• Greg Beaman

Historians, Power, and the Preservation of Atlantic Slavery in New Orleans

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. Review by Greg A. Beaman.

One paradox of power is that it can be simultaneously constructive and destructive. In history as much as in the telling and writing of history, according to Michel-Rolph Trouillot, power erases the experiences of some even as it inscribes the experiences of others. With this conviction, Trouillot disassembles the Haitian Revolution, the 1492 landing of Columbus and subsequent commemorations of the event, the failed launch of the “Disney’s America” theme park, and his own biography like a Mastryoshka doll and puts each layer to his ear, listening for the silences within. Metaphor aside, Trouillot gives historians a theory and method for resisting power in history both in the archival trenches and on the front lines of public history debates. The work of the historian becomes a project to account for and undo the workings of power in history and historical narrative not just within but beyond the academy.

In Trouillot’s telling, silences hide within silences. Dissatisfied with the ability of positivism or constructivism to adequately address these silences, Trouillot proposes a method for “theorizing ambiguity and tracking power.”[1] Power creates silences at four stages of historical production. Individuals create sources based on unspoken, inherent frameworks. Sources are assembled into archives based only on material that is known and available. Individuals and societies produce narratives, none of which can account for the entirety of the past. Even “history in the final instance,” as Trouillot calls the fourth stage of historical production, makes no claim on completeness or coherence.[2] The creation of sources of the Haitian Revolution was subject to the power of a man like Henry Christophe to silence an opponent like Sans Souci with the naming of a palace. While Sans Souci, the man, meant a great deal to Henry Christophe, Christophe’s European contemporaries wrote little of Sans Souci because they viewed him as an uninfluential African. Subsequent generations of amateur and professional historians relied on this uneven archive to write uneven narratives of the Haitian Revolution.

Trouillot admits that his own account of Sans Souci relied on not just a limited number of sources but “material already produced as history,” already subjected, that is, to the workings of power.[3] In a footnote, he goes further, writing “this summary [of the oral history of Sans Souci]…encapsulated only ‘popular’ knowledge in the area filtered through the routine performances of guides.”[4] The reliance on “popular knowledge” makes it easier for a trained historian to identify where power creates silences but it also allows Trouillot to illustrate the urgent necessity of historians in supplanting popular historical narratives with specialized, empirically-grounded research and thoughtful interpretations.

Since Silencing the Past came out in 1995, historians have incorporated Trouillot’s method into the discipline, especially historians of slavery. Historians have countered archival and historical power to amplify silences that surround the lives and experiences of enslaved men, women, and children. As a result, a trend toward recovering individual lives of enslaved people and free people of color has begun to overtake structural histories of slavery and freedom. In the historiography of Atlantic New Orleans, we know more about Jacques Tinchant, Rose Herera, and Jane Right because of the methodology pioneered by Trouillot.[5]

That historians of slavery utilized Silencing the Past so readily and successfully makes it all the more remarkable that Trouillot’s arguments about public historic sites, materiality, and memory have become apparent in New Orleans only in recent years, led by the New Orleans Committee to Erect Markers on the Slave Trade. Trouillot questioned the usefulness of what he calls the “storage model of memory-history,” in which societies vest specific places with historical significance but lose connection to the original justification for significance.[6] The town of Milot, site of Sans Souci, the palace, “has lost historical significance,” Trouillot argues, because the materiality of the palace has been reduced to ruins.[7] Over time, societies ascribe their own significance to sacred sites that may supersede the significance perceived by earlier generations. Societies may re-locate historical significance. But has the town of Milot truly become historically meaningless because the palace lies in ruins? Does materiality alone justify significance?

If historical significance and materiality remain questionable in the town of Milot, New Orleans and other Atlantic cities maintain direct material ties to the history of slavery. How should historians direct public commemorations of slavery in a place where not just the infrastructure of the slave trade but the material world of enslaved people persists in the present? Following Trouillot, historic sites “cannot be conceived only as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge [but]…[t]hey must establish some relation to that knowledge.”[8] We should recognize not just institutional slavery but men, women, and children who were enslaved and their living descendants. In histories of architecture, we must include the enslaved builders and craftspeople responsible for constructing historic buildings. We must also replace existing markers and plaques to publicize and amplify previously silenced histories. We should hold public events to unveil research to unerase and unsilence the past. Trouillot maintains, “Authenticity is required, lest the representation becomes a fake, a morally repugnant spectacle.”[9] Historians have the tools to establish authenticity. We must use them.

Historians recognize the limits of our power to influence society, a fact made clear by debates over the effectiveness of our public-facing work and willingness to address audiences beyond the academy. The stakes of the debate over American slavery and remembrance in 2019 are too high for historians to not participate. The debate will happen with or without us. It is imperative that historians set the terms of debate and hold the broader public accountable in maintaining a shared historical memory.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 22.

[2] Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 26.

[3] Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 54.

[4] Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 162n1.

[5] On Jacques Tinchant, see Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hébrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012); on Rose Herera, see Adam Rothman, Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); on Jane Right, see Rashauna Johnson, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 85-124.

[6] Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 14-22.

[7] Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 46.

[8] Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 149.

[9] Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 149.

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