Downplaying and romanticizing of history
Evident in works of fiction like "Gone With the Winds"
Distortion of History
History is sometimes distorted to serve certain goals and interests
An example is the Turkish authorities' denial of the Armenian genocide
This is an abuse of human rights to memory and dignity
Critical history attempts to recast distorted history
Including overlooked history like The Moors' is the main objective of critical history
Foucault theorized the idea of critical history
It is important for people to understand history
Critical history gives people the hope of saving both the present and the future.
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Winds remains a most celebrated epic story. Categorized as a historical novel, the book is truly a beauty to read. However, the book has been accused of what many see as its effort to play down slavery in the South before the Civil War; even romanticizing the institution. This is evident in the relationship between the O’Haras, particularly Scarlett- the protagonist- and her mother, and the black maid, who is merely known as Mammy. The story tries to imply that Mammy- and perhaps other black maids for that matter- were all too happy to be servants to the white households, something they did without any qualms whatsoever. But most importantly, that the black maids- and all blacks for that matter- were treated with respect and love, treated like all other humans. But this latter notion is utterly dismissed by the fact that the black cast in the movie adaptation of the book was not allowed to attend the premiere. In the end, though, for all these reservations with the story of Margaret Mitchell, it is saved by the simple fact that it was fiction. Mitchell’s distortion of the truth is forgivable.
Distortion of History
Unfortunately, that which has been considered factual history has many times been found to be anything but. Several ‘returns' to the past, to comb with a fine comb the events as they happened, have revealed that history may not necessarily be the truth; that the stories we have come to know may have been distorted to serve certain goals and interests. In other words, in every historical story, there is an underlying risk of what Logan- in her exploration of the both conscious and unconscious attempts to distort history by First Nations- refers to as perverse and sometimes insidious overlooking of “portions of a historical narrative in favor of a dominant narrative” (150), characterized by erasure, omission or willful blindness. Former colonialists, for instance, would like to downplay the actual cost of their adventures in other parts of the world, perhaps because then they are more comfortable with themselves (Logan 150).
These can hide in plain sight, and can be hard to pick out. In time, these erasures and omissions become functions of the state, so that they become less discernible. Unlike Margaret Mitchell’s story, this kind of distortion is unforgivable and needs correction. History, as many have noted, often influences the future in ways we may not know. Logan (149), for instance, notes that the inclusion and exclusion of written history in the public memory institutions are not only influenced by but also (themselves) have an influence over people's national identity.
The Turkish authorities to this day deny the Armenian genocide that occurred between 1915 and 1923, and the government has over the years taken more and more control over both journalistic and scholarly reporting. In fact, the Turkish government uses the law to restrict such reporting. In the same respect, the Canadian government seems to have a tight leash on the extent to which the story of the indigenous people is told in the public sphere, including the content of such telling. These are efforts to have control over not just the stories, but also the memories of the people. These examples show the key player in the effort to suppress history; the state. These are cases of what Logan refers to as “enforced amnesia” (151).
As these examples show, the erasure of history seems to be an intentional move by- as mentioned above- the state, or other forms of authorities. States seek to control the stories about past events, and in so doing, control the public’s version of memory.
There is much at stake here, especially people's "human right to memory" (Logan 151). Besides, as Logan (150) asserts, even as the state- or other form of authority for that matter- controls what the public or other stakeholders know, the victim- i.e. the people whose stories is told- remain part and parcel of the events, albeit passive and in the receiving end, i.e. forced into victimhood. Logan (151) argues that this has to do with not only justice but also sociocultural rights. Besides, Logan (151) asserts, when events are swept aside into oblivion, it is inherently unjust. This is what brings this issue into the sphere of human rights. Indeed, there is an abuse of human rights to memory and dignity etc. in a history of Canada without the inclusion of the colonial genocide; a history of the Turkey that leaves out the Armenian genocide; a history of Southern Europe civilization that fails to give any credit whatsoever to the Moors’ part in it. Indigenous people have the right to take control of their own lives, including how to practice their culture. Indeed, it is unfortunate for the future to be based on a past that never was.
