The Fruit of PowerBreaking News
tags: colonialism, documentaries, genocide, Native American history, Raoul Peck, Indigenous history
“HISTORY IS THE FRUIT OF POWER.” This is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s version of the well-known adage, “History is written by the victor,” taken from his book Silencing the Past. I prefer Trouillot’s version. It reminds me of “Strange Fruit,” that poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish Communist schoolteacher from the Bronx, later sung by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, then later still sampled by Kanye West. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit” it begins, “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze.” Here is one history of the United States, white power’s bitter harvest.
“Der Sieger wird immer der Richter und der Besiegte stets der Angeklagte sein,” said Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg trials. The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused. Yet another reason to prefer Trouillot: his formulation cannot be weaponized by perpetrators as a means of absolution. Whatever strange fruit grew out of the Nazi regime, it was their power that fertilized it. Trouillot and Meeropol remind us that the world is foremost a natural place, polluted and perverted only by the way in which we choose to nourish it: with blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
To say that history is written by the victor is to say that history is entirely constructed—another narrative, another myth, another falsehood. In Silencing the Past, Trouillot probes this problematic: “But how much can we reduce what happened to what is said to have happened? . . . If meaning is totally severed from a referent ‘out there,’ if there is no cognitive purpose, nothing to be proved or disproved, what then is the point of the story?” The inverse, of course, is equally troublesome—to rely only on evidence or testimony or referents is to rely on a material reality that, with time or nooses or napalm, can be destroyed. The Nazis knew this well, attempting to demolish the sites of their sins as they fled. In this way, the most successful genocide is the one we know nothing about, the one enacted against a people who are now culturally, aesthetically, and literally extinct. Trouillot often refers to this historical lack as a “silence,” though power, he argues, can be equally difficult to locate: “The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”
Raoul Peck quotes Trouillot extensively in his new film, Exterminate All the Brutes. Silencing the Past is one of three books that form the collaborative foundation of Peck’s four-hour, four-part docuseries, released by HBO—the others being Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States and the Sven Lindqvist book from which the film takes its name. He refers to all three authors as friends, and even mourns Lindqvist’s passing midway through the film. Through these texts, Peck takes up Trouillot’s challenge of exposing silences embedded in the many historical threads that make up our world. Foremost, this means revisiting the history of “civilization, colonization, and extermination” that has defined human behavior for the past several hundred years—taking us from Europe’s mid-millennium naval domination to our current military industrial complex, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust.
Peck occupies a unique place in contemporary filmmaking, one that makes him particularly well-suited to a project as ambitious as this—essentially aiming to unspool Western history through fiction, documentary, home movies, animation, personal testimony, and myriad other tools. His most recent film, The Young Karl Marx, took a tender look at the relationship between Marx and Engels. Prior to that, he made I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary drawing from the life and work of James Baldwin (once a student of Meeropol’s at DeWitt Clinton High School). Earlier works concern despots and revolutionaries—1993’s The Man by the Shore tells the story of a family living under the Duvalier regime in Haiti, which Peck’s family fled when he was just a boy. He traveled to Africa, attended film school in Berlin, and would later return to Haiti, becoming minister of culture in 1996.
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