Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Hating the Past, Losing the Past

The US Bureau of Official Names, which decides what America's places should be called, recently agreed that the word "Negro" should be removed from the names of sixteen places in Texas. Because, it seems, many people now feel that "negro" is an offensive racial slur, all too close to the other N word. (NY Times, NPR) But if you are offended by the word "negro," you can't read fifty years of work by black intellectuals, who used the word with pride. W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King are completely lost to you. You can't get enthused about the Negro Leagues.

I was recently lectured by a reviewer for over-using the word "slave," which is offensive and dehumanizing to enslaved people. But "slave" was the word used by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and all the other people who actually risked their lives defending the humanity of slaves. The narratives written by former slaves all used the word: Twelve Years a Slave, etc. If the word is so offensive to you that you want to banish it from the language, can you read their writings? Three different young people I know have told me that they really can't, that slavery is so awful to them that they don't want to hear about it at all.

Maybe you're thinking that people can separate the language in old books from what they use themselves, but I don't buy it. Historians can do that; after immersing yourself in any past period for long enough, the vocabulary seems natural and no longer jars. But I very much doubt non-historians can.

And that is the thing I am wondering about history in my time. Many Americans are flat-out offended by the past and want nothing to do with it. Lynn Manuel Miranda was recently attacked on Twitter because Hamilton glorifies evil slave owners, and rather than bothering to defend his work he just said, "It's a valid point." But if we're not going to tell stories featuring slave owners, what stories do we have left to tell? Focusing on the oppressed might work for a few people, but that makes the stories pretty depressing and doesn't get you away from controversy. Plenty of American Indians dislike blacks every bit as much as whites and think they should go back to Africa when the whites go back to Europe. (I was once told this in a way I took to be completely serious.) There is simply no way to narrate North American history that is not offensive to somebody.

The discomfort doesn't end at the borders of the US, either. A few years ago I skimmed an article titled, "Is Medieval History Racist?" The argument was that since medieval history is entirely about white people, it is a fantasy playground for white supremacists and therefore deeply problematic. Chinese and Japanese history are hardly the place to look for racial tolerance, and before the twentieth century African history was every bit as dominated by slavery and the slave trade as that of the US or the Caribbean.

Meanwhile the new paleogenetics is threatening the connections that many people in Britain and Ireland feel with the builders of megalithic monuments, who, it turns out, were not their ancestors but the people their ancestors exterminated.

All of this has me thinking about what it would mean for people to lose all interest in history, and all knowledge beyond a vague sense that it was something bad.

It feels to me like a catastrophe, an abandonment of half of what makes life interesting. I love knowing about the past, reading about the past, watching movies set in the past or in fantasy versions of it. But other people feel differently. I wrote here last year about the fantastic fiction of N.K. Jemisin, which abandons all ties to the historical or mythic past in favor of an entirely imaginary world. Jemisin won the Hugo award three years in a row, I suspect because many American readers are also bored with or offended by the past and looking for something completely different.

But is there any more to our relationship with the past than that? I like it, you don't, who cares?

I have a strong sense that my approach to contemporary events is shaped by my knowledge of history. I believe that knowing some things trumpeted as new are really ancient, and some things proclaimed as tradition go back only a few decades, gives me insight into what is happening in the world. But is that an illusion? Is it the way I justify my beliefs to myself? Does knowing history really lead to better understanding of our own time? I suspect that if it does, it is mainly through knowing about the past 150 years or so. I doubt my learning about Viking heroic poetry or the structure of 14th-century manors is relevant.

It isn't that Negro Mountain is the hill I want to die on; the legislature of Texas voted unanimously to change the name, and how many things have Texas Democrats and Republicans agreed on lately? But despite a lot of rhetoric I don't see the country facing up to the bad parts of our past; I see us running as fast as we can away from all of it.


G. Verloren said...

You're employing some false equivalencies, here.

