The Sound of Historical Silence. A Review of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s SILENCING THE PAST

In 2014, President Barack Obama declared March 31 to be Cesar Chavez Day, a federal commemorative holiday in remembrance of the work of activist and union organizer Cesar Chavez (1927–1993). Chavez is known for being the founder of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers Union, and for coining the phrase “Si se puede,” in English “Yes, we can,” also known as the presidential campaign slogan that helped Barack Obama become the 44th President of the United States.

But this is only half the story of Cesar Chavez’s life’s work. When he founded the National Farm Workers Association, he had a co-founder whom he worked with for the rest of his life. This co-founder was Dolores Huerta, who, in fact, was the one who coined the phrase “Si se puede,” as she pointed out to President Obama when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

As seen in the documentary that chronicles her life and work, Huerta was a controversial person. Although soft spoken, she was considered difficult, and was often treated as Chavez’s sidekick. Her determination, activism, and personal life broke all the perceived rules for how a woman should behave and what a woman should do with her life. Especially if she, as in Huerta’s case, was the divorced mother of eleven children.

Chavez died unexpectedly in 1993. At first, it was expected that Huerta would take over, but eventually she left the movement entirely. What happened after her exit was an erasure of her significance and her work. In the new narrative, Chavez became the sole founder and the rallying catch phrase “Si se puede” became his as well.

After the death of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta was written out of the history of her own movement. What happened to her is what Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls the creation of a historical silence. In his book Silencing the Past, Trouillot identifies four moments when historical silences are created. These moments are:

The moment of fact creation, which is when it is determined whether something that happened is significant enough to be considered a historical fact.

The moment of fact assembly, which is when the historical facts determined the most significant are collected and stored into archives.

The moment of fact retrieval, which is when something that happened becomes a story about what is believed to have happened.

The moment of retrospective significance, which is when a historian sits down and writes history based on the assembled facts while influenced by the narrative of those facts.

Important to keep in mind whenever we discuss anything that has to do with history is that history is not a universal force with its own mind nor does it have a will of its own. History is not headed in a particular direction. History is not an arc that bends towards a certain goal. History is not a judge. History is not a moral guide with a side that is either right or wrong.

Why? Because history is something that is made by people with agendas. With “made” I mean written. With “people” I mean historians and those who commission their work, whether it be educational institutions, museums, government organizations, or publishers. With “agendas” I mean the contexts of political power that define our interpretation of history, as well as the implicit and explicit biases, prejudices, and preconceived notions that all people carry within them depending on the kind of society that has shaped them and which affect how we interpret the world.

This is why Trouillot talks about the Haitian Revolution as a non-event in Western historiography. The Haitian Revolution is a historical fact. The Haitian Revolution exists in the archives. The narrative of the Haitian Revolution is either a fight for freedom of the enslaved population of the French colony of Saint Domingue (the Haitian narrative) or an illegal slave revolt that needed to be destroyed (the French, American, and British narrative).

Because history writing is connected to power, empires, and the nation state, and because the kind of history writing that has come to dominate the world is that of the West, the latter narrative prevailed over the former and the Haitian Revolution was excluded from the moment of retrospective significance. The Haitian Revolution was silenced. It became a non-event as far as history was concerned.

Similarly, the holidays we celebrate and the people we commemorate also create silences. By focusing on the creation of Columbus Day as a federal holiday, Trouillot demonstrates how an insignificant date became a federal day of celebration while silencing the deaths of millions. On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus reached what is today the Bahamas. Consequently, this day is considered the day the “New” World was “discovered.” But only in retrospect and several centuries after the fact. Columbus kept a journal during the voyage that he famously believed would take him to India. There is no entry for October 12 in that journal. What is more, news about the landing in the Bahamas didn’t reach Spain until 1493, at which time the impact was limited.

The celebration of Columbus Day has been made possible by the sanitizing of Christopher Columbus as a person and the silencing of what took place following the landing in the Bahamas. For us to be able to celebrate a person or an event, by necessity we need to look away from the negative aspects. This is true for Christopher Columbus, and it is true for Cesar Chavez.

Cesar Chavez was married to his wife Helen his entire life and had eight children with her, but he also had relations with other women. Chavez co-founded the union with Dolores Huerta, but he was a chauvinist who did not allow women in positions of power within the movement. Cesar Chavez Day is a celebration of Mexican-Americans, but Chavez and Huerta rose to national fame by organizing Filipino-American farm workers.

Every historical investigation involves setting boundaries or else the investigation will achieve nothing, no questions will ever be answered, no search for information will ever be complete. Consequently, to write history is to be complicit in the creation of historical silences.

Historians, then, seem to be in a bind. They are damned if they set boundaries for their investigation. They are damned if they don’t. So, how should they solve this conundrum?

Historians need to get down from their high horses where so many are still strapped. Historians sometimes come across as arrogant, and to a certain extent we are. We are trained to think that the way historians engage with the past is the only correct way, and because our way is the correct way, we are never wrong. When criticized, the weapon historians use in their defense is objectivity. But as Peter Novick has shown, objectivity in history can be utilized to hide prejudices and biases; it can even promote racism. Objectivity is what makes it possible for historians to create insidious historical silences while at the same time coming across as skilled scholars with integrity.

To combat the continued creation of these insidious historical silences, historians, as Priya Satia suggests in her book Time’s Monster, need to embrace the subversive side of history writing that is taking nation states, empires, and the historical profession itself to task. One way of doing this is for historians to move outside of their comfort zone to a greater degree than we are doing now. A great place to start is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.