History Invites Journals Related To The Great Pandemic of 2020

Generations from now Americans will look back and wonder what it was like being part of the momentous events swirling around us in 2020.

  • The Great Pandemic of 2020 resulted in millions of people getting sick with the COVID-19 virus and hundreds of thousands of deaths. What was it like trying to stay healthy and keeping your family safe?
  • Americans were making a critical decision about their President. Should they re-elect Donald Trump, or should they go with Joe Biden? The country was more divided than ever.
  • One way to curtail spread of the virus was to urge people to stay home from work. Millions of people lost their jobs; unemployment skyrocketed; and many household incomes plummeted.
  • On top of all that, Americans struggled with violence that accompanied protests against four centuries of racism in their country and the mistreatment and killing of Blacks by some police officers.

It was an ugly time.

In places around the country, historians are gathering the raw data for what will become interpretations of our momentous year. At Michigan’s Grand Valley State University the focus is on COVID-19. “History is happening now,” the university archivist wrote about its journaling project. “In the future, scholars will look back on this time to learn about individuals’ and societies’ responses to a worldwide pandemic. While archived news and internet sites will be essential primary sources, the day-to-day, mundane, social, and emotional experiences of individuals can get lost in the fray.”

Students, staff and community members are being asked to write journals containing their personal recollections. The same thing is being done in Wisconsin. “It is your documentation of your experience living during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine that will allow the Society to share history with people living 100 years from now,” the society’s chief executive wrote.

As noted above, the pandemic is only one of the seismic forces that converged on American life this year. A person interested in preserving his or her observations about the year’s events could begin with a journal or oral recording. There is a certain advantage to being the one using the keyboard or the microphone instead of relying on others to record their thoughts. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

So, if you decide to write a journal or make regular recordings, where would you start? Fortunately, there is already existing inspiration for that, thanks to The New York Times. The newspaper has offered scores of questions (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/learning/177-questions-to-inspire-writing-discussion-debate-and-reflection.html) to inspire this work. Here are several to get you started:

On the pandemic:

  • How concerned are you about the coronavirus outbreak?
  • How is it affecting your life?
  • How are you staying healthy and fit?
  • How can we help one another during the outbreak?
  • What weaknesses and strengths about our world are being exposed by this pandemic?
  • What have you learned about yourself during the lockdown?
  • Is the coronavirus pandemic bringing you and your family closer together?
  • How do you feel about going back to your workplace or your school? Is it stressful or are you happy to get out of the house?
  • What did you miss most about your school or workplace?
  • When the pandemic is over, what is something you’ll miss about telecommuting?
  • How will you remember the coronavirus pandemic?

On the presidential election:

  • What makes a great leader?
  • How do you decide what news to believe, what to question and what to dismiss?
  • Why is it important for people with different political beliefs to talk to each other?
  • Do you think that online conspiracy theories can be dangerous? Why?
  • What are your reactions to the impeachment inquiry and trial of President Trump?
  • What is your reaction to the outcome of the presidential primaries around the country?
  • Should we all be able to vote by mail?
  • What do you think about the two major party candidates for President?
  • What issues in the 2020 presidential race are most important to you?

On the American economy:

  • How has your family fared financially during 2020? Has anyone lost a job? If so, what financial help have you received?
  • Whom do you turn to during a crisis?
  • Is it immoral for stores to increase the price of goods during a crisis?
  • How do you decide what news to believe, what to question and what to dismiss?
  • What are some ways to travel without traveling during the pandemic?

On racism and killings of Blacks:

  • Is there systemic racism in your hometown? If so, is it evident in the way police act toward civilians?
  • How have you learned about slavery?
  • How much racism do you face in your daily life?
  • Have you ever encountered racist or extremist content online?
  • What grievances do you have with your local community?
  • What acts of kindness have you heard about or participated in during the pandemic?
  • Protests over racism and police tactics have preceded violence in some U.S. cities, including Portland and Seattle. Some say this is an ugly repudiation of the non-violence preached by peaceful protestors like the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Rep. John Lewis? What do you think?

If you decide to write a journal or record your observations on these and other questions, you may find that they are welcome at historical societies, as in Wisconsin. The Willamette Heritage Center in Salem is interested in the idea, but no commitment has been made.

You also may seek help from members of Personal Historians NW in writing books and making recordings of these histories. Just click on the Find Your Personal Historian link to get started.


John Hawkins

August, 2020

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