There's a difference between a historical text and a place name that is still in use. The works of W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King contain certain words because they were written in a different time, and are snapshots of those moments. But places and place names aren't books, and they do not capture and encapsulate a fixed point in time. Places change, as do place names. That is natural and expected.

We accept that historical texts are going to contain historical terms that today may be uncomfortable for some people or otherwise problematic, because they are products of their time. But places and how we choose to refer to them are different - those sixteen places in Texas that are changing their names are doing so because the places themselves have changed.

You're a historian and an archaeologist - you should understand what's actually happening here. You refer to Texas, not to New Spain, or to any of the various pre-columbian names used for that geographic area. You distinguish between Istanbul and Constantinople, without grumbling about how the Turks were "running from the past" when they decided they wanted to change the name of the place. You recognize historical names as distinct from present day names without any real complaint - and yet here you are baffled by witnessing the creation of just such divide between the two in real time.

None of which has anything to do, of course, with whether someone objected to your usage of the word "slave" in your books. (Or rather, as you yourself admit, to the "over-usage" of the word, which is different.)

You don't get to defend your word choice in the present by citing the unrelated word choice of people in the past. You are not in the past, you are in the present day. You are not writing to emulate or illustrate the vernacular of the period, you are speaking in a modern voice to modern readers with a modern message, and someone else wished you would make the effort to use different words in that present day context.

How Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and others wrote and spoke a century and a half ago is not relevant to anything. You are not in their situation, speaking to their audience, or reliant on the language conventions of their time. Rather, you are beholden to the modern day in which you live, and if in your modern situation, you find your modern audience is objecting to your choice of modern language usage, the actions of totally different people in a totally different context and timeframe is not any sort of logical defense of your choices.

That's not to say that your choices are indefensible - there are are other arguments you might make which could well be compelling. But you are not making those arguments, you are making a nonsensical one which ultimately boils down to not seeing the problem with using certain language in the present simply because people didn't used to such problems with language previously.

I hope you can see the objective absurdity of such a position, and don't take this personally. I have not read your works, I have no basis for opinion on what language you have chosen or whether you have "over-used" certain terms, and so I make no judgements. But the defense you go out of your way to offer is clearly fallacious, and it surprises me that you seem unaware of substantial flaws in your reason.

Kpgoog said...

It is sad. In the current anti-intellectual climate I don't think you could justify doing archaeology if it did not already exist. If you take the side of the overly sensitive all will be lost to appease their delicate nerves. I will stand against it. They already ruined my favorite museums. Those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it as the old saw goes.

John said...

@G- I completely disagree that people can separate the language of the past from that of our own time. Once a word becomes a slur, any book that uses it becomes unreadable. Just try convincing anyone that Huckleberry Finn is an anti-racist book. Then look at some of those news stories and observe the very strong feelings some people now have about the word Negro.

pootrsox said...

John, having taught Huck Finn to several generations of students, I have dealt with this issue to which you refer.

Teaching the novel allows teaching anti-racism. When Huck says, as he's elaborating his steamboat exploding taradiddle to Aunt Sally, "No ma'm--killed a nigger, though," Twain is not only setting up his anti-racist argument (Huck is *falsely* reducing an enslaved person to non-human status, *deliberately* because he knows how convincing such a story is.). He also is preparing the reader for the nonsense of Tom's actual reduction of Jim to non-human (i.e. plaything for his fantasy game) status. Excellent teaching moments here.

Yes, the n-word is found in a number of places throughout the novel. But it was a commonly used term at the time the book is set; to avoid it would be difficult when trying to create a milieu. The characters who people the book all would have used it as naturally as we say Black today.

The entire end section of the book is one of the most cynical things I have ever read. Huck is the *only* person to recognize Jim's humanity. And then he learns that Jim, too, has used and betrayed him for his (Jim's) own purpose: had Jim told Huck in the floating house that the corpse was Huck's father, Huck could have abandoned his trip down the Mississippi and returned to his home, leaving Jim unable to get to Cairo and freedom. How very *human* of Jim, matching Huck's experiences with most of the white characters in the novel.

