Wednesday, 5 Oct 2022

Overlooked No More, ‘Skipped History’ Explores Forgotten Events

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“Skipped History,” a comedy web series, explores overlooked ideas, people and events that continue to shape the United States. Hosted by Ben Tumin, a historical satirist, the series makes history both accessible and funny.

“To me, the reality is that history is endlessly compelling,” Mr. Tumin said. “If you’re just looking for answers for how the society we live in became the society that it is today, and it’s such a flawed society in so many ways, that finding where things went wrong helps to reimagine how things could go right in the future.”

The first season of “Skipped History” was met with praise from prominent historians. Greg Grandin, a history professor and Pulitzer Prize winner, called the show “a treasure,” after an episode that explored the racially motivated reasons for America’s first major war abroad in the Philippines.

“There are statistics that students in high school and middle school typically find history to be one of the most boring subjects,” Mr. Tumin said. “And meanwhile, there are all these academics and educators doing incredible work and unearthing incredible history that we had no idea about. So the question is not, ‘Is history interesting?’ It’s about how you present it.”

I recently spoke with Mr. Tumin about the creation of “Skipped History,” the importance of U.S. history and why so many of the stories Mr. Tumin has told have been forgotten or overlooked. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How did “Skipped History” get started?

Before the pandemic, I was a live performer of longer-form humorous historical pieces. I was set to go on tour with a piece exploring a U.S.-led coup in Guatemala in 1944. This was in 2018. And so inspired by [President Trump’s] travel ban, I dug into the history of refugees and made a 45-minute presentation featuring comedic interviews with Syrian refugees. I’d show polls from 1938 of citizens in the U.S. and their views of refugees then and compare them to polls now and show very clear parallels.

Afterward, in the conversations with audiences, people were always interested in more history. That’s when I was like, OK, time to dig into more history. I studied history in college and I love reading history books. I’m just naturally very curious and a bit nerdy.

The pandemic was a very unwelcome opportunity to catch up on a lot of history books that I hadn’t had time to read because I’ve been traveling around so much, and once I started reading those books, the idea just kind of came together.

An extensive amount of research, including videos, goes into each episode. How do you find all the elements that you include?

I’ll read a book that maybe a historian has recommended to me or that has gotten a lot of notice or just sounds interesting. And I look for moments or people or ideas that I didn’t know about, that just make me catch my breath and are astounding.

For example, how is it possible that a racist German statistician in the 1890s wrote a deeply flawed book on race and crime statistics, and then these statistics and his analysis spread around the U.S. to the point that police departments still unwittingly cite his analysis to justify tactics like stop-and-frisk?

I’ll look for moments like that and ask myself: How is this possible? Because it seems fitting. It seems in line with the currents of U.S. history. But it also seems so outrageous and it’s something that maybe other people would be interested in learning.

Why is it important to tell these stories?

In 1970, James Baldwin wrote a letter to Angela Davis in which he said, “What has happened, it seems to me, and to put it far too simply, is that a whole new generation of people have assessed and absorbed their history, and, in that tremendous action, have freed themselves of it and will never be victims again.”

And I think that’s revealing of the empowering nature of history and how it can be really joyous and fulfilling to learn.

Why do you think a lot of this history has been skipped?

I would borrow a phrase from historian Tiya Miles, who describes “the conundrum of the archives,” that is how the historical record tends to relate what people in power want it to relate. I love and admire historians for conducting an unheralded form of resistance and combing through archives to reveal what many people would rather we never knew. In turn, it’s a joy to bring those stories to life in a different way on “Skipped History” and shine more light on historians’ work.

I also think the reason so many moments in history are skipped is because there’s erasure of U.S. history. Making history uninteresting is part of U.S. history. Writing a racist version of history into schools is part of U.S. history. And on the flip side, we now have more interest in learning what that real history is and people are producing it.

Think about all of these different history commissions around the U.S. trying to come up with their counters to the 1619 Project, which is a revelatory and remarkable piece of history that represents this really interesting moment where people are looking at U.S. history in new ways. And maybe most importantly, we are now seeing people like Nikole Hannah-Jones or Elizabeth Hinton having the platforms to publish these pieces and get the attention and respect that their really incredible work deserves.

Season 2 of “Skipped History” is wrapping up. Are there any stories you hope to cover in the third season?

Season 3 is going to focus on economic history, some environmental history and some more Indigenous people’s history. Plus the through-currents that seem to be behind every episode, which is white supremacy growth unchecked. There are also a few other things that I want to cover.

How would you describe “Skipped History” for new viewers?

I think for new viewers there’s a mixture of seriousness and silliness to “Skipped History.” And I say that it’s possible to insert levity without taking things lightly. People often associate history with being drab and also with being really depressing, and that’s one of the barriers for a lot of people.

And honestly, I think everyone who studies history is affected by that. I think it’s important to know that you can discuss these subjects in ways that are really interesting and still make jokes and make it entertaining.

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