Past and Prologue

By Kathleen Vail

Christopher Columbus: the man who discovered the New World, or the perpetrator of genocide?

Thomas Jefferson: a Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence, or a slaveholder whose notion of liberty didn't extend beyond white male landowners?

John F. Kennedy: a visionary political leader who inspired a generation to idealism and social action, or a serial philanderer whose recklessness endangered the country?

Most people can see there's truth in both statements about these historic icons. We understand that Columbus, Jefferson, and Kennedy were human -- complex, contradictory, and flawed like rest of us.

But what if the only thing you learned about Columbus in school was that his arrival was disastrous for the natives of North and Central America? What if all you knew about Jefferson was that he apparently fathered children by one of his slaves, yet did not free them after his death? What if you heard only how the United States failed to live up to its ideals as a democracy? How would your view of the world and the role of the United States be shaped? 

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