I came across a thread on Twitter the other day by a history teacher named Seth Cotlar that I can’t stop thinking about. Here’s how the thread begins:
The conservative freak out about the 1619 Project (of which Cotton is just the latest example) is not about history. It’s about memory; about what parts of the nation’s past we should hold in our memories going forward & about how we tell the story of the nation to our children.
The history remains the history. We can’t change what happened. But what always changes is how we pick out parts of the nation’s past & bring them into our present.
Mr. Cotlar is referring here to Senator Tom Cotton’s effort to prevent U.S. schools from using content from The New York Times‘s recently published 1619 Project to augment their history curriculum. The 1619 Project, conceptualized by MacArthur genius grant recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones, is a retelling of this nation’s origin story that goes back to August 1619, the date the first slave ship arrived on the shore of what would become the United States of America.
Further down in the thread, Mr. Cotlar also makes a point about the current flap over statues, saying that a statue is “not history. It is a site of memory. Our historical memory has and will always change over time . . .” and, therefore, statues will be erected and demolished over and over through the years depending on what aspect of history we choose to cherish.
The thread got me thinking about the challenge of discerning history vs. memory more generally, and about what we think of as truth when writing creative nonfiction.
Memory is about what sticks with us as important, what we value, what we choose to honor or to hold on to. So memory can be both a product of what makes a lasting impression on us and also a choice we make about what aspects of the past we keep alive.
But history, too, is complicated. It seems simple enough to say that history comprises the facts about what has happened, but how do we know those facts? From the instant an event takes place, it’s history begins to be written and rewritten. Who took part, who witnessed, and what were their points of view, their biases? Each person involved in the event will have their own telling of it. Each witness will see it differently.
Every document created to mark an event is subject to human error in its recording or, in some cases, deliberate obfuscation of true facts. (My own legal birth certificate is an example of fraudulent documentation.)
The agreed upon facts only tell us so much. Who agrees, and why? Every one of us makes choices about how we relate “what happened” to someone else, and we often choose how we tell the story based on what we aim to achieve via the telling. It seems to me, then, that all history is biased, and that there cannot ever be a way for it not to be biased because all people are biased.
What is truth then? Evidence can at least establish basic concrete facts: where an event took place, who was there, when it happened. Evidence can prove or disprove that an event took place at all. But beyond this basic outline of an event’s parameters, history dissolves into conjecture. Even when a participant states in their own words why they did something, they cannot be fully trusted to be telling the whole truth, not even to themselves. And so each of us listeners rely on a number of clues to discern what we believe is the actual truth of the situation–and our interpretations are biased as well.
Any history thus becomes layered with bias over the many years of its retelling. In my estimation, what the 1619 Project does is go back to the beginning to analyze evidence anew and then to retell the history from a point of view that hasn’t previously been considered. Isn’t this what all historians do?
Isn’t this what any of us who mine historical events for meaning aim to do? We excavate what’s been long buried in an attempt to learn whether there’s something we’ve been missing all along in the telling of the history, something that’s been excluded from our collective memory. If we find that, yes, something else is there, we then seek to construct a new narrative based on our own interpretation of this new evidence. Our new telling of the history is not necessarily more accurate in and of itself, but the whole of the narrative record of that history is made better by the inclusion of this additional aspect that was previously forgotten, ignored, or unconsidered. The goal of this type of work then is not to replace what was previously thought of as the history of a thing, but to add to it, to make it more complete, more well-rounded.
I know I’ll be returning to this question of history vs. memory on an ongoing basis as I work on my own writing projects.