Excerpted from a lecture I gave at Berea College (what a charming campus) in winter 2013: The Carter G. Woodson Memorial Lecture.
The realm of the past, the terrain of history, is a mysterious place. It is not here, but there – off in the hazy distance of time. History is unrecoverable in its fullness. We cannot ever really know what happened back then. We can only grasp the shape of the past by looking for traces left behind by the people who came before us, our ancestors, our ancestors relations, and our ancestors’ adversaries – written documents that have been preserved, oral stories that have been told, buildings and objects that have been restored, still images and photographs. Carl Becker, a Cornel historian who thought deeply about the purpose of doing history, wrote in 1932: “the greater part of these events we can know nothing about, not even that they occurred; many of them we can only know imperfectly; and even the few events that we think we know for sure we can never be absolutely certain of, since we can never revive them, never observe or test them directly. The event itself once occurred, but as an actual event it has disappeared” (“Everyman,” 221). Continue reading