Todd Shepard, 38
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Temple University, from Fall 2005;
It was"theory"-signifiers, signifieds, fractured subjects, discourses, and the like-that led me to study history. The ways that historians used evidence--the"texts" they cobbled together, often with archivists' help-- seemed to me ideal terrain on which to grapple with the big debates about universalism, difference, disjuncture, and identity that drew me to graduate school. When I began working on the Algerian Revolution as a"French revolution," I quite quickly saw that here was a topic that would allow me to keep thinking about questions that mattered. (Let me note that it also meant that, rather than trekking from American archive to American archive, as I had planned, I eventually would be able to do my research in Paris.) All this to say that, while I knew and appreciated France, I did not begin graduate studies obsessed with its past, the glorious and ignominious episodes, or its famous or unknown men and women.
I soon realized that my choice of topic was quite timely: the French government has a"thirty-year rule" for opening up most official archives and, since the war had ended in 1962, the years when I began graduate school saw many new sources become available. French commentators also invoke a"thirty-year rule" that governs public discussion of unseemly events from the French past (think Vichy, for example); the intensity of the last decade of debates in France about the Algerian War comforts this claim. This meant that I not only had access to great sources, but I was studying them in a context when a lot of people-politicians, talking heads, as well as taxi-drivers and new friends-thought that knowing more about what had been once been minimized as"the events in Algeria" was important.
I had decided, however, that I didn't want to talk too much about what I was discovering. On the one hand, I was not so keen on studying"memory," an approach that dominated work on the Algerian War in France and in the U. S., so I thought that sticking close to my sources required not getting distracted by what people now thought about what happened then. On the other hand, I was going to explore this topic not just because everyone was talking about it, but because the evidence would make clear how the methodologies I had learned (from mentors like Bonnie G. Smith, Joan W. Scott, and Henry Abelove) could reveal things about the past that those who claimed to find truth in the archives had missed. I was sure that the text that emerged from the archives had things to say beyond rendering a primary source verdict on the debates that had wracked the French body politic during the late 1950s and 1960s, such as torture and terrorism, and had reemerged in late '90s/early 21st-century France.
Yet what eventually allowed me to make sense of much of the evidence I had seen, what made me feel I could, was encountering people who cared deeply and personally about the war among French and Algerians, one in particular. I don't know the name of the woman I talked to at a bar in Paris one weekend afternoon. She was in her 60s, it was summer 2000, the bar was mainly gay, and the young men she had come with struck up a conversation with my friends and I. When I made some mention of my line of work, she started talking about her memories of Algeria, a place she had last seen in 1962. One of the reasons I avoided talking to people in France about my work was that"pieds noirs," a name given to the European settlers who had left Algeria in 1962, had a reputation as particularly racist, somewhat like certain stereotypes of white Southerners. My sources, however, suggested that the settlers, for a brief moment, had embraced an anti-racist politics to explain why Algeria should remain part of France; this went against common sense, and I wanted to think about what I'd found without having the pieds noirs of today ruining it.
This woman told a story I still ponder, not because it was representative or even necessarily accurate, but because it allowed me to take the risk of writing about what the sources suggested. She said that the last months of French Algeria were the most intense moments of her life, when she and her friends had been convinced that a revolution they were part of was changing Algeria and that nothing would be the same as before---except that it would remain French. They had been wrong; one acquaintance had been executed for terrorism; she had never discussed what she had experienced with anyone who hadn't been there, including her husband and children… until our conversation. The lesson she took from her story was that getting caught up in trying to change the world was the best thing one could do; she hoped that French and Algerian young people would continue to think that things could change for the better. This was certainly not the whole story. It can't be easily reconciled with the accounts of women and men who recount their opposition to the war, or who tell of the suffering and disdain they, like so many Algerians, endured under colonialism. There was a lot going on.
I still like my history driven by abstract discussions and fixated on sources. I, however, am now far more aware that finding a starting point, a narrative, that also speaks to people who care about the history at hand, can start new conversations. These, I hope, do something besides reassuring people that they were right, that their memories are the whole story.
By Todd Shepard
About Todd Shepard
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