History is story telling. It’s also much more than that. The way we tell stories communicates much about our values and perspectives. Storytelling is a powerful act; those who generate the shared stories of a group’s past can exert an enormous amount of authority over the group’s sense of identity.
Collectively we have some sense of the power hidden within historical narratives. We even have a few pithy proverbs to prove it:
- “History is written by the victors.” –Winston Churchill/Walter Benjamin/George Orwell
- “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter” – Nigerian Proverb/Kenyan Proverb/Chinua Achebe
- “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” – George Washington/Eliza Hamilton/Lin-Manuel Miranda
As I was preparing for the semester that has just begun, I’ve been thinking about the power and authority of the past how it manifests itself both in my history classrooms and outside academia at the popular level. There are a number of collective conversations in the US and Canada happening at the moment that have brought the power and authority of the past into the spotlight. In particular, I think of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Black Lives Matter movement on both sides of the border.
I often notice a sense of distance from the past when I overhear voices from our dominant (read: white, settler) culture respond to the TRC, BLM, or to any of the number of marginalized groups calling our attention to wrongs and oppressions. Examples include:
- “I think there is a limit to how responsible people today are for what happened in the past.”
- “Racism is not like it was in the Jim Crow era, I don’t know what black people are so angry about.”
- “Indigenous people should just accept they were conquered and adapt. When else in history has a conquered people kept asking for rights 100s of years later?”
Implicit in these statements is that marginalized groups do not understand their place in history. They indicate an assumption about the presence of a tipping point when ‘then’ divorces ‘now,’ or that there is a statute of limitations when ‘the past’ no longer exerts influence on the present. The past is seen as something dead, gone, best buried.
Being a member of a dominant group affords one the luxury of such assumptions. This sense of having adjudicatory power over the past, of possessing a sense of entitlement to name what parts of it are relevant and which parts are not, is a by-product of privilege. Those outside of dominant culture – by virtue of skin colour, indigenousness, language, class, or gender identity – lack the luxury of declaring the past dead. The consequences of history for marginalized communities bear upon their lives daily. History impacts whether or not clean drinking water comes out of the tap; whether they will come home alive from picking up their kid from school; whether or not they see people who look like them in positions of power, influence, or respectability; etc., etc.
Members of dominant culture are able to ignore their history much more easily. By-and-large our lives (especially if they are also lived in able bodies that are read as male and straight) are free from both the big picture systemic oppressions and the everyday micro-aggressions that erode one’s sense of belonging.
Traci West names one of the facets of white privilege as “the option to be seen by others in [a] racially oblivious way.” I would expand on her point and say that dominant culture privilege also provides the option of relating to others in a historically oblivious way. For example, no one in Toronto asks me where I am from because my skin tone is read as having a history of belonging in Toronto. While being a woman has an impact on my relationship to the dominant culture of which I am a part, as a white person am I afforded a great deal of distance from my group’s history should I chose to take it.
As both a historian and someone who longs to see the church and society move towards a more full embodiment of justice, I find the way vague notions of ‘the past’ are being used to justify not moving forward towards justice and reconciliation alarming. As a Christian and as a teacher of ministers I want to work against historical and racial obliviousness in myself and amongst my students. This will mean many things for class structure and for content. Firstly, laying aside my own passion for “interesting facts” and making sure I am teaching history from a place that helps students see it as more than a required course, filled with too many names and dates, that will never be relevant to their work as ministers. Secondly, it means ensuring the historical storytelling is done by from a variety of locations. In other words, ensuring stories told in my classes come from the lion as well as the hunter.
Working towards a future that realises something more than what we have now will paradoxically always involve an authorizing relationship with our past. Justo González, author of the “go-to” history text in most Protestant divinity schools, touches on this idea in his introductory comments:
“…If we are to break free of an undue bondage to tradition, we must begin by understanding what that tradition is, how we came to where we are, and how particular elements in our past colour our view of the present. It is then that we are free to choose which elements in the past – and in the present – we wish to reject, and which we will affirm.”
For those of us in dominate culture we must not only break our undue bondage, but also release the entitlement to tell other people’s stories. We need to stop claiming authority over the power the past is allowed to have and submit ourselves to its authority and instruction instead.
 Traci C. West, “Learning to Build Christian Community: Males, Whites, Heterosexuals Wanted for Leadership” in Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral Beginnings, ed., Allan Hugh Cole Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 237.
 Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2010), 3.