Book Review: Silencing the Past

"All hypens are not equal in the pot that does not melt." --Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Most Black people will tell you that being first is more of a nightmare than a pleasure. I vaguely remember starting to call the story of the United States the “dominant narrative” back in 2018, but I was stressed when I failed to hear it called such in other circles because I refused to believe that I was first. To me, the dominant narrative includes the capitalist cisheteropatriachy, which includes many more problems than even that complicated word holds, the main one being racism. To my delight, Raoul Peck produced a four-part miniseries called “Exterminate All the Brutes” that delves into the origins of racial violence against Black people throughout the diaspora–and I shouted out loud when Peck mentioned Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and the phrase “dominant narrative” because I finally found another person with the same understanding of history. At the end of a year involving people pretending that the dominant narrative can be solved by adhering to it, I decided that it was time to put this troubling phrase into context, and attempt to explain why a paradigm shift is the only way that anything about current society can change.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot was a Haitian anthropologist who taught at a number of prestigious universities, finally landing at Johns Hopkins; this book itself includes a forward by Hazel V. Carby, who serves at the director of the Initiative on Race, Gender, and Globalization at Yale University. He opens the book describing how he fell in love with the telling of history, which originally began as conversations about Haitian history between his father and uncle in Haiti. As he describes this fascination with these countless discussions, it dawned on me how repressed this type of conversation was in the United States. We are so discouraged from critically analyzing the world we live in that very few people scrutinize the present and past of leadership; indeed, so few people have the privilege of time to share analyses or to even notice how policies and behaviors have shaped their schedules. Fortunately, he discusses how institutions have a great hold on who is allowed to both tell history and whose histories are portrayed as accurate and legitimate, and he acknowledges his part in adhering to what he refers to as “guild standards.”

Trouillot discusses that most histories are managed on a spectrum of positivism and impiricism. Under impiricism, people are presented with facts that are collected to tell a particular story, and source material is the main focus, which can both give voice to and silence many people based on the story the author wants to tell. Positivism involves the telling of history without discussing the power being exercised, and this stance has dominated western accounts of history. To me, this is the main reason why racial justice is considered less of a necessity but more of an attention-seeking joke by those accepted within the dominant narrative, because if all harmful practices within the build environment have demonstrably racist tendencies, why did the people practicing refuse to change? “Naivete is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naivete is always a mistake,” states Trouillot. Thus, many people of color are bombarded with people reading books and “learning” rather than engaging in actions that will reduce the vulnerability of the objects of their fascination to cling to the idea that people are simply misunderstood. The idea of “privilege” is scary, because it implies that one is content with depriving another, and no one wants to recognize that aspect of United States culture. Trouillot emphasizes that context is the driver for most narratives, and several authors tend to exclude context in favor of asserting positivism.

The most important fact to remember about history is that it includes both the facts and the narrative, which is why people fight to control a narrative. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech is a perfect example of this because as a Black woman fighting against slavery, she was subject to the machinations of everyone around her, kept vulnerable by a system that kept her influencers comfortable. As a historian myself, I chose to do word searches to collect the history and that portion is done first, because in my mind, no narrative should be created without including any elements of facts, because that would simply be an essay. I understand that most of what I find involves pain and stress on a number of communities, which is why I make note of the moments of hope, even though there are precious few. The narrative I produce is from the perspective of a Black woman living in a majority white town with government experience on multiple levels, but there are many Black people whose narratives in the same town are completely different, especially since I grew up in the majority white portion of Austin, not the Black community. Despite my efforts, I am severely limited by the time it takes to secure resources, like university professors and other racial scholars.

Trouillot is particularly validating to those with few resources because his main point is that most historians are amateurs, and most of the silencing is done by those with something to lose, making impartiality impossible. Personally, I avoid the phrase “white supremacy” because too many people have been conditioned to rationalize pain against large groups of people, and even saying the word “white” evokes extreme defensiveness. However, one of the main traits of white supremacy is the idea that it is possible to be completely objective. To those arguing about math and science, I would counter that funding determines what math is legitimized and what science is explored, i.e. math to measure inequality and mental health sciences. Many historians, myself included, are forced to complete most of our work as the dominant narrative allows, and only recently has self publishing allowed more stories not to be stifled. Telling the mythology of the United States is infinitely more profitable, and most “professionals” with “experience” have gained their legitimacy by continuing to silence others. If we want to move forward as a nation and actually confront our history, we need to stop expecting “come together” to mean “silence those that challenge the dominant narrative.”

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