Logan’s account intersects with the accounts of other scholars. Joan Scott, for instance, tells of such attempts in her article, History as Critique. As a result of this evident attempt to distort history for the purpose of other factors other than the truth, critical history has since emerged. Scott explores this in her article, History-Writing as Critique. She starts with a quote of F. Nietzche’s words, “The genuine historian must have the strength to recast the well known into something never heard before”. The implication may be that ‘genuine’ history involves suspending belief of what is general known and accepted as the truth, asking questions and taking a new and objective look at the truth; involving “a recourse to scientific models of investigation to eliminate subjective assessments and replace them with solid facts” (Scott 20).
In the January edition of the New African magazine, Baffour Ankomah continues the story of how- from as early as the 9th century, and until the twilight of the 15th century- the Moors from North Africa civilized Southern Europe, having influence in sciences, including medicine, among others- influences that are still felt today. The Moors' contribution remains largely hidden in history, to the point that it is invisible except for those who have stumbled on it in the process of ‘digging' for the truth. Ankomah quotes Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, a historian, and writer, who says, “ when there is a perceived attempt, conscious and unconscious, persevered in relentlessly over the centuries, to minimize and exclude the contribution of people of a certain race, then an emphasis upon those invisible people in history becomes the duty, a mission, a necessary corrective” (65).
According to Scott (26), it was Michael Foucault who theorized the idea of critical history- under the name of ‘genealogy’- and operationalized it, i.e. demonstrated how it should be conducted. Foucault was an aberration when he shifted from the hitherto use of criticism to search for formal structures
Scott (23) seeks to clarify what critical history actually entails by making clear what she means by the term ‘critique’. First, she makes the distinction between critique and criticism- being that many seem to assume the two are synonymous. In doing so, she brings critical history into the realm of philosophy. Particularly, citing Barbara Johnson’s definition of the term critique, she makes it clear that critical history does not seek to examine the flaws and imperfections of stories of the past, and that it does not aim to make the system better. Rather, critique seeks to find out the possibilities. In this regard, the plan is not to replace the prevailing story per se, but to open up new avenues for considering the story.
Using the example of the Moors’ influence in Southern Europe, for instance, Scott seems to imply that the plan is not to take away anything from the Southern Europeans. However, to ignore keep away the influence of the Moors among the Southern Europeans is to hold back what people need to know.
There is the need for a strong lobbying for critical history, for the restoration of history. The question then follows: who is there to help? Besides, if historians are going to ‘correct’ history, then they must have credible sources of information for that correction to be valid. According to Logan (150), the victims of such distortions of history need not be passive. The role of the victims, who are also survivors, remains if only it can be leveraged positively. Logan argues for a certain timeless resilience of survivors; a power in the survivors’ testimonies that has the potential to “fuel advocacy and lobbying for memory and remembrance” (150). This force alone can be a vital source of drive for critical history. But it would help greatly if public institutions supported such endeavors, such as through policies that protect the need for the victims to tell and share the stories.
Whatever theoretical one chooses in their approach to critical history- for instance, Scott favors poststructuralism and Foucault referred to his approach as genealogy- the main goal is to provide a better framework to re-examine and understand the past. Such framework does not aim to criticize what already is, but to adopt a philosophical approach to reviewing stories already told, thereby deciding what does not fit and filling in gaps.
This is the central reason it is important to study critical history. Such study helps one to see the sense in such a discipline, and how best to conduct critical history in practice. It is important that people understand the world for truly what it is or what it was- however difficult such an endeavor may be- for to fail to do that is to risk a false future. Besides, as the saying goes, people who forget their past face the risk of losing their future, too. Critical history gives people the hope of saving both the present and the future.
Ankomah, Baffour. The Moorish Empire: When Africa Civilised Europe (Part III), New
African, Jan. 2016. Web, 30 January 2016
Logan, Tricia E. Memory, Erasure, and National Myth, in Alexander Laban Hinton,
Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America. Duke University Press, 2014. Print.
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Winds, New York: Avon Books, 1936. Print.
Scott, Joan W. History-Writing as Critique, in Keith Jenkins, Sue Morgan & Alun
Munslow (Eds.), Manifestos for History, London & New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.