Do you dig? That’s what the Beats used to ask each other over beers, eyes hidden behind dark shades in smokey rooms at night. Dig me? They meant: do you understand?

But what, exactly, does it mean to understand something? It’s not the same thing as knowing. You know facts but you understand a landscape, a terrain you can navigate without knowing every pothole. Do we ever know as much about the landscape as we think we do? I might know every trail in Acadia National Park but I’m not aware of every organism that takes root beneath the surface of the forest. You enhance your understanding by hunting out new facts that change your sense of the strata. You find new facts by digging.

Learning history is like digging up a landscape I thought I knew. I keep turning over stones and realizing the depth of my ignorance. I keep learning what I didn’t know that I didn’t know. To learn history, we dig down into the mountains of literature and into the land itself. Occasionally, we find gems we think will change things in the present.

Maine is a history I keep learning, a series of layers piling up on the landscape. The ways we choose to investigate our landscape, or not to, can alter the shape of our understanding. Dr. Kate McMahon, of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, wrote her master’s thesis at USM about the historical settlement of Peterborough, a Black community in Warren dating back to the Revolutionary War. McMahon tells us how a lack of archeological attention to historically Black sites has helped create the impression that there weren’t any Black people in New England before the Civil War.

Slavery wasn’t abolished in Massachusetts until 1784, eight years after the Declaration of Independence. Amos Peters was an enslaved man from Massachusetts until he “earned” his freedom by serving in the Continental Army. According to local folklore, he lost an ear to a ball from a redcoat’s musket. After the war, freedom restored, he somehow made his way to Maine, where he married Sarah, who had been brought to Warren on a slave ship owned by James McIntyre. The two started a family which would eventually grow into the community of Peterborough.

You don’t hear too much about communities of color in antebellum New England. The old New England states are often remembered as lily-white farming utopias that always stood for Abolition, and this is not an accident. In the 1920s, when America was grappling with its racist history, it seems that the consensus, North and South, was simply to forget. The South began pretending that the Civil War was fought for state’s rights and had nothing to do with Black people. The North pretended that their hands were clean, sanitized of the sin of slavery. They pretended that Black people never even lived here. The fact of Peterborough disrupts that pretense. There was slavery in New England during the early Republic. Some freed people stayed on and made homes here after it ended. They weren’t treated equally but they built communities and participated in the economy.

It’s important to remember places like Peterborough in a moment when political divisions are flattening our understanding of history. The New York Times’ 1619 Project has made waves in recent years by reframing American history through the lens of slavery. Rather than tell the American story through the familiar links of colonies to revolution to Civil War to World War II to greatness; the 1614 Project uses different inflection points to tell the same American story from the point of view of Black people. Critics of the project have decided that this is somehow unpatriotic and part of a socialist plot to overthrow God and Country. The recent Virginia governor’s race became a sideshow of empty debate about Critical Race Theory that had very little to do with reality. CRT is an academic discipline through which to consider other academic disciplines, such as law, literature, or psychology. It supposes that the experience of racism can seep into institutions and understandings without being explicit or even intentional. It is barely taught below the graduate level in universities, let alone in high schools. Yet many conservative activists and politicians seem to think it’s coming to brainwash your children to hate themselves. (It’s not. CRT is about self-awareness, not self-hate.) I actually don’t believe they really think that either; they just want you to think it, so you’ll get scared and hand over your vote.

There are problems on the other side too, though. The idea that America is only a vessel for white supremacy and slavery-capitalism is to glaze over all the real-world, first-of-its-kind progress that America has created. This progress wasn’t an accident. It was a hard-fought political grind that involved tireless work hours by people just like you and me. Slavery existed in New England, but the New England states’ abolition laws were the first of their kind in the world and they were made in the sausage factory by a working coalition of Blacks and whites, and it was done in the name of Christianity.

Myth can settle upon history and intertwine itself with our understanding of the past. McMahon acknowledges that much of the biographical information we have about the original Peters family is known only through oral histories handed down in the community. Both sides of this political moment have their own versions of history that are partially composed of myths. This is true even as both viewpoints are built on the real-world facts of their history that everyone seems to have forgotten. The Beat writer’s I love understood this, and so did their Black contemporaries like Anne Petry and Ralph Ellison. Myths are buried in our minds just like artifacts are buried in the ground. To separate the myth from the fact we must dig. Digging requires movement and it causes change. Don’t dig in, just dig.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Thomaston, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

filed under: