How does history impact the way we see ourselves and others? American author and civil rights activist James Baldwin often wrote about the way that the past impacted the present. He explained that:

For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely some- thing to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror, one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror, because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.

But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it and finally accept it, in order to bring myself out of it.1

Chinese American author Iris Chang carried her family’s difficult history and heritage with her and it deeply shaped her professional life and her identity as an adult woman. In the introduction to her 1997 best-selling book The Rape of Nanking, she writes about the way she first learned about the atrocities:

I first learned about the Rape of Nanking when I was a little girl. The stories came from my parents, who had survived years of war and revolution before finding a serene home as professors in a midwestern American college town. They had grown up in China in the midst of World War II and after the war fled with their families, first to Taiwan and finally to the United States to study at Harvard and pursue academic careers in science. For three decades they lived peacefully in the academic community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, conducting research in physics and microbiology.

But they never forgot the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War, nor did they want me to forget. They particularly did not want me to forget the Rape of Nanking. Neither of my parents witnessed it, but as young children they had heard the stories, and they were passed down to me. . . . Their voices quivered in outrage, my parents characterized the Great Nanking Massacre, or Nanjing Datusha, as the single most diabolical incident committed by the Japanese in a war that killed more than 10 million Chinese people.

Throughout my childhood Nanjing Datusha remained buried in the back of my mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil. But the event lacked human details and human dimensions. It was also difficult to find the line between myth and history. While still in grade school I searched the local public libraries to see what I could learn about the massacre, but nothing turned up. That struck me as odd. If the Rape of Nanking was truly so gory, one of the worst episodes of human barbarism in world history, as my parents insisted, then why hadn’t someone written a book about it?2



  • 1 : James Baldwin, “Unnamable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes,”, accessed January 1, 2014.
  • 2 : Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: penguin Books, 1997), 7–8.

Connection Questions

  1. According to James Baldwin, what role does history play in shaping your identity? Which words, ideas, and phrases best represent his thinking about the relationship between history and identity?

  2. What does Baldwin mean when he says that people carry history “within us”? How does he suggest history shapes the way people behave?

  3. What role did history play in Iris Chang’s identity? Why do you think she “searched the local public libraries to see what she could learn about the massacre”?


  4. Based on what you have read, how can family experiences with historical trauma shape the way people think and act? What burdens might come with family histories that include experiencing injustice? What evidence do you find in the excerpts to reinforce your observations?

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