A Stroll Through the Story Archive

In order to give a better idea of what it is like to use the Story Archive, let's see what a session might look like. Let's assume you have selected the Civil Rights area of the Archive to begin your exploration. The Archive will start by offering you Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. This speech touches on most of the major themes of the US civil rights movement in the 1960s.

A card appears in the middle of your screen, representing the speech. Around the card are pictures (or "icons") of the 16 retrieval agents. To view King's speech, you would click your mouse on the card. To find what follow-up stories one of the agents has to offer, you would click on the agent's icon. Let's say you view the speech, and then decide to follow some of the agents' "discussions."

When you click on the "I Have a Dream" card, a television screen appears, with a set of VCR-like controls underneath it. On the screen appears Martin Luther King, who says:

"Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit paths of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood, now is the time. I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Because I have a dream that my four little children will be judged not by color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. With this dream we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. ...And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men, white men, Jews and Gentiles . . . will be able to join hands, and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we're free at last."

At this point most of the agent icons on the screen have changed color from black to blue, indicating that they have pertinent follow-up stories. On the card that represents King's speech is a list of the concepts that are prominent in the story. You can label any of these concepts as especially interesting to you. If you were to select "Civil Rights" and "The 1960's," for example, you would find that some of the agents change from blue to pink, or even red, indicating the stories they have found are relevant to your topics of interest.

Suppose you said to yourself, "Yes, King's message of peace and brotherhood is a good one, but the 1960s were not all sweetness and light. What would an opposing viewpoint look like?" The agent you'd want to talk to in that case would be the Rabbi, whose job is to cast doubt by counter example. You notice that the Rabbi is among those agents glowing red, indicating a close match between your areas of interest and the stories he has found. Clicking on the Rabbi's icon produces a list of stories you might be interested in. Suppose you select the one called "Brown on Violence." When you do, the old card representing "I Have a Dream" disappears, and one representing "Brown on Violence" takes its place. If you click on that card, a new video window appears. In it, you see black activist H. Rap Brown addressing a press conference:

"I say, violence is necessary. Violence is a part of America's culture. It is as American as cherry pie. America taught the black man to be violent, we will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary. We will be free by any means necessary. We also say, to extend that, that if black leaders continue to aid in the genocidal attempt of America to execute and eliminate black people, that they will be considered enemies, also, of black people."

You may wonder what could prompt such an extreme position. You could ask Tacitus for a historical background story, or you might ask John D. Rockefeller for the economic causes and implications. Suppose you click on Rockefeller's icon. One story that would be available to you would be a speech by John F. Kennedy on the effects of racism:

"A white baby is born there, and a Negro baby is born next door. That Negro baby's chance of finishing high school is about 60% of that baby's. His chance of getting through college is about a third of that baby's. His chance of being unemployed is four times that baby's. His chance of owning a house is one-third as much. His chance of educating his children is how much? His chance of being a federal district judge is nonexistent -- because there aren't any."

We could continue to follow this conversation by asking another agent for a follow-up to Kennedy's speech. Another possibility would be to jump back to "I Have a Dream," and see what other threads lead away from there. The Archive keeps a list of stories you've seen to make it easy for you to jump back.

When you do, you will notice that some of the agent icons are red, indicating a high level of "excitement" on the part of the agents. What this really means, as we said, is that the stories the agent has retrieved are very relevant to your set of interesting concepts. One of the agents who is vying for your attention is Tacitus, our historical background agent, who has two stories that provide background information about King's speech.

The first is called "Color, Culture and Racism;" the speaker is the famous boxer Mohammed Ali, talking about the subtle effects of racism. Although the speech is humorous, it makes a serious point:

"The black man has been brainwashed, and it's time for him to learn something about himself. When you look at television you see White Owl cigars, White Swan soap, Kane White soap, White Tornado floor wax, White Floss toothpaste. They taught him when he was a little boy about "Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow." Snow White. And then there's the white house

You look at television, they have two cars, one black, one white. They put a gallon of gas in each one, and see which one can go the farthest, and every time, the black car stops, and the white car keeps going. So this brainwashes the Negro. He goes to the drug store, and orders two scoops of ice cream, one chocolate, one vanilla. And every time, they put the chocolate on the bottom and the vanilla on the top.

