by Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Beacon Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-8070-4310-9
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
Without writing a book about Haiti, Michel-Rolph Trouillot has written one of the most interesting books about Haiti I've ever read. SILENCING THE PAST is a philosophy of history, that is, a book about how history is created by historians. Reality, what is, is created by events and processes. But history is the human narration of that reality as seen by the historian. On Trouillot's view the serious and honest historian tries to tell the story as accurately as possible from the data -- the various records left in time. But, it is a crucial part of Trouillot's thesis that much of the past, even the past which is preserved in records, gets "silenced," gets passed over or pushed to the background. This scholarly book is the story of how history is produced and how this selective "silencing" occurs. Of course, the flip side is there too -- history is the story of what is not silenced, of what is broadcast and generally accepted as "history," the general narrative of the past that most of us learn and internalize.
Trouillot reminds us "human beings participate in history both as actors and narrators." Events and processes often leave traces -- records of various texts, and ideally, the narration of history is from these sources. However, no historian, no narrator of the past, has access to all sources, nor deems each source of the same value or power in creating the narration. To some genuine extent each historical narrative is a fictional story, but with special power.
But history is "fiction" with special power -- the power is that it is not regarded as fiction by its hearers, and most of us who "consume" history come to believe there is the past -- a relatively true narration of the past which shapes not only our view of the past, but explains our present and dictates our future as well.
Trouillot is concerned with the various silences which spring up in the process of making history and he identifies four specifically:
It is Trouillot's purpose to trace this process of the creation of history, cautioning us as consumers of history, to be critically aware of the "silencing of the past" and of the often ideological nature of historical narrations.
In order to illustrate these philosophical concepts Trouillot turns to two examples from Haitian history, which, for those especially interested in Haitian history, can be read as fascinating "narrations" separate from Trouillot's larger purpose. On the other hand, these Haitian narratives draw one into Trouillot's general thesis.
The first "Haitian story" is that of Sans Souci -- the palace of Henry Christophe? Well, yes and no. Trouillot deals with three Sans Soucis.
When the main revolutionary army led by Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe, Petion and others finally "submitted" to the French in 1802, Sans Souci did not, leading to a war within a war. He was especially at odds with Henry Christophe, who eventually betrayed him and murdered him, very close to the spot where he later built the palace of Sans Souci.
Trouillot makes much of story. The sources which survive are few, inconclusive, but intriguing. (Here is the silencing via the archives.) Even with the few sources that survive, the "war within a war," the role of the "Bossales" (African born slaves and revolutionaries), the possible role of African-influenced guerilla tactics, all intrigue Trouillot since they are a narrative rarely told -- a silenced narrative; all of which leaves us, the twentieth century consumer of Haitian history with a view of the revolution suffering these silences of the past.
The second detailed example of the process of silencing again comes from Haitian history. When the slave rebellion began in 1791, and even as it gained power and momentum, contemporary observers found it virtually impossible to take it all seriously.
First of all it was unthinkable that black slaves could ever defeat the "superior beings," the white French. And even as that phenomenon began to unfold before their very eyes, the narrators found other explanations: yellow fever or some plot of whites against white and/or mulattos which got out of hand. (One is here reminded of Madison Smartt Bell's recent ALL SOULS' RISING.)
Trouillot's point in telling this intriguing story is to show how our conceptions of the world limit what is even "thinkable" and functions as a silencing of the past.
Trouillot uses one last lengthy example to illustrate his general thesis, the story of Columbus' "invasion." While I won't detail the story here, Trouillot vividly shows how later use of celebrations function as powerful forces in shaping our views of the past.
Trouillot's lengthy treatment of his two Haitian examples (pages 31-107, almost 50% of the whole book), make this a fascinating read of two most unusual and untold narratives of Haitian history. Those two stories fit magnificently into a powerful story and philosophical argument about the nature of the writing of historical narratives. This primary thrust and bulk of the book I found both persuasive and fascinating.
However, in the last pages of the book I was troubled by another thesis which I found to be insufficiently developed, unconvincing and even downright wrong. Trouillot rightly cautions against any notions of history as telling us the past. He demonstrates the process of conscious and unconscious, of natural and human generated silencing of the past. But he goes too far in arguing that the only acceptable use of history is to shape current ideological views.
He warns that "...the focus on the past often diverts us from the present injustices for which previous generations only set the foundations." (p. 150). Even more pointedly he argues:
"But no amount of historical research about the Holocaust and no amount of guilt about Germany's past can serve as a substitute for marching in the streets against German skinheads today. Fortunately, quite a few prominent German historians understand that much." (p. 150).
While I find myself persuaded by Trouillot's strong arguments that history is told in relation to the powerful forces which silence some sources while favoring others, his argument for a radical historically rooted activism seems to come from nowhere, a pronouncement rather than the result of persuasive argumentation.
Despite my unwillingness to follow Trouillot in the last argument of this book, I come away from SILENCING THE PAST knowing I've read a very well argued, important and powerful book. I come away from SILENCING THE PAST having read two historical narratives of Haiti as interesting and challenging as anything I've read anywhere before and I'm grateful to Michel-Rolph Trouillot for yet another quality book on Haiti.
One final comment in closing. Structurally SILENCING OF THE PAST has a preface, 5 chapters and an epilogue. Each begins with a journal-like entry from his own experiences. These personal tales, stories, are extremely fascinating and extraordinarily well written. It would be my hope that some day Trouillot might take a short vacation from his more scholarly writings and produce a volume of the personal and informal stories and reflections which he tells so well. I'd be first in line to buy a copy of such a volume.
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