The Approach

There are many ways to recount history.

Those old enough to remember Way Back When will recall the Great Men & Great Events approach we suffered through in school: In Fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…. The result was a series of names and dates that meant little to those of us who tried to memorize them, because, reduced to mere factoids, they lacked both texture and context. But that’s how history was taught –and thought of- back then: a series of events strung together like beads on a necklace, each to be considered in turn.

Decades later –and in decided protest against the earlier norm- Howard Zinn took a literally opposite approach, rejecting the artificial moral sterility with which that necklace of events had traditionally been presented, instead portraying American history as largely the story of the exploitation and manipulation of the majority by rigged systems that hugely favor a small group of elites in government, commerce, and industry.

For his part, Page Smith, in his landmark eight-volume “A People’s History of the United States,” used great events (and their initiators) primarily as a backdrop to happenings on the ground, choosing to present history as it was actually experienced by the everyday people who lived it.  It is through their eyes that he tells the story of America.

Pioneering African-American historians such as Carter G. Woodson, George Washington Williams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Rayford W. Logan, Dorothy Porter Wesley, Charles H. Wesley, and John Hope Franklin, meanwhile, labored to recover the pieces of Black America’s buried and scattered past and to meld them into significant and gripping historical narratives as captivating as any the world has known.

Similarly, feminist writers Gerda Lerner, Alice Echols, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Lois Banner and numerous others refocused historical inquiry upon not only the part women played in history, but also that history from women’s perspectives.  Vicki L. Ruiz, Ramón A. Gutiérrez, Rodrigo Lazo, Virginia Sanchez Korrol, and many of their colleagues have done much the same in their various examinations of the extremely rich and varied history of Latinos in the U.S.

And of course, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, through both their wonderfully readable books and their exposure on PBS, have made history accessible in a way rarely accomplished before.  Rather than A People’s History, both of these amazing authors have produced history for people.

In setting out to tell the story of Braided Threads, I used a combination of these approaches.  Yes, there are some Great Events recounted, but there is also a lot of on-the-ground information as well.  Of necessity, mayors, governors, presidents, and other officials are mentioned.  But the response to events of everyday people also appears prominently.  And as for particular perspectives, the parts played by men, women, blacks, whites, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are all given their due.

What I didn’t want to do here was merely provide a chronological recitation of things that happened.  Rather, I hoped to capture themes, trends in the gestation, birth, and long and sometimes painful development of the vast arena we today know as the American nonprofit sector.

I also, the reader will notice, went far afield in exploring the myriad outside forces that helped shape this community.  Nothing in history ever happened in a vacuum. Whatever developments we might now examine in our communal rearview mirror were influenced by other things that were going on at the time.  By way of illustration, a working thesis of Braided Threads is that changes in Americans’ religious attitudes, preferences, and practices over time had an important and reoccurring influence on the development of today’s nonprofit sector.

It is also true that the long-term impact of decisions, laws, and events were not often evident when these things occurred.  It is only through the lens of history, for example, that the eventual impact of events from the 1500s and 1600s becomes clear.

I would also like to call readers’ attention to the chapter endnotes.  There are a lot of them, and there’s a lot in them.  Not everyone is a note reader, I know.  But for those interested and willing to take the time to read them, there is a considerable amount of information that was not quite appropriate for the book’s overall narrative.  I strongly urge readers to examine them because I think they will enhance most readers’ experience of the book.

Finally, I should add that, aside from all the information I was trying to impart, I also made an attempt to emulate, even though I could never equal, the ability of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough to present history as a story.  I wanted Braided Threads to be informative and accurate, yes.  But I also wanted it to be accessible, and not written or presented in such a way that none but professional historians would be able to slog their way through it.  It is my fervent hope that I hit the mark.