And the so-called Negro, the way the educational system has been outlined, has been brainwashed. He needs to learn something about black, so when he goes to the grocery store and sees that the angel's food cake is the white cake, and the devil's food cake is the chocolate cake

Everything bad is black, so he's been brainwashed. So now he needs to be taught something about himself, so he can be proud, and quit worrying you, and pushing you out of your neighborhood, quit running with your daughter, and quit chasing you out of your schools, and every day you've got a headache with this Negro, that has been brainwashed by your kind.

So now it's our job to re-brainwash him, to teach him that rich dirt is black dirt, don't feel bad. Strong coffee is black coffee -- you understand? You make it weak, you integrate it. So now he feels proud, now he's not begging no more. Now he wants to be himself, he's not worrying you no more. So he needs some black history, and he needs some black culture so he'll know who he is and be proud to be who he is, and quit worrying you so much."

The second story Tacitus wants to show us is called "History and Racism." The speaker here is Stokley Carmichael:

"America can not tell the truth about herself. If the history of this country were written, you would have to say that this country is a nation of thieves. It began by stealing this country from the red man. If I said to you that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, you'd say, "That's correct." So how come there are already non-white people living here, and they don't exist until this honky comes and "discovers" them. Ain't that something?All their heroes have been white. They make you bow down to George Washington. Did they ever tell you that honky owned slaves? Did they ever tell you that? Not only did he own slaves, he sold a black woman for a barrel of molasses! And he's supposed to be our hero. Some hero."

At this point, you might be wondering about George Washington. Maybe you hadn't known that he was a slave owner. Suppose you want to find out if any of the follow-up stories to "History and Racism" involve George Washington. You could do this by removing "Civil Rights" and "The 1960's" from your interesting concepts list, and then adding George Washington. The agent icons have once again changed color. This time, only one icon--the Rabbi--indicates any interest.

The Rabbi's job is to cast doubt on the underlying themes of the previous story, by showing counter examples. Here, the Rabbi counters the negative view of Washington expressed by Carmichael, by highlighting Washington's role as a hero of democracy. He does this by showing the story, "Decemberists Loved Washington," by Irwin Weil. Weil is a professor of Russian history and literature. His introductory course is, incidentally, the most popular course taught at Northwestern University.

"As you may know, probably the first modern type of democratic revolution that took place in Russia took place some years after the Russian soldiers came back from Paris -- By the way, having given the French the name for one of their cafes, bistro. That means fast food in Russian ... Well, in Russian, buistra. In French, bistro -- And sure enough, these officers, infected with these French ideas, put on a kind of revolution in December of 1825. Perhaps some of you have heard of the Decemberists. These were the famous Decemberists in Russian history. Of course, they had no idea of what it meant to have popular support or anything like that. A whiff of grapeshot and it was over. But it's interesting that one of the two societies -- there was a Northern and a Southern society -- one of the two societies that was most active in this ... movement were people who almost worshipped -- and you'll never guess! -- George Washington.

And you know why? Because Washington refused to become emperor. Remember, his officers wanted to make him emperor, so they could become, of course, magnates. They wanted land, and Washington got into a big fight with his officers, so big in fact that my native city is called, after their society, Cincinnati. They were the society of the Cincinnati. They wanted land, he said, "All right, all right, already, I'll give you land, take it on the damned Ohio River, out in the wilderness." That turned out to be my native city, named after the Cincinnati. To the Russian mentality, this was something wonderful. Here was a great military leader, who, after all, had fought the British to a standstill, who rejected the title of Emperor. This was what true democracy meant, and through George Washington, they had a very good idea of what the Americans did."

This story is a suitable place to end our tour of the Archive. It captures the essence of why we use stories to teach. It is rich with detail, it is intimate, and it ties together a great deal of information. A textbook lesson would give you some dry facts about French ideas spawning a failed revolution, which you would probably forget immediately. In this story, you see Russian soldiers in French bistros, talking politics with the natives. You see idealistic young officers learning a quick lesson in reality. You see greedy American generals pressuring Washington.

Most importantly, these events are now tied together for you in an interesting way. This is how historians, as opposed to history students, think about history. That's why historians like history. In teaching like this, we have the opportunity to help people think about history like historians, about science like scientists, about literature like critics and writers.

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