". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Another Jeremiad -- Why History Matters

Without your history you are nobody. You are naked and alone, easy prey for whoever wishes to eat you. This is as true for a collective as it is for an individual. This is why the markers of a slave is no name, no language, no family, no nation, no religion, no culture -- not even clothing.

A slave is what in old English labeled a nithling, a nothing. A slave is only what the owner allows and the owner does not allow a slave a past, and therefore no future. A slave lives in the eternal present, waking or sleeping, moment-to-moment pinned to whatever the owner might demand or choose.

The first thing an invading people does is replace the conquered / colonized people's past with their own, the conquered / colonized people's language with their own, substituting their own culture for that of the people they are exploiting. No one has ever expressed the rage of that experience more coherently, more coldly, more powerfully than Jamaica Kinkaid, whose people, within the living memory of people she grew up among, were enslaved, whose history was doubly removed from her.

"Never again!" What does it mean that the survivors of the nazi WWII holocaust send that cry to heaven over and over again at this very moment? Why has museum after museum been erected for the history of the Holocaust, for the Jewish people? The nazis were determined to wipe them and their history off the face of the earth. It is that history among so many other terrible histories that have the best of us striving to keep that from happening again for the wages of such horror weigh upon the histories of those who are spared, whether Jewish or not. Our nation is paying for the weights of those sins and crimes every day, whether we were alive during such genocides or not.

Poland has been wiped off the map more than once, divided and eaten by others, her history, her language, even her very name uttered a crime punishable by death. Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay's brilliant Fantasy situated squarely inside terrible histories, brilliantly invokes this terrible thing, and makes of it a golden ring: we begin his narrative with an entire people and their home erased from history, from collective memory and individual memory throughout the world, making of that world a deformed, distorted exisitence for all -- and then -- by the heroic and sacrificial acts of so many, so various characters, that identity returns in a rush of memory.

Adopted children will spend their lives searching for where and from whom they came from, for without that knowledge they do not know who they are. A people begins with its collective history, created orally, via memory: the sagas, the epics, that are found among every people from Hawai'i to Homer. There are still cultures in which those who know these histories make up a professional class -- in ours we call them historians, but in Mali, for instance, they are griots -- you cannot choose to become a griot -- you have to be born into that professional class.

The belief that history is merely 'what is,' and doesn't have to have a purpose, are those for whom history is a series of pretty pictures and colorful events, to be plundered as seen fit for entertainment -- history as theme park, you might say, like Williamsburg used to be (it's been doing much more than that in the last decades). It is a vision of history popular, perhaps among non-historians and those who colonial mindset has never been challenged. Peoples who have been colonized, whose ancestors have been enslaved and thereby don't know where they came from, those who have suffered genocide see it quite otherwise.

Here endeth the second jeremiad in two days -- Or -- "O noooooooooz! Somebody iz rong on the innertubez! Quack, Gack, Argh!"

1 comment:

Foxessa said...

For an additional dimension regarding historical knowledge contining not only function but as action and effect and consequences, look at this:

Preservation of What?
by Kevin Levin on August 3, 2011
in Civil War Culture

"I taught, published, worked with fellow history teachers, and lectured long before I ever started blogging and if my access to all of the social media tools that I currently use were for some reason discontinued I would continue to do all those things. Social media has enhanced my public presence in numerous ways, but it is not a substitute. The work that makes a difference are those things that involve real people and involve organizing and getting things done."

Love, C.