So *everyone* sucks... leading Huck to abandon society entirely, "light[ing] out for the territories ahead of the rest" because "Aunt Sally, she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before."

Anonymous said...

it's utterly absurd to argue that European Medieval History is racist because it is filled with people who are European. There is simply no excuse for insisting that European medieval history be made non-European any more than insisting that Japan's history needs to focus on the Irish or that Egyptian history is racist because it doesn't have enough Lithuanians represented. The insanity of our age can not be understated.

szopen said...

In Poland there is a debate trying to make the word "murzyn" (Black man) unacceptable, because of it's associations. The proponents of the change suggest instead that we should word "czarny" (literally, black) as a new neutral word. The problem is that "czarny" sounds incredibly racist to most Poles and it's clear that it's just copy-paste from English by people, who just want to imitate the latest fad from the West - and all arguments against "murzyn" can be used against "czarny".

And again, just like ou said, removing word "murzyn" would cause problems with the past movies and the literature. Plus we have people with last name "Murzyn". Seems to me that if a word have bad associations, then inventing the new word will quickly cause that new word to become ingrained with bad associations too. You have to change the associations, not the word. No one calls for changing the words like "Niemiec" (German, literally: "the mute one").

David said...


Human interactions are complex, subtle, and challenging at the best of times, and these qualities grow exponentially when you're talking about relations between different ethnic groups with a dark history in a time when power differentials and social attitudes are changing rapidly. To this one must add the fact that words themselves are complex and subtle instruments. Their reception depends of course on who is using them, how, and in what context. Critiquing this sort of thing with rationalism is really beside the point, and isn't going to change anything.

Thus an obvious response to your point about a word like "negro" is that it's one thing for you or the US government to use it, and quite another for W. E. B. DuBois to do so. Likewise for the word "slave" and Frederick Douglass. If Frederick Douglass wants to use the word "slave" six times in a paragraph, he gets to do that, because he was a slave and he's Frederick Douglass. Cautioning someone about how one uses these words isn't a rejection of the words themselves. Consider how different it is if a person passing a police officer says "Hi, cop" if the person saying this is 1) a colleague and friend of the police officer or 2) someone the officer has never met before. Consider likewise that it would be one thing for Larry David to start a joke with the line, "A Jew walks into a bar" and quite another for Richard Spencer to do that. My point is obviously not that you're a famous racist like Richard Spencer is a famous anti-semite, but that it's not a radical or new notion that freighted words take on different connotations depending on who uses them, and one can sense this and be concerned about it without rejecting the words as such.

I can see how use of the word "slave" over and over could become an irritating, insensitive drumbeat. Varying terms is a good thing, and one thing it does is lighten a load like that. (Of course, taking care over words takes time, and so it adds even more difficulty if a culture starts to demand care over words while simultaneously requiring efficiency in everything.)

On the issue of "slavery stories are just too difficult for me to hear," this is a variation on "can't we talk about something more pleasant," which I grew up with and which is a frequent response by a certain type of person to almost everything I think is really interesting to talk about. That's how some people deal with life. There may be a little more of that around, and its use a badge of political correctness is obtuse and rings false, but it's not new.

As for horror at discovering your ancestors massacred the people who used to live on your land: that is something new, it seems to me, at least in its intensity. In the past and until quite recently, it was typical to take pride in the notion that one's ancestors did whatever it took to carve a place in the world so that people of one's own generation could have a good life. One might soft peddle some of the crime, often with silence, but one didn't ask too many questions ("can't we talk about something more pleasant?"). Rejecting that is by no means universal now, but it's more common, and a huge change. I'm not convinced it's a bad one.

David said...

That last "can't we talk about something more pleasant" I meant as the response one would get from asking too many questions.

"Who was living here when great-granddaddy came?"

"I don't know. Why would you ask something like that?"

"Well, somebody must have been living here. Who left that old [fill in the blank] I found the other day?"

"Can't we talk about something more pleasant?"