The Hole in History’s Heart

I’ve spent my morning emailing people and putting things on my calendar and I have many people I want to email this post to, just because I want to hear their thoughts, but I think all y’all read here. So, instead, I’m linking to it right here.

I am, obviously, not a professional historian, but it seems to me that this approach to history, in which we openly ask questions whose answers have been either lost or deliberately kept from us and acknowledge the spaces caused by lack of knowledge really appeals to me.

The glossing over, the closing off of avenues, as if we already know or as if we can’t know, that’s a lie to me. I would rather, a million times over, that, for instance, Henry Brown had no occasion to watch his wife being sold away from him. I wish that were not true. And yet, I truly believe that the debt the living owe the dead is not to create a sanitized place in which Brown’s story is never told, where it is as if it did never happen, but to hear it and know it is true.

3 thoughts on “The Hole in History’s Heart

  1. I’m reading a book with my students that is infuriating them. In Ned Blackhawk’s *Violence over the Land*, Blackhawk is upfront about what he can’t know but must talk about. For example, when Utes sell Paiute captives in the slave market in Santa Fe, Blackhawk can’t know the day or time of the raid. He can’t know if the captives resisted or if they were sexually abused on the way. He can’t even say where their town of origin was. All he can say for sure is that even though the Spanish haven’t actually visited Paiute settlements yet, the Spanish demand for slaves and their brisk trade in guns and horses with the Utes means that there’s a tidal wave of colonial violence wiping out communities that he (and the rest of us) will never get to see because they’ll be destroyed before Europeans get around to recording them. And he can say for sure that the captives are mostly women and children. My students would prefer fake certainty, a confident totalizing voiceover that covers up everything he doesn’t and can’t know.

    Violence/trauma — uttering the unspeakable — might be the hardest thing to write, historically speaking. Emotions are historical too.

  2. You know, I sympathize with your students. I mean, I think at their age I wanted the same thing–tell me a story about the past I can live with. They’re wrong, of course, to want that. But I understand why they do.

  3. Not all the things that can’t be known are tragic. It does seem worse when having their stories remain unknown falls most heavily on the people history can otherwise erase anyway. But they are all frustrating. All those missing stories!

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