Posts Tagged ‘History’

It’s a slight cliche to argue that history is written by the winners, but unfortunately it’s true. Admittedly the phrase does imply somewhat more of a martial perspective, so let’s adjust it; history is written by the dominant.

As marginalised people, we only have to look at our own histories to see the truth in that. We are absent from the historical narrative to a very large extent; sometimes there are obscure glimmers of proof of our previous existence, but most often even those of us who achieved a place in the historical hall of fame have been bleached with the ideals of the dominant groups that did the writing.

I am a historian – still studying, and not yet studying exclusively history, but a historian nevertheless – and it frustrates me. Written primary sources were often written by privileged people whose perspective neglects the marginalised. Secondary sources also tend to reflect academia’s skewing towards the kyriarchal ideal. There are ways of finding out about the marginalised, but we rarely find their uncensored voices ringing down the ages.

What effect does that have? A huge effect. Some groups find themselves cut off from their roots, with much about their past lost irretrievably. Others find themselves entering the record only on the terms of their oppressors, with their personhood denigrated and their voices erased. Others find no reflection of their existence.

The neglect of the history of some groups combined with the elevation of that of others has a profoundly harmful effect. People have always looked to the past, for lessons and for inspiration and guidance, and if they find only certain groups reflected there it is very easy to have the idea, already implanted by the kyriarchy, that only those groups are worthy and important validated. It’s also used to denigrate people in the present, implying that they’re making things up because they only came into existence recently when the only evidence we have for that is a void in the general historical narrative with clues generally so small most people wouldn’t pick them up.

It’s important to factor this in as we write our own histories. How will the English Riots of this summer be remembered? Will the memory of the alienation and disillusionment suffered by those who rioted survive, or will they be painted merely as thugs? And the Occupy movement – when protestors say one thing and police say another, who will be believed by posterity? As for the Arab Spring – how will history perceive that?

The privileged classes have always tried to write their history on a higher level than the rest of the populace. Sometimes, just access to the tools of recording ensures their voices are the only ones heard. Other times, restricting access to academia or to certain media spaces is their preferred method. And quite often, they merely rely on their privilege to amplify their voices, as it so reliably does.

Once, some early human remains were found near where I live. Unfortunately I can’t name them (because that would give away my location and I’m lairy of that on the internet) but they’re relatively well known.

In the local museum, we have casts of them laid carefully in an upstairs room, with all the information and everything. I’ve dusted their case and spent a fairly considerable length of time staring at them – I’m just like that in museums, any museum. Could spend hours there, especially more old-fashioned or more cramped ones. Last week, I found the real ones in a cabinet in an English museum.

Now why are they there? They were found in Wales. Why must they be taken to an English museum? What claim does England have on them? This is just a really small-scale case – it’s the one that’s recently cropped up bang in the middle of my life, which is why I’m using it as a post started – of treasures being taken from their country of origin and sent to places regarded as centres of civilisation.

Look at what happened in Egypt. Westerners raided tombs, showing utter disrespect to the remains stored there, and stole what they found out of Egypt. We still think we have a claim on the remains, and their discoveries tend to be credited to us. It’s another foul face of colonialism, and another manifestation of a Western-supremacist mindset. That mindset holds that as the centre of the empire, we are the sole repository of civilisation and knowledge and so of course we have the right to claim aspects of other countries’ heritages to study in that ‘objective’ way privilege has of conceiving of study.

Don’t get me wrong, I love studying history, seeing things in museums. But I really hate the fact that so much of the richness of the museum experience I have had has come at the expense of the countries that so much I’ve seen was stolen from. While it was awesome in the purest sense of the word to see the mummified remains of a high-class ancient Egyptian, it was not good that the beliefs of that person and those who buried them were disrespected (often in very violent ways by tomb robbers), and that said remains were only in a place where I could see them because my ancestors had stolen them.

And all of this is connected to the European-descended Western sense of entitlement that sees us trying to impose our wills upon countries in the rest of the world, exploit their people and steal from their cultures. We steal treasures, resources, culture, autonomy. We indulge our imperialist mindset through more subtle ways than we did in previous centuries, but we still have that mindset, we still try to gain our empire even if we do it with talk and money and culture and indirect military action rather than the old bunch-of-people-land-and-say-‘I claim this ground for ___’-without-checking-with-inhabitants-at-all.

We’re not the centre of the world. We thought we were, we’re still trying to put ourselves there – but we need to get over ourselves. And we need to stop stealing. We need to recognise that what’s wrong on the individual interpersonal level is wrong on the international level as well. We need to stop trying to advance ourselves by draining the rest of the world dry.

And that applies even on the small level. So if we do finally do the right thing and return what we stole to all our overseas colonies… I’d like England to give Welsh discoveries back, thanks.