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State Historian Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia says history is about people's lives, not 'just the facts'

A woman poses for a portrait next to a striking framed photo of a an Indigenous person wearing a set of stacked rings as a necklace, with another ring coming out of his mouth and attached to the necklace.
Luke Perkins
/
History Colorado
Colorado marked its 147th birthday this week by appointing a new state Historian. Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia is a longtime interdisciplinary English professor at Colorado College and joined the State Historian's Council last year. She joined Nikole Robinson Carroll to discuss the unique perspective she brings to her new role.

Colorado marked its 147th birthday this week by appointing a new state historian. Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia is a longtime interdisciplinary English professor at Colorado College and joined the State Historian's Council last year. She joined Nikole Robinson Carroll to discuss the unique perspective she brings to her new role.

Nikole Robinson Carroll: Just for the sake of people who may not be too familiar, what does the role of state historian entail and what's been your journey to this position?

Claire Oberon Garcia: Historically, the position went to someone who was an expert in Colorado history. I've heard that some previous state historians served for decades. At one point it was a paid position. My understanding is that the person was an employee of either History Colorado or the Department of Education, which oversees History Colorado.

Now, there is a state historian's council. The position is rotated among the five or six members of the State Historian's Council. And the reasoning behind that shift was to take advantage of the fact that having multiple perspectives, both disciplinary as well as in terms of scholarship and teaching, is very valuable to History Colorado as it thinks about its programming and exhibits and outreach. Now, History Colorado's approach is much more interested in centering the stories, perspectives and lived experiences of the diversity of communities that have made up Colorado's past, present and future.

My involvement with History Colorado started — other than someone who visited their exhibits and the museums around the state — was that I was invited to advise a presentation of the Ku Klux Klan ledgers that History Colorado was a couple of years ago planning to exhibit. From there, I was invited to contribute to a Colorado magazine article on Hindsight 2020 — like what historians of the future would say about the year 2020. Those are the roots of my involvement with History Colorado. And so I think that's why I was invited to serve on the Council.

Robinson Carroll: That inevitably brings me to the dust-up that's been happening over the last few years about critical race theory and other things like that, where there are people who say, “you know, we did have a lot of great white people in our history, but they weren't all.”

Oberon Garcia: Yes. And I think that the debates about the role of history are not new. Certainly, they've taken in the United States a particular turn. Histories have always been very entwined with narratives of national identity or group or community identity — who we are.

History has always been inflected by culture, by particular political agendas, by narratives of identity on both national and community levels. So while the debates, I think — around especially history curriculum recently — have been very important, very urgent, and there's a lot at stake for us as a country, as a democracy, as a society that debates around the uses and abuses of history — what counts, what doesn't count, who gets to speak. I'm sure you've heard that adage that history is written by the victors. So I think there's always been a sense that there's more at stake in history and by extension, history curricula than just the facts.

It's interesting and necessary to study our collective and shared history. And because that history is collective and shared, the relevant voices and perspectives must be included. The lived experiences of people other than governors or generals should definitely be included in that.

Robinson Carroll: What can we learn from historical examples about how to navigate this really, really polarized time we're going through now?

Oberon Garcia: What's key to navigation is, of course, conversation. Frank but respectful exchange of perspectives and viewpoints. One of the things that's making us more and more polarized these days is that we can't talk to each other, can't talk to people with whom we may disagree politically or in terms of religious values or anything else. And I, as an interdisciplinary scholar who also uses critical race theory in my work — I very much think that we need to take an intersectional approach to conversations, and one of the key ideas of intersectionality is that identities as well as the world, are both/and not either/or. And unfortunately, our political and cultural landscape is very much structured in an either/or mode instead of both.

And I think also, of course, understanding what the real facts are of history — you know, not the fairy tale, not the selective narrative, not the aspirational in-hindsight notion of who we are and who we want to be. A conversation, a knowledge of history and a real engagement and commitment to each other is necessary to navigate these difficult times.

As a reporter and host for KUNC, I follow the local stories of the day while also guiding KUNC listeners through NPR's wider-scope coverage. It's an honor and a privilege to help our audience start their day informed and entertained.
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