By Will Myers
Twenty years ago, Beacon Press published Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite Beacon book, I name this one without hesitation. It’s the kind of mind-expanding read that changes the way you look at public monuments, statues of leaders, national holidays, and the daily news. Trouillot wrote a book about the past that makes you see the present with fresh eyes. It cracks open the pat narratives we tell ourselves about our history, and it provides us with the tools to examine our taken-for-granted ideas about the workings of the world, our world, today.
Silencing the Past manages to do several things at once, and apart from the numerous insights Trouillot offers, what’s so impressive is that the book is never dull and pedantic. It’s a history of the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in history, which the West has, from the start, failed to acknowledge. It’s a philosophy of history, an exploration of how silences enter the historical record. It’s a study of how power intersects with and influences knowledge. It’s partly an anthropological study of professional Western history as a guild. It’s a description, concretely illustrated, of how history is a process—one that academics and amateurs, painters, politicians, and the public are all involved in. It’s also a kind of grand narrative about what our grand narratives leave out. And through all of this headiness, Trouillot remains approachable and friendly, his voice clear and jargon-free. His insights are deadly serious, but he injects a touch of playfulness into the otherwise solemn proceedings.
Trouillot is not above illustrating his concepts with a helpful sports metaphor. Much like a play-by-play announcer will generally omit mentioning any activity that takes place away from the ball, and will mention the audience only if they affect the game, historical record-keepers omit information they deem superfluous to the historical narrative. As Trouillot writes, “[t]he census taker is always a censor—and not only because of a lucky play of etymology: he who counts heads always silences facts and voices.” Sometimes this is a matter of ideology, as in nineteenth-century Great Man narratives that omit the perspectives of women and people of color, or when reporters and commentators rushed to criminalize rather than humanize the protestors in Ferguson.
Silences aren’t always the product of willful ignorance or sinister ideology. In some way, this is even more troubling. It can be easy to identify a silence when it’s clear what ideological presumptions a historian or a reporter is making, but what about those silences created even by the most well-intentioned chronicler and the most industrious archivist? Trouillot writes, “in no way [are] silences themselves the direct products of ideology. They [make] sense in terms of the reporting, in terms of the logic of its accounting procedures.” In our preference for a clean narrative with a nice resolution, and clear-cut heroes and villains, we omit crucial details that reflect the complexity and contradictions that make us what we are and history what it is.
As I helped prepare a 20th-anniversary reissue of Silencing the Past, which includes an illuminating new foreword by Hazel V. Carby, I was again impressed by Trouillot’s intelligence and artistry. Most amazing for me is that Silencing the Past doesn’t feel as though it’s aged at all: it remains undiluted as a forceful reminder that silences surround us and mask power in countless ways. Trouillot is still telling us, urgently, that we need to identify the silences in our history and in our present because “the present is itself no clearer than the past.” Our present will never be any clearer, that is, unless we commit to fully recovering our past and confronting our shared place in the unjust present it has created.
Will Myers is an Associate Editor at Beacon Press.