Sins of the Past

At what point can a society or organization recover from its past mistakes and cease needing to dwell on and apologize for them, specifically within historical projects?

Historical projects, whether they be academic writings or public exhibits, can easily become bogged down in the “mandatory” treatment of topics that border or directly pertain to race, religion, gender, or sexuality, to name just a few. Nearly any Western European/American (including North, Central, and South, here) historical topic set in the 18th and 19th centuries must have the obligatory chapter discussing the horrors perpetrated against slaves and indigenous peoples, lest they be called out for ignoring or denying that such issues existed. Yes, it happened. It was the 1700s and 1800s. No, it wasn’t right. Now, what were you saying about missionaries again? Can we get back to the topic at hand?

Let me emphasize here: I do not condone silencing minority histories. I do not condone the actions taken that are now considered reprehensible. I simply am challenging at what point such issues become common knowledge and understanding, that we, as historians, can move past the mistakes of a society and organization and focus on the topic we wish to discuss.

This specifically came to me as I began Ebony and Ivy. I was immediately accosted with pages full of the demonization of white American culture during the early 1800s. I often had to step back and remind myself that the book actually intended to discuss how elite higher education was/is connected to racism and slavery. At the same time, for a different class, I am reading a book discussing the role of missionaries within a slave rebellion in Demarara (now Guyana) during 1823. The same social and cultural issues were discussed and acknowledged, but in a far less aggressive way and in one that pertained to the topic at hand.

Regarding public historical works, the line is far more gray. It is more difficult to discern what would be considered common knowledge among the public at large. However, the same issue can be even more pressing, what with limited space, funding, and attention spans: At what point can the sins of the past be understood as part of the cultural picture (albeit an ugly part) that makes up the world within which the topic inhabits? Being obligated to focus on well-known social issues that border, or even are ancillary to, the historical topic mandates extra space, cost, and time within the exhibit. The loss of any or all of these may do a disservice to the efficacy of the exhibit.

On a separate note, I am beginning to intimately understand the public historian’s struggle regarding communicating with the wider community: It is intensely difficult and stressful to express one’s own take on a situation, let alone a highly-charged historical issue, to a community in a way that will be understood and not taken as an affront. In fact, if one tries too hard to avoid raising the ire of the community, nothing ever gets said or done. If one does not, and the community is angered, very little also gets done, as the flow turns against the historian in question.

2 thoughts on “Sins of the Past

  1. I would love some clarification on this post! Are you saying that the “obligatory chapter discussing the horrors perpetrated against slaves and indigenous peoples” are a minor part of the overall history being discussed in certain historical narratives, such as “Ebony & Ivy”?

  2. Kristen, if I were to read your post in another way, I’d want to know what you think our historical narratives are lacking when they focus on the themes of power, hierarchies, and empire in early American history? What would the “space” as you say, be filled with otherwise? What are the “topics” you’d like to see discussed?

    The public historian’s most difficult task is creating a narrative that can speak to audiences where they are, anticipating wide-ranging knowledge of context, for example.

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