Burning It All Down

tags: historiography, culture war, Haitian Revolution, teaching history

L.D. Burnett received her PhD in Humanities (History of Ideas) from the University of Texas at Dallas (2015). Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is under contract with University of North Carolina Press. 

This week I read Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, first published with Beacon Press in 1995 and then reissued in 2015 with a new introduction by Hazel V. Carby.

In this brief and beautifully written study, Trouillot explores the relative absence of the Haitian Revolution in both scholarly and popular imaginings of the history of the Americas or the history of the West, the relative (and sometimes nearly complete) silence about the Haitian Revolution in accounts of the modern world, and shows how that silence was partly a result of deliberate suppression but more fundamentally a result of a social order that simply prevented (and still prevents) people from seeing certain things as possible in or as central to our stories about the past.

Throughout the work, Trouillot focuses on what he calls “historicity,” the “two sides of history”:  that which happened, and that which is said to have happened, and he emphasizes how people in history—all of us—are always shifting back and forth between these two aspects of the past, as agents and as narrators. Focused as he is on how certain events from the past are (not) remembered, Trouillot’s work could be regarded as a history of agency-through-narration.

Trouillot wrote this work in the wake of, and in the midst of, culture wars swirling around public reckonings with or portrayals of the past:  the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Bahamas, the Disney Corporation’s plan to build an American History-related theme park in Virginia that would somehow portray slavery “realistically” and be a fun family destination, debates about the “real” history of the Alamo and the heroism (or lack thereof) of Davy Crockett, battles over Smithsonian exhibits about the Enola Gay and the end of World War II in the Pacific, and controversies over a proposed national history curriculum.

Thus this meditation on the construction of the past is, for me, a construct from the past, a primary source for understanding where debates about “Western Civilization” stood circa the last decade of the 20th century.

In that regard, I found the following paragraph telling:

One will not castigate long-dead writers for using the words of their time or for not sharing ideological views that we now take for granted.  Lest accusations of political correctness trivialize the issue, let me emphasize that I am not suggesting that eighteenth-century men and women should have thought about the fundamental equality of humankind in the same way some of us do today.  On the contrary, I am arguing that they could not have done so. But I am also drawing a lesson from the understanding of this historical impossibility.  The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment.  The events that shook up Saint-Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in England had a conceptual frame of reference.  They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (p. 82, emphasis in original)

I find it telling that Trouillot felt it necessary to include a disclaimer or defense against charges of “political correctness” in this work, and I find it useful that he framed such accusations as a way of “trivializing” important historical arguments.  For that is exactly what such accusations were meant to do, in the same way that cries of “critical race theory” about anything and everything are meant to delegitimize and trivialize important scholarly insights today.

Read entire article at U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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