In a prior post I gave a brief summary of the one of the biggest ideas that I learned in college: that everything is contextual, contingent, and contested. (You might even throw in the term “constructed,” though I think that tends to raise a few eyebrows.) Here are two case studies—one polemical, the other simply delightful—of how this handy tool brings to light some thought-provoking historical lessons.
As a MAP preceptor at NYU I used the motto to discuss the figure of Christopher Columbus, as presented by historian Matthew Restall. In Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest Restall cleverly debunks grand historical myths by going into the archive, analyzing what he finds, and persuading readers to toss out conventional wisdom in favor of his evidence. In this spirit, his first chapter makes the bold statement (at least to undergraduates) that Columbus was not an exceptional man. First there is the lesson on contingency: His “discoveries,” Restall argues, are simply products of “historical accident” (4) and “serendipity” (7) (he was, after all, headed the wrong way). Then he offers us two contextual lessons: 1) that in lifetime Columbus’s reputation as a conquistador was eclipsed by the exploits of his contemporaries, namely, Pizarro, Vespucci, and above all, Cortés. And 2), that the Columbus that some of us revere today is, in fact, largely a product of late nineteenth-century Italian- and Irish American efforts to frame Columbus as a Catholic immigrant worthy of national recognition. This sudden rise in Columbus’s stature was further buttressed by a growing academic and popular interest in the navigator on the four hundredth anniversary of his voyage (11). Finally, Restall’s chapter is a case in point of the contested nature of Columbus’s historical significance, as are popular objections in our time to the celebration of Columbus Day, on account of his treatment of the indigenous population of the Americas.
The second example I bring as an illustration of the 3Cs is a lot less polemical: a history of gendered baby colors. Historian Jo B. Paoletti informs us that girls did not start wearing pink until after the Second World War, with the birth of the boomers. In the nineteen tens and twenties, material culture reveals that pink was actually considered appropriate for baby boys. Look a little earlier that that, in the mid nineteenth century, and you’ll see that pink and blue were just part of a range of pastel colors that all babies wore, regardless of gender. And even fuuurther back, when the venerable FDR was just a tyke, boys of his ilk wore white dresses and grew their hair to their shoulders till they were 6 or 7. In fact, most young children wore white dresses, since they were easily bleached. That’s the context. As for contingency, Paoletti states in an interview that the gendering of pink and blue for “girl” and “boy,” respectively, “could have gone the other way.” Lastly, she explains that this gender coded color scheme was contested during the women’s liberation movement. Astonishingly, Paoletti found that in a span of two years in the seventies, the Sears, Roebuck catalog did not sell any pink baby clothing. I think we have a long way to go before baby boys will be donning pink once more, since most parents are so anxious to communicate the sex of their children clearly, immediately, and unequivocally to a judging public.
What I love best about the 3Cs is how it reminds us never to be complacent about historical “truths” or any other sort of convention. Contrary to what many high schoolers think, history is a discipline that is infinitely capable of delivering wonderful and powerful surprises. And don’t forget that all of us are agents with the ability to alter all conventions. (So go ahead: dress your baby boy in pink! I promise it won’t “pervert” him.)