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.

The War that Showed Us How an Underdog Can Beat the Russian Army, Or My Latest for The Daily Beast about the War in Ukraine

It’s been a while since last time, but this weekend I had another piece published by The Daily Beast. This time I wrote about The Winter War, which was fought between Finland and the Soviet Union from November 1939 to March 1940. The Winter War was a war of aggression where the Soviet Union attacked Finland with the intention of occupying territory and installing a puppet government.

Outside of the Nordic countries, The Winter War is pretty much an unknown conflict, but it is important to know about it because of the parallels to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Not only has Putin used the same fictional reasons for war as Josef Stalin, the Ukrainians’ fight to repel the Russians share similarities with how the Finns managed to fight off the Red Army.

To read the article in its entirety, please click here.

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

Photo by Baptiste Valthier on Pexels.com

Sarah Maza, THINKING ABOUT HISTORY, or History as Slime Toy.

Consider the slime toy. It is obviously an entity, a thing, right in front of you there it is. But as soon as you try and grab it, it slips out of your hand. Try and describe it–or worse, explain it–and you quickly run out of words. Or perhaps you find yourself forced to use too many words, and in the end you stop talking out of exasperation with yourself and the thing you are trying to define.

History is like a slime toy. They are both functioning contradictions. A slime toy is solid and liquid. It is slippery and dry. It is pleasant and unpleasant. Meanwhile, history is the past and the study of that past. It is a story and the creation of that story. It is a science and a liberal art. It is an artifact and a text. It is concrete and abstract. It is physical and ephemeral. It is popular and esoteric. It is the pursuit of the amateur and the expert.

Because of its amorphous nature, everyone has an opinion on history, and everyone thinks they can teach and write history. However, if we take a closer look at what history is–if we try and investigate that slime toy before it slips out of our hand–we will soon discover that history is a complicated thing with a long and complicated history of its own.

In her excellent book Thinking about History (The Chicago University Press, 2017), Sarah Maza, professor of history at Northwestern University, addresses the issues of the amorphousness of history and how that came to be. Divided into six chapters, Thinking about History discusses the who, what, where, and how of history production, as well as the-chicken-and-the-egg debate of historical causes and meanings, and the rise and fall of historical objectivity. The book is a fresh take on the history of history (historiography) that successfully breaks down the inherent Eurocentrism of the field. In doing so, it demonstrates how the parameters set up for what history is and should be are inherently northern European, Protestant, patriarchal, and imperialist, which still to this day actively disqualifies the histories of societies considered outside of the so-called “West” and groups considered not part of the mainstream.

Historiography might seem like a niche subject, but it is at the core of the polarization that we see in society today. At the heart of the so-called culture wars is a fight over history: who gets to write history; who should be included in that history; and what should that history be about.

As Maza demonstrates in her book, historians themselves have a lot to answer for in this mess. It is because of the biases, prejudices, and performative objectivity of historians in the past that we have ended up where we are. But, at the same time, it is also made clear that the key to solving the problem of polarization lies with the culprits.

In her conclusion, Maza states that for “the past to serve its best purpose we must not freeze it in place, we must argue about it” because history “becomes useless or boring at best, and dangerous at worst, when it jells into consensual orthodoxy of any sort.” Even though history studies the past, it does so in response to the needs of the present-day, and as such, history is one of the most important subjects we can study.

For history to be able to address the issues of today, we historians need to learn about our own sordid history. A very good place to start is with Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History.

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

Review of Priya Satia’s TIME’S MONSTER. HOW HISTORY MAKES HISTORY.

The more I learn about the human activities in the past we choose to label as history, the more interested I become in the epistemology and historiography of history as an academic field of study. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how knowledge is created, or How We Know What We Know and Why This Is What We Think We Know. Historiography is a term that carries two meanings. It means the study of the history that has been published by historians and the history of history. I find both the epistemology and the historiography of history endlessly fascinating. How It’s Made: History Edition.

My fascination for how history is made is why I am happy to have been able to publish my second book review for the International Network for the Theory of History, an international community of scholars and web hosted by the University of Ghent in Belgium. This time I have reviewed TIME’S MONSTER. HOW HISTORY MAKES HISTORY (Belknap Press, 2020) by Priya Satia, Professor of History at Stanford University. In her book, Satia takes a closer look at how British historians were complicit in rationalizing and making legitimate the actions of the British Empire, particularly in India.

To read my review in full, please click here.

Enjoy!

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

History Judges But Who Is Presiding Part 2: Joan Wallach Scott’s ON THE JUDGMENT OF HISTORY

In 2014, I wrote a post here on The Boomerang about a phrase I kept hearing and which puzzled me, “History will judge…” Pundits and politicians alike were throwing this phrase around as if there in the future existed a panel of historians expected to pass judgment on humanity based on our actions (or in-actions).

