Back in the early 1960s, a theme park opened in Tennessee with a Rebel Railroad. Passengers could ride through Pigeon Forge with toy rifles, pretending to protect the train from a union attack and buy souvenirs with hints of confederate sympathy. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with visitors from the north. Later, the train ride and the park were retooled with a gold rush focus. Instead of riding into a civil war reenactment, one could ride into a wild west showdown and help cowboys fight the indians. Since yankees weren’t being portrayed as the bad guys in this updated version, most visitors weren’t offended. This theme park was later sold and became part of what is now Dollywood.
I wish I could say that our propensity to avoid discomfort while not worrying about the discomfort of others has improved. When we have a common enemy, we will bond over that common enemy, regardless of whether that enemy is truly an enemy. We will especially bond over a history we choose to tell that displays us in a better light. Even now, parents are fighting to tell history in ways that make certain groups of the population feel better about the United States and its impact while dismissing the pain of others. The Rebel Railroad should have made people uncomfortable, but the Gold Rush Junction should have also made people cringe. History hurts, especially when it is shared with honesty and integrity. Will there be a point when we listen to the stories of those harmed for our progress? Or will we continue to tell only the versions we want to hear, the versions that make us feel good about ourselves and sell tickets?
One day, maybe I’ll be able to write about this with more logic and less emotion. I’m not there yet, and I might never be. The atrocities attached to us, to our names, to our ancestry, to who we are, do not disappear or lessen because we try to temper the stories or coat them with a sugar gloss. I feel that children do not need the graphic highlights, but they need the stories. We tell children the story of how Jesus died and was crucified because it is central to Christianity. For some, it is easy to tell this story, with the gory details. Some churches even have visual depictions of Jesus, bloodied, dying, and sagging from the cross. In general, Christians have few issues with teaching children this historical atrocity, because we are removed by distance and time from those people who sent Jesus to his death. The stories are much harder to tell when the hands with blood on them belong to family members with names and photographs. We all want to hide from a truth that makes us ache inside, but hiding isn’t loving your neighbor as yourself.