There’s a power to remembering our story
It’s funny how you can come across a writer or historic figure you’ve never heard of before and then see their name repeated – completely by chance – in a matter of days.
This explains my introduction to Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in the United States and whose book, My Bondage and My Freedom, was recently featured in the superb podcast series, History of Ideas.
Professor David Runciman highlights how Douglass became a leading activist and abolitionist in the mid-nineteenth century. Through his powerful oratory and writing, Douglass sought to answer three major questions:
- ‘Why am I a slave?’
- ‘Why are some people slaves and others, masters?’
- ‘Was there ever a time when this was not so?’
I haven’t yet read My Bondage and My Freedom, but I learnt from the History of Ideas podcast that Douglass concerned himself with addressing why this change in the human condition commenced, or in other words, why historically free men and women of different races entered fundamentally different social relations.
He couldn’t find any justifications for his and other black people’s social condition as slaves.
I feel relieved I’ve come across Douglass’s story.
Without it, my understanding of the abolitionist movement would still be impressionistic and incomplete. It would remain a partial understanding of abolitionism – the story constructed by influential but not entirely representative figures, for example William Wilberforce in Britain, and more simplistically, Abraham Lincoln in the United States.
Without Douglass’s story, I wouldn’t have heard one of the stories that matters the most: in Frederick Douglass’s case, the story of a former slave.
There’s a power to hearing stories when they’re told by men and women who face the highest stakes. The oppressed, the depressed, the dispossessed.
The site of memory
In her essay, The Site of Memory, Toni Morrison explained that the print origins (as opposed to oral histories) of black Americans’ autobiographies lies in ‘slave narratives’. She sees her own literary lineage dating back to these narratives.
They’re not often featured in school curricula, let alone regarded as important texts in the literary canon. But lest we forget, Morrison argues, these are book-length narratives – autobiographies, memoirs and recollections – that spoke of a historical and unjust condition. While they represent singular histories, they also represent the history of an entire people, a race.
If these stories hadn’t been voiced and shared (well over a hundred can be sourced), the abandonment of slavery arguably might have been even more challenging in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Our historical understanding of slaves’ lives – as told by slaves – would certainly be poorer now.
Among the texts Toni Morrison cites are Douglass’s work, and besides, there’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, in which Harriet Jacob (“Linda Brent”) records hiding for seven years in a room too small to stand up in.
Lamentably, many of these autobiographical accounts were ridiculed and critiqued at the time they were published.
Watering down our histories – writing them down
Frederick Douglass’s backers cautioned him that his powers of oratory could confuse otherwise sympathetic crowds. Douglass needed to sound less eloquent, these abolitionists argued, as his audiences might not believe such a seemingly cultured man could have once lived in conditions of serfdom.
Morrison rightly locates these stories in the canon, not just within her literary lineage, but in our shared collective consciousness about what slavery is and how black Americans have written with agency for centuries. Sadly, some memoirs are suppressed and rejected on account of who the memoirist is which leads me to my core points…
We mustn’t let our unique histories fade. We mustn’t resign ourselves to the fate that our stories don’t matter, or won’t get read, or that in times of social and political strife, they’ll inevitably face getting censored. All too often, the saying goes, history is written by the victors. Our accounts of our own lives might well face censure. But say we don’t first keep an account of our story – an oppressive history, say – then our stories will surely disappear as soon as our lives fade.
But storytelling is especially valuable when it has political and social properties, when it can teach us where we might be going wrong in society and how we might change. Unfortunately these lessons may only emerge after memoirists have been and gone, but at least the stories have been written. They’re cast in stone.
Stories that could be forgotten, and worse, ignored
Whose stories have been forgotten, or trivialised, or worse, ignored? Which stories represent inconvenient truths and have been suppressed? There’s too many to remember.
The Economist magazine recently ran a feature on the fascinating history of the ‘Reconstruction’, the social reforms that for all too brief a period in US history – during the 1860s and 1870s – sought to change not just the law, but also the culture of the former Confederate states. And what a surprising history the Reconstruction is!
After the 1867 elections, with president Andrew Johnson weakened, and Republicans holding a congressional majority, The Economist states that black mobilisation in the South started to get under way. Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman from Pennsylvania, saw the defeated Confederacy as conquered territory and was apparently not alone in believing “the whole fabric of southern society must be changed.”
