colonialist ’80s catalogs and its bland present-day image. I’ve dug in on the history of state government restricting city governments from defending their minority residents, and the migration patterns and cultural conflict that have resulted in me not having the accent of the state I’m from.
History has answered questions that have perplexed me for years, and given me an opportunity to construct a fuller sense of black womanhood other than the limited narratives I started with. This era is an especially good one to reconnect with history. Increased access to online resources and more online cataloguing of print resources means we can tell more fleshed out stories of people, places, and events that have been forgotten. And the modern fight over ascending white nationalism has sent many people looking for sources and facts that might help to explain how we got here.While the past doesn’t, and shouldn’t necessarily dictate our lives, it’s often impossible to understand why the present is the way it is without looking at what came before.
Kashana Cauley is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times whose writing has appeared in many other publications. She’s also a former staff writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Pod Save America on HBO. You can find her on Twitter @kashanacauley.