I really liked this post by Fox Meadows about whether the past was really as white and sexist and hidebound and bigoted as less-well informed people tend to think. The background is that a fellow wrote a book featuring a Black female pirate, and someone decided to bitch and moan because the book did not feature a White male pirate instead. Part of the complainant's problem with the Black female pirate (other than her being Black and female, which were clearly issues for him in and of themselves), was that he felt it was unrealistic to have a pirate who was a woman. Meadow's post points out that what people think is historically realistic often has nothing to do with the way history actually was (plus, you know, it's fiction, dipshit).
(I don't know what the complainant was expecting to accomplish, but the author's response was to offer him "this engraved invitation to go piss up a hill," as well as another, equally heartfelt invitation to stop reading his books. And I have to say that, under similar circumstances, I would do the same.)
I don't blame people for assuming that, say, all pirates or all American cowboys were all white, because the sad truth is that most people get their knowledge of history from Hollywood, and Hollywood is an abominable teacher. The Western genre was really popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and by George, you can watch Western after Western after Western and not see a single African-American cowboy--not one. In addition, all the women wear Revlon Fire & Ice on their lips and nails, and there's always one with platinum blond hair who looks just like Marilyn Monroe, sometimes because she actually is Marilyn Monroe.
Movies--even "true" movies--are a tissue of lies, often the sorts of lies that leave you with your mouth gaping open at their chutzpah (coughcoughA Beautiful Mindcoughcough). The goal of movies is to attract audiences by putting beautiful characters in wish-fulfillment situations, not repel audiences by putting starving and gross people in really upsetting situations. When people think "pirates," they think of Johnny Depp (yum) in Pirates of the Caribbean (whee). They think of freedom and excitement and Halloween costumes and Talk Like a Pirate Day. The reality of pirates, past or present, doesn't even come up.
Even if you don't learn everything you know about history from movies or television, teachers and books sometimes have a definite agenda. I think the educational system has gotten better about this, but there has been a lot of propaganda fed to people over the ages. When I accompanied my elderly relative to Peru, we traveled with a group organzied by a company that specializes in trips geared to older people. The people we were with were all basically lovely, intelligent, and well-educated enough that I was very surprised at how little they knew of history. We visited a number of Moche ruins, and the Moche were very enthusiastic practitioners of human sacrifice. And people in our group kept saying things along the lines of, "Well, I don't know why these people had to kill each other all the time--Christians have certainly never slaughtered each other like that!"
Wow. Um, yeah they did. Like, for centuries. Seriously, how did their history classes go? "Martin Luther hammered his 95 theses to a church door, and after some calm and rational discussion, it was decided that large chunks of Northern Europe would no longer follow the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church." "The Inquisition was exactly like Monty Python portrayed it, comfy chairs and all." "The religious dissidents left Europe and came to the North American colonies because they loved adventure!"
But the thing that really bothers me about efforts to render history more palatable and comfortable to people, is that it cuts people off from exciting stories.
Yeah, I know, that is a horribly writerly reaction, so writerly that it verges on the psychopathic, but honestly, when I was editing Black history books, that's what struck me: This is some great shit!
I mean, the violence of American race relations and the brutality of slavery meant that every little interaction could result in HORRIBLE TORTURE AND DEATH. Those are fantastic stakes. Asking for water could get you killed. Walking down the street could get you killed. Starting a business could definitely get you killed.
Deciding, "You know, I've got really light skin. I think I'll pass for white and go to the Deep South in order to investigate lynchings for the NAACP"--? Holy shit. Great story. Why no one has done a movie about Walter White I will never know.
Except that I guess I do know. It's similar to why there are no really good non-white fashion models--it's a problem of gatekeepers. Lazy gatekeepers, or gatekeepers who think it's great but there just isn't a market for that kind of thing. I've heard writers say, "Well, I'd love to write about X. It's a really fascinating topic, and I think there would be some fantastic stories there. But they'd never let me."
But guess what? NOW YOU CAN!! Now, with self-publishing, you can have your Black female pirates! You can write historical fiction that's actually accurate, and when someone says, "That's not realistic," you can tell them how wrong they are!
And who knows, maybe you'll manage to educate people about the past, so that they have the slightest clue that, yes, racial attitudes in 1453 Europe were rather different from those in 1953 Selma, Alabama, because there's 500 years and thousands of miles of difference there. Honestly.