Animating History

Hazel Carby’s Forward to Silencing the Past puts forth a pithy summary of Trouillot’s thinking: “What history is matters less to Trouillot than how history works.” This seems profound. It strikes me that most people who are invested in history (including historians, activists, and public humanists) do seek to better establish what history “is.” They (and we) work to “correct the historical record,” pluralize histories, raise counternarratives, and recenter people written out of dominant historical accounts. In other words, what generally emerges from efforts to challenge the power imbued in history is more history.

Trouillot has no illusions about how the public generally understands history (he points out that whatever scholars do, most people will continue to get their “history” from the movies). He also raises the point that people hoping to contribute “new knowledge” must always contend with “the power embedded in previous understandings.” (56) Giving his own account of the Haitian Revolution as an example, he notes that he “bowed to some rules, inherited from a history of uneven power, to ensure the accessibility of my narrative.”

I firmly stand by the importance of new histories, and the need to struggle within the terms, institutions, and mediums set forth by previous history-makers. I believe, for example, that the changes in United States historiography since women and scholars of color have populated the discipline have genuinely transformed the academy, as well as the students who move through it.

But I wonder, if we experiment with the premise that what history is matters less than “how history works,” what alternatives emerge? How does it change the way we teach, or curate, or make art if the aim is to treat history not as a subject, but as an actor?

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