Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History
At a time when educational “reformers” push to reduce not only the sciences, but also the humanities towards quantifiable, or more accurately testable, quanta of knowledge, the study of historical production is an increasingly important counter-balance to ideological efforts to constrain and sanitize historical knowledge. These reductions, far from just a banal attempt to analyze student performance, are part of the process of historical production themselves, playing out in school boards across the United States. Recent reactionary consternation to the revamping of the AP History curriculum demonstrates the jejune nature of the well-worn aphorism, history is written by the victors.
In Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot encourages us to unmask this aphorism to interrogate a number of productive forces. Far from the victors, as modern school boards and states have shown, history is written by the living for reasons so often disconnected and distantly related to the event. From the act of labeling—did Columbus “discover” or “encounter”—to establishing the importance of the event—was the landing important to those living in 1492—Trouillot focuses the reader on the many considerations involved in the construction of historical narratives. From Columbus’s journey through the Haitian Revolution and the Alamo to the Holocaust, he uses these historical events to push the reader to recognize historical actors who, removed from the events they narrated, gave life to historical lore in ways and for reasons that so often served themselves and the present.
Silencing the Past is an encompassing examination of these productive forces backdropped mainly by the Haitian Revolution. Trouillot strikes an impressive middle-ground between an academic text, useful and piquant for those who already have a passing familiarity with postmodernism and ideas of historical construction, and an evocative read for a lay audience, who at most would need a cursory Google search over a few theoretical concepts of which they might be unfamiliar.