The Terrain of History

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).

As challenging as it is to access history in a general sense, it is even more difficult to reconstruct the history of oppressed groups – people of color, poor people, women, sexual minorities, people with disabilities.  For many members of these populations hailed from oral cultures or were not fully literate due to a lack of educational access. Their ability to create their own accounts of events in their lives was therefore limited. Neither were they the primary focus of official record keepers (such as government representatives) or historians. When records were kept about people of color, poor people, and other disadvantaged groups, those documents were most often created to count members of these groups, to keep an account of them, to mark them as different, to identify them as people to be controlled or deserving of sub-standard treatment. A primary example is the category of document called the Slave Schedule –a list of slaves kept by a plantation owner for financial and bookkeeping purposes. Another example might be the US Government censuses of American Indians – The Dawes Rolls created in the late 1880s-90s to count native people, subdivide their common lands, and identify any “excess” lands for sale to Euro-American settlers. Another example might be the employee records of a wealthy company that dominates a small mining town. People in power created or preserved the vast majority of documents that are available for historical analysis. These records can only offer biased accounts of the lives of oppressed people, accounts propelled by the needs and desires of those who have significant power over others.

My own research focuses on relations between African Americans and Native Americans – two subjugated groups whose traces from the past are even more limited than most for the reasons that I have stated above, and also for the reason that study of blacks and Indians, when it has occurred, has focused on their relations with white people rather than with one another. Looking for information about a single oppressed group is challenging enough; looking for information about more than one such group and their links to one another raises the bar of historical investigation even further.

Despite the fact that histories of subjugated groups are difficult to piece together, it is a task that we must take up, a calling that we must answer. For knowledge of the past is a necessary aspect of our lives. History shapes our identity as persons, communities, nations, and as members of a vast, global society. History is to the group what memory is to the individual. To quote Carl Becker once again: “Without historical knowledge, this memory of things said and done, [a person’s] today would be aimless and his to-morrow without significance” (223). I will add to Becker’s observation that knowledge of history lengthens and links up the span of our human experience, multiplying the timeline of our individual lives by connecting that timeline to the lives of those who have gone before us. As African studies scholar and reparations advocate Randall Robinson has put it: history-making and other memory traditions are “essential to the health of any people’s spirit. They are givers of collective self-worth, cheaters of morality, binding frail, short lives in a people’s epic cumulative achievement” (The Debt, 15). By studying history we can discover the dignity, bravery, and creativity of our ancestors and cultural forebears — those who survived against the odds and laid a pathway for us to follow.

 

One thought on “The Terrain of History

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