“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
— The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Humans love legend much more than history, because history is messy and complicated while legends are always simple and clear. History is a puzzle, but legend is a story.
I watched the first hour of “The Italian-Americans” on PBS and was struck by the legends. Southern Italians learned to be secretive and manipulative because the Northern Italians oppressed them, fights against the mafia were all about prejudiced vigilantes, and Italians were abused in the capitalist system, destroying families.
All great legends, of course, but history is a little more complicated. For example, southern mob justice was horrible — look at the history of lynching — but that doesn’t mean no Italians tried to get away with things, keep them hidden, act with violence. And before the Italians were the labourers, the Irish held that position.
There is always truth in a legend. There just is never whole truth. On “Who Do You Think You Are?” Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll found out that his grandfather had been murdered by a British operative after he refused to turn in his sons.
This was great legend, oppressive invaders killing a civilian, but the historical context was missing. Did they do this a great deal, or was this a rare instance? Why did they target him? While we can suspect it was because his sons had also committed violence, the program never touches this topic. That would defeat the legend, and when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
I am a very meta gal. To me, the process is always more interesting than the summary. That means I love history but I have little truck with legends.
As transpeople, though, our history is always messy and contradictory. When we tell our stories, we rarely examine the facts. Instead, we build a legend, starting with truth and tailoring it for emotional effect. You know, much like Brian Williams did with his Iraq helicopter. story.
Legends are powerful ways to convey belief, morality tales that guide emotional response. We shape them to make people feel the way we want them to feel; incensed, proud, compassionate, whatever.
They are not history, though, no matter how many nuggets of truth that they contain. History is in the wide world seen through many viewpoints, and good history writing tries very hard to get a bigger picture with more context, even though, in the end, every historian comes with some bias.
My resistance to create and burnish my own legend is at the heart of my resistance to become product, processed and simplified to be easy to grasp and emotionally resonant. My gifts come from looking in the spaces between, from discovering connections, so those are the gifts I want to share, not the gift of clean and satisfying resolution.
I know why we create legends. I get a bit crazy, though, when we substitute those legends for the facts.