Selective Memory & History


Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson Above: Actors – Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer – Photo: AKM-GSI

In considering how power and difference shape an historical narrative – I believe selective memory plays a large role in how the two factors influence the documentation of history.
In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot speaks of a “story within a story”- which I view as a “dominate” narrative (usually controlled by a majority) that dictates what is written and taught as history.  This narrative is selective, in my opinion, because it is formed of partial truths documenting an incomplete history.

I recently saw the film Hidden Figures[1] about the African-American “computers” for NASA.  I walked away from the film wondering how such a story was not included in my early education of NASA and the U.S. space program.  Without these brilliant women, John Glen would not have successfully orbited the earth or safely returned home.  Yet, the contributions of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (and others) were basically “unremembered” in American history. I felt the same about the lesser-known story of a group of heroic enslaved Americans escaping to freedom from Cape Florida to the Bahamas in the 1820’s.[2]  In a mass flight, using 27 sloops and canoes, Bahamian natives helped 300 enslaved people escape enslavement and  settle on the island of Andros.

If I had been aware of the NASA “computers” and the Florida escape, these bold stories would have broadened my understanding of our early space program and American slave resistance.  However, works like Trouillot remind me that many “stories” (such as those noted) form a narrative – and all must be documented if I want to understand a complete history.

One thought on “Selective Memory & History”

  1. Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures, is coming to give a talk at Brown in March! More information is coming out in Morning Mail on Friday. Looking forward to hearing her talk about uncovering this important story and bringing it to the public’s attention. I’m curious too about the role of film in collective memory and how Hidden Figures fits into this.

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