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Reading that Changed My View of History: Trouillot's "Silencing the Past"

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
2 January 2015 - 4:36pm

Around the New Year social media is saturated with lists of things that happened in 2014, such as this one suggesting the top 25 historic events. I got to thinking—not about what happened, but about what I read in 2014 that changed the way I see history (as someone frequently thinking about how to write and teach history).

It would have been clever to feature something that was actually published in 2014, but to be honest, it was an older book that I found most useful in my own research. While 21st century global society seems obsessed with anything new, we historians keep turning to what is old(er), and that includes significant pieces of scholarship from the past.

The most important reading I did in 2014 was Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995). Some of you might be thinking it was about time I got around to reading this book—surely most who call themselves historians are aware of it. Well, I didn’t get to it until now.

What is important about Silencing the Past for historians and history educators in Canada today?

Trouillot explains the problems and exclusions of archival power. He reveals the procedures and culture of historical work that has produced the discipline, and thereby shaped history as we know it.  

His explanation, and the implications of it, likely will not come as a surprise to most historians. However, the cogency of his arguments, and historical examples he provides to substantiate them, are extremely useful. Secondly, for history educators, who are increasingly expected to initiate students into the processes of history making, his insights help us describe to students why certain historical stories having more traction than others.

Trouillot’s book is largely about Haitian and US history. But particularly for historians or history educators interested in discussing and documenting how Indigenous voices in Canada have been marginalized from the discipline of history, and by extension from public memory, this book can provide a lot of clues as to what to look for in our own historiography.

Here are my top 5 reasons reading Trouillot’s book (even again) might change the way you think of history:

1) He reminds readers that we are all steeped in historicity. Our ways of making history, and our perspectives on the past are not objective nor outside historical forces. Our interpretations are the best we can muster at this time and place. Yet historians who position themselves in the present are dismissed as ideological, and we go on to pretend that historians can stand outside history (p. 151). How often do we discuss this paradox with students in history classrooms?

2) Trouillot helps to answer the accusation that some societies (such as Indigenous societies) do not distinguish between history and myth/fiction, whereas the purpose of the discipline of history is to bring out “the truth.” For example, he says, “It is not that some societies distinguish between fiction and history and others to not. Rather, the difference is in the range of narratives that specific collectivities must put to their own tests of historical credibility because of the stakes involved in these narratives” (p. 14).

3) As per the title of his book, Trouillot brings attention to historical and archival silences, another thing that may receive little attention in history classrooms. He points out that silences enter processes of historical production at four junctures:

  1. the making of sources
  2. the making of archives
  3. the making of narratives
  4. and the making of historythe moment of retrospective significance. (see p. 26).

Different societies and historical actors have had different access to affecting these silences in the discipline of history. He summarizes: “… any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly” (p. 27).

4) He problematizes the issue of historical relevance and significance, pointing out that our judgments on events in the past are actively shaped by forces that exist outside the good (or bad) work of professional historians. History made inside universities interacts with history makers outside—whose narratives often have more traction (religious leaders, amateur historians, politicians and activists). Indeed, it is precisely because historians avoid political opinion in their work that their histories may be thought of as less engaging, and less frequently read. The public hears, and believes, other versions. This creates and perpetuates silences, as seen in point #3.

5) He shows us how easily we slip into thinking that what happened in the past was what was expected to happen, as if it were preordained. Trouillot’s example of the history of Haiti illustrates how discontinuity with the narrative that Western domination was inevitable has been suppressed in the historical record. He talks about how public commemorations tend to do away with thinking about the messiness of history—that history could have turned out differently. This sense of certainty might be comforting, but it is not representative. How do we deal with such issues in history classrooms today?


What did you read in 2014 that changed the way you think of history? Comment here, or contact THEN/HiER to post a blog!