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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

the treason of histories


Tzvetan Todorov, a nonhistorian of interest, confessed in The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York: Harper & Row, 1984) "that to become conscious of the relativity (hence the arbitrariness) of any feature of our culture is already to shift it a little, and that history (not the science but its object) is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible shifts" (254).  Todorov's meditation on Spanish genocide in the Caribbean and Mexico is a remarkable document of his negotiation with his adopted culture, a record of how the quite "other" narratives of that culture often  provide sobering instruction about the spectacle of Western histories and historiographies.  It is reasonable to think the so-called European imagination (not its ontology but its representation) is condemned to refashion its outlier properties  (when it dares to be honest) and to manufacture fictions with alacrity (when it opts to prevaricate).  Seldom are we urged to associate such instability with African and Asian acts of remembering and forgetting.  Were we to take a radical plunge and have immediate experiences with cognitive hydraulics, perhaps we'd be less bamboozled by uncertainty. We might be less awed by  indecisiveness, particularly in discussions of imperialism, ancient and modern stories of group hatred,  and other hegemonic enterprises.  Perhaps we'd be less gullible regarding the quality of histories and more adult about the deliberate selectivity of  their rhetorical gestures . And having plunged into Yao Glover's June 7 2016 entry on "The Death of Narrative" (see, I see a flicker of hope in a maelstrom.  Nothing more than a flicker.

Todorov's meditation, like Edward W. Said's seminal studies --Orientalism ( New York: Vintage, 1979 ) and Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), can serve as a prelude for reading  Manisha Sinha's The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) and Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016). Said and Todorov activate special recognitions.

 Although neither Todorov nor Said writes explicitly about contracts, their works remind us of how essential the idea of a contract is in any narrative that claims to be history.  A contract, whether it is explicit or not,  functions in the asymmetrical engagements readers have with writers (who can only be as present as their texts are).  In the reading of American narrative texts , the contract is indivisibly aesthetic and political. Affect and effect  matter greatly.  This feature has been, and continues to be, crucial at any chosen moment in the culture(s) of writing and  reading in the United States of America and especially crucial for readers who  want to free themselves from cages of American miseducation and self-contradicting promises. Historians, I would argue, are not telescopes and microscopes, i.e., objective , scientific instruments.

In the matrix of the American democratic experiment, freedom is more a myth or social science fable than a palpable reality.  Therefore, it is prudent in any consumption of  American history as narrative to frame one's reading within some awareness of the penetrating insights of Charles W. Mills's The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).  His book has little value as a guide to African and Asian histories, but it is a persuasive exposure of what ought to be known regarding histories of the Euro-named Americas.  It is a counterweight to the distractive delight of Eduardo Galeano's  Memory of Fire trilogy. Mills directs us to the realm of common sense as he notes a major discrepancy between the idea of the social contract as sketched by Jean Jacques Rousseau and the machinery of the racial contract conceived and birthed by the "canonized" fathers of the American republic.  Mills is a philosopher, and what he says about the phenomenon of racism in his book  is provocative:

Racism as an ideology needs to be understood as aiming at the minds of nonwhites as well as whites, inculcating subjugation.  If the social contract requires that all citizens and persons learn to respect themselves and each other, the Racial Contract prescribes nonwhite self-loathing and racial deference to white citizens"(89).

As I ponder what reading history might entail, Mills's statement rewords itself: racism is a set of double-edged , entrenched beliefs designed to convince Americans to dislike themselves and all other human beings.  Those beliefs are magnified each day in mass media, in the spinning of infotainments.

Borrowing language from the blurbs Nell Irvin Painter and John Stauffer wrote for The Slave's Cause, one might say that Manisha Sinha has written "a revolutionary narrative" that "should be required reading for every scholar in the humanities and social sciences who is concerned with the American condition."  It is easy to imagine that a genuine revolutionary narrative would annihilate Western reasoning.  Sinha's aim is not to assassinate reason but to explore what reason habitually represses. The authorizing or marketing use of blurbs does not always serve the needs of  all potential readers, and one might be misled to believe Sinha's work is so specialized as to be of minimal interest to all American citizens. Have we abandoned concern with our everyday condition? Do we believe suddenly that  there is innate value in whatever is labeled "revolutionary" ?  I am not persuaded that we have done either of those things.

We do have revolts (drastic revisions) in the writing of history, and technological (digital) advances do sharpen our vision of how the past "lives" in the present.  It is doubtful that we have yet witnessed a genuine revolution or irreversible change in our habits of thinking about the past. "Revolution" is an attractive but ultimately impotent sign.

 We can speculate, however, that  Sinha addresses American readers who have reached a certain level of critical thinking about reconstructing the evidence of the past, whether they have come to that point through academic training or along the paths of indigenous knowing (the knowing associated most with homespun oral histories).  It is a capital error to think non-academic readers are incapable of detecting sense and nonsense in academic writing.

Her  admirable, rigorous research and the readability of her prose can appeal to all who know  that  the need for abolition did not come to a dramatic halt in 1865. In the United States, the need to abolish one reprehensible attitude or  habit or another began  with European colonial history and  prevails in the 21st century as we continue to quest for the golden fleece of social justice and human rights. The prize disintegrates as soon as one touches it, leaving us in possession of new and improved kinds of  enslavement.  Indeed, the contemporary enslaved persons  who have a desperate cause in our nation are not always those whom we unthinkingly throw into the basket marked "people of color." One of the major contributions of The Slave's Cause may be its tacit announcement that people who have no color are still waiting for Godot, ignorant that the obligation to take a side in the agon of endless abolition is normal.

Such a perspective informs Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning, a refreshing  and serious exercise in iconoclasm.  Calling his work a "definitive history, " Kendi challenges the treason of histories  (the betrayal of good intentions) by punching it out with its own native categories of analysis.  In this sense, he puts Ishmael Reed's familiar metaphor ----writing is fighting ---to good use. Kendi is forthcoming about writing in a historical moment when white on white criminality is on the rise and the disdain Americans have for one another is  ascending in our sociopolitical circus.  His aim is to document the origins of racist and racialist ideas in antiquity and to focus primarily on the American display of racist ideas by using Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. DuBois, and Angela Davis  as representative figures in what he calls "the history of …three distinct voices ---segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists --and how they each have rationalized racial disparities, arguing why Whites have remained on the living and winning end, while Blacks remained on the losing and dying end" (2).  Kendi is ambitious, and the breadth of coverage in Stamped from the Beginning may be as daunting for some readers as the depth of coverage can be in The Slave's Cause.  

 In the spirit of constructive critical response, I note that Kendi and Sinha do not go far enough in critiquing  the treacherous Black/White binary that is a cancer in body of American histories and in the minds of all American citizens.  It is probably a  reification of racism to insist that the primary colors (metonymies)  of the United States of America are Red, Yellow, Black, Brown, and White, but an effort to provide a fuller disclosure of the multi-colored dynamics of our nation and the disjointed experiences of its inhabitants ought to be the dominant if not exclusive aim of American histories which want to move us into a better state of being human.  We cannot expect Kendi and Sinha to produce magic.  It is enough that they have been honest in showing us the limits of historical understanding  when the issue is building knowledge of the United States.  It is sufficient that they have provided noteworthy books which do move us to be vigilant rather than abjectly stupid.  They have certainly warned us about the futility of thinking the rhetorical shadows of hope in American histories exist as rainbow signs for anyone.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            June 7, 2016

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