Living Columns & Blogs

Darryl Levings: Give us our history, warts and all

The news that lawmakers in Oklahoma want to ban advanced-placement history courses in their high schools has stirred me from my Smaug-like slumber.

Their purpose is to hide behind the curtain any unfortunate facts that fail to burnish our shining city on the hill, our nation’s “exceptionalism.” If our young must see these things, they believe, spare them until college where lurk all those leftist, godless professors.

So yes, America, we’ve reached a DEFCON 1 alert level for an attack of the dumbs.

Anyone who has broken bread with me knows how I lovingly hoard every scrap of odd, unnoticed, inconvenient history, and dig up odorous things hastily buried at night by our forefathers. Unlike the Hobbit’s great “worm,” though, I can’t wait to share my soiled little treasures, spent like coins for good conversation.

For example, Thomas Jefferson, genius that he was, patriot that he was, forced little black slave boys to spend their days making nails for his plantation to sell.

Or the son of the Rev. Thomas Johnson, for whom Johnson County is named, was identified by witnesses as one of the raiders of Lawrence in 1863.

Missouri and Kansas have ugly pasts of the “strange fruit,” of which Billie Holiday sang. Even Lawrence, once known as sanctuary for escaped slaves, saw the “Vinegar Lynchings,” three men dangling from a bridge in 1882. (Last year, a dummy bearing a President Barack Obama face mask was hanging over Interstate 70 near Grain Valley.)

Adolf Hitler kept a full-length portrait of Henry Ford by his desk; the venomously anti-Semitic master of mass production is the only American mentioned in “Mein Kampf.”

In 1945, when Bess Myerson became the first Jewish Miss America, pageant organizers suggested she change her name as sponsors dropped out, and some hotels and country clubs were off limits to her.

But I am not a negative person. It’s just that Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

You have to love old tales of how it really was. And those musty ancient words! Did you know that “rustification” meant suspended from college? That “rule of thumb” comes to us from an old English law banning the beating of wives with any stick thicker than the husband’s thumb?

And we have — or had — “uhtceare,” an Old English word for waking up before dawn but being unable to get back to sleep for worries about something. What I worry about in the gloaming hours is the dumbing down of America!

Especially the choosing of political cynicism over science. The new stock refrain of many Republicans is to say, “I’m not a scientist,” to avoid commenting — and offending the “base” (a word for which there’s more than one meaning) — on subjects like evolution or climate change.

Ignoring science reminds me of when the Roman Catholic Church under Pope John XXI condemned all Natural Laws, because they conflicted with God’s omnipotence. How fitting that John promptly was crushed to death when the Law of Gravity pulled his study’s ceiling down on him in 1277.

Yes, I grin at the grim. Take what they used to call “Waterloo Teeth.” The 1815 battle was followed by the burying of more than 40,000 men in mass graves — but not before the young soldiers’ good teeth were pulled. That’s how they made dentures in those day.

When Russia’s Peter the Great discovered his wife, Catherine, had strayed, he had the lover decapitated, had the head put in a jar of alcohol and installed it in the empress’s bedroom.

Oh, we’ve all got a cleaned bone or two in our closets, national or familial. A beloved family member of my straight-arrow wife belonged to the Klan, pretty much a prerequisite for election for the county post he held back then. The really embarrassing fact her Republican kin didn’t wish to talk about, though, was how he’d run as a Democrat.

I’ve mentioned how thin the strand of the Leavins/Levings line was in the Puritan days. But I have not told you that the third generation on these shores became quite prosperous, with lots of property to leave in his will to his first son: horses and stock, furniture, bed covers, weapons, books — and an Indian girl. No details.

Probably an interesting story there, and one day I’ll make one up about it.

What’s next? Ban newspapers with stories that the world is older than 7,000 years? But then, maybe they won’t even have to make the effort. I close with this from “Fahrenheit 451,” written in 1951:

“I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government (saw) how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach.”

Read my passionate lips: How dishonest, hypocritical, cowardly to hide the warts of our history.

They can never blemish all the good.

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to