Since I wrote that blog post six years ago, this phrase has come into even heavier rotation as chaos and morally ambiguous behavior became the norm on behalf of members of our executive branch, and, to some extent, our legislative branch as well.

I am not alone in thinking about the use of this phrase. Historian and Professor Emerita Joan Wallach Scott became puzzled by it in 2019 when a friend of hers commented on the anti-climax of the Mueller Report by saying that history would judge those who worked to corrupt the democracy of the United States.

This exchange sent Wallach Scott on an investigative journey to find the origins and the meaning of the concept of history as an agent of judgment. The result of that journey is the book, On the Judgment of History (Columbia University Press, 2020).

To investigate the meaning of this concept, Wallach Scott presents three case studies–the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following the dismantling of Apartheid, and the movement for Reparations in the United States. What binds these case studies together is that they “explore the different ways in which the idea of the state as the embodiment and enactment of history operated.” (p. xx). Moreover, they engage directly with the nation state as the telos of history; they highlight the connection between nation states and racism; and they demonstrate the use of the nation state as the impetus for what the people involved intend to achieve. In the case of the Nuremberg trials, the goal is the conviction of the war criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust. In the case of South Africa’s TRC, a path forward out of Apartheid. In the case of the Reparations Movement, a reckoning with the United States’ original sin, slavery.

The case studies are based on extensive and impeccable research, as would be expected of a historian of Wallach Scott’s caliber. It raises several important questions, explicitly (“Could the nation state exist without racism at its core?” (p. xxii)) and implicitly (What is the purpose of history?) In her case studies, Wallach Scott demonstrates how history has been utilized (Nuremberg), deferred (South Africa), and challenged (the US). In the end, however, the case studies only partially succeed in addressing the issue at hand, namely why we today refer to history as an impartial, moral judge.

Wallach Scott shows us where the idea of History as Judge comes from by stating that it “is associated with the Enlightenment belief that there is but one History, which moves in an ever-improving direction: forward, upward, cumulatively positive.” (p. xv) Because of its origins in the Enlightenment, this One History of forward-moving positivity is inherently European, male, white, colonial, Christian (Protestant, to be exact), intrinsically intertwined with the development of the nation state, and the view of the nation state as the culmination of human civilization (or the nation state as telos).

To answer the question of why this phrase has caught on the way it has, Wallach Scott states that in an increasingly secular age, History has become the “righteous Judge of the Universe.” (p. 76) That is to say, where people used to turn to God on Judgment Day for the separation of sheep and goats, we now turn to History in a future deferred.

These conclusions have led me to the following conclusions of my own.

First, as Wallach Scott concludes, the idea of History as a moral judge is an expression of increased secularism in the United States. But, it is also an expression of the normalization of Apocalyptic Christianity in the American mainstream. Writes Wallach Scott, “The unveiling of the role of race in the economic history of the United States explodes long-standing, congratulatory progressive histories as myth. [—] This acknowledgment is a form of restitution and it opens the possibility for reclaiming the lost promise of justice, the messianic hope of the judgment of history.” (My italics.) Wallach Scott’s decision not to delve deeper into this view of history is the book’s lost opportunity.

Second, there is a conspiracy at the heart of American history and the argument over what that conspiracy is, is the reason for the seemingly irreconcilable polarization in American society today. I agree with Wallach Scott’s conclusion that “appeals to the judgment of history […] function more as consolatory polemic in the present than as evidence of deep confidence in the future.” (p. 82) There is no doubt that American society is in crisis. Until we can start having a constructive conversation about the buried secrets of our past, we will continue to be a society in crisis. History will not save us, because, as Wallach Scott also states, History with a capital H is written by a group of highly trained and specialized professionals known as historians. It is not a force of its own.

Finally, the idea of History as a Moral Judge of Good and Evil is an American idea and based on American values, which in the mainstream are Christian (Protestant, to be exact) values. Of the three case studies that Wallach Scott presents, two use history to pass judgment and one does not. It is not a coincidence that the two in question (Nuremberg, Reparations) involve Americans in leading roles. The third (the TRC) was an internal South African affair. As a historian trained and educated entirely outside of the American educational system, I reacted to the use of the phrase “History will judge” already in 2014 because the idea that such a notion is even possible was (and is) completely alien to me.

On the Judgment of History by Joan Wallach Scott is a thought-provoking book that opens up for discussion on the role of history and what history is and can be. Ultimately, the book misses its mark because in its choice of case studies, it becomes a demonstration of the belief that the internal concerns of the United States are also the concerns of the world.

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