When "America 1900" was first broadcast in 1998, Americans were eagerly anticipating the dawn of the twenty first century in much the same way that their ancestors awaited the dawn of the twentieth. But just as most Americans in 1900 could not have anticipated events like the Galveston Hurricane, the Boxer Rebellion or the assassination of President McKinley, neither could any of us living in 2017 have foreseen events like September 11, the Great Recession, or the election of Donald Trump.
In that sense, "America 1900" not only provides an excellent overview of the defining events of America's "last" year of the nineteenth century, it also offers a powerful lesson for our own times. Changes that we today may view as inevitable were not so apparent to those living before those events had occurred. Controversies that we may view today as "breaking news" were developing long before they became the latest headlines on CNN or the newest hashtags on Twitter. And change - whether it be political, economic, social, or technological - was viewed with the same mixture of awe and dread in 1900 as it is in 2017.
At a time when events seem to be overwhelming, when people can no longer even agree on what is "real" or "fake" news, and when the world seems like it's heading towards a darker future, it's comforting to remember a time when Americans could face the future with confidence rather than with fear, with hope rather than with despair. For despite all of the glaring issues and heartbreaking tragedies that occurred in 1900, most Americans remained optimistic about the future.
This is not one of the easier episodes of the American Experience to locate, and that is a shame. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to hear the kinds of stories told in documentaries like "America 1900," stories that do not shy away from telling painful truths about our history but stories that also remind us of our collective journey through a complex and uncertain world.
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