The 14th amendment was passed, legally allowing black men to vote. Before the Jim Crow laws started to take their toxic effect, former Confederate states in the south elected over 2,000 black state and local officials and 185 black federal elected officials, including two senators from Mississippi. It’s remarkable, really. Louisiana’s first and still only black governor, P.B;S Pinchback, took office in 1872.
I didn’t know any of this, and what’s worse, neither do many Americans, (at least that’s the line of The Economist). They argue that “reconstruction tends to get less attention than other foundational periods in American history, such as the founding and the civil war.”
Reconstructing our past
The Economist continues: Reconstruction after the Civil War was “an attempt to create an enduring multiracial democracy, (but) it failed…” The lesson here? In forgetting key details of history – of any challenging period in history – lessons can get ignored and lost. We’ve all heard it said – societies who don’t learn from their past are condemned to repeat difficult moments.
In the case of the United States, as the Reconstruction receded, perhaps ordinary Americans either forgot, or conveniently fell out of love with the idea that the American Constitution conceived federal government as a guarantor of individual liberty.
Surely too many white people continued to misunderstand the Civil War was over. That black men and women were now legally entitled to be treated – were morally required, indeed – to be treated on equal terms.
Maybe it’s this unfortunate loss of memory, this inability to remember the past (or at least to heed its lessons), that explains the antipathy tens of millions still feel in the United States towards Congress and all those working inside the Washington DC ‘beltway’?
This loss of memory, the inability to remember earlier stories, causes such bad faith. Such extraordinary levels of continued injustice. Civic institutions, including the police, continue to show prejudice towards black citizens. And black lives continue to be lost.
Revisiting and preserving our past
In her essay Memory and Imagination, writer Patricia Hampl provocatively, but knowingly, asks ‘why write memoir?’ Why not just write fiction and put to rest all the hashing about with literary devices designed to make non-fiction ‘literary’ or ‘creative’? And why not just leave the facts of history to experts – leave the analysis of facts to historians?
Hampl answers, much like the bumper sticker famed in the US, ‘we must question authority’. Memoir can and must be written because each of us has our own created version of the past. We own it, no one else does, no matter how incoherent our history is.
Patricia Hampl goes on to say that only we – each of us as individuals – can seek to transform experience, however random and messy, into something with longer-term meaning and value. And in a nod to the political dimension of her and other memoirists’ argument on the social significance of their genre she argues that unless we own this past, someone else risks claiming it. Or worse, airbrushing it or erasing it altogether.
The struggle of memory
Hampl quotes Milan Kundera’s book ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting‘ in which a character of his states “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” How true this is, especially in relation to the Nazi Holocaust and other terrible genocides? Who is writing the story of the Uighur right now in North Western China?
Are the Uighurs able to record the terrible human rights abuses they face? Or is the People’s Republic of China airbrushing their story?
Hampl’s essay – pretty old now – cites another Czech author Csezlaw Mislowz, who on winning the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, pointed out in his lecture that the number of books denying the existence of the Nazi death camps exceeded (even then) one hundred different titles.
There are two recent developments I’d like to conclude with, seemingly incongruous. But both speak in their different ways to the insidious work of corrupt or ignorant politicians. Politicians and people with power who seek to distort history and rewrite other people’s – oppressed people’s – stories.
In a recent libel ruling, a high court in Poland ruled a pair of historians shouldn’t have published testimony from a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Poland. They were told to apologise for including a survivor’s testimony. The reasons stated were spuriously given thus: causing offence to another person. This person’s uncle was at the heart of allegations Poles had in some cases been complicit in Nazi terror against Jews. Read about this troubling legal precedent here.
Whose stories are we even allowed to tell anymore?
Who gets to decide which stories matter?
The slow and subtle distortions
I’d finally like to draw attention to a recent decision by the Tory Minister in England for Culture to invite top heritage organisations to a summit, so they can agree to a new plan for telling Britain’s history, without ‘doing Britain down’. He fears they have been rewriting Britain’s history. He believes aggressive and noisy minorities (he means Black Lives Matters) are undermining the unitary history he wants Britons to be told of Empire and Britain’s unique place in the world.
Oliver Dowden MP no doubt has his convictions that the wrong sorts of stories are being written about Britain’s colonial past. Charities such as The National Trust among others have been taking risks recently in terms of how they reflect on their past, and by extension, Britain’s wider history.
Bravo to the National Trust.
Who’s distorting the story, I’m left pondering after I hear about this peculiar summit?
Who’s rewriting history?
A good maxim for life, as indeed for all memoir writing, is: