Sources for Teaching Public History: Michel Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995)

(written for the History@Work blog and published there September 4, 2012)

Michel Rolph Trouillot, historian, anthropologist, Haitian intellectual and University of Chicago professor, died this July at age 63. I first learned of his death on Twitter, from the tweets by several of my students. They had read his Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History in my class, and it had stuck with them.

Silencing the Past is the only book that has been on my syllabus every time I have taught an introduction to public history or public humanities. It has lasted more than a decade; most books last only a few years. But Silencing the Past remains, almost always the favorite book in evaluations, almost always the one that students refer to in other classes. Trouillot’s terms of historical analysis become a code for understanding history, a shorthand for discussing other books. Subsequent classes are filled with short references to positivism, constructivism, historicity 1 and historicity 2, unthinkable history, and especially, the varieties of silence in the historical record.

This is, on its face, unlikely. Silencing the Past is mostly about Haitian history. Trouillot is an anthropologist, not a historian. There is much in the book that seems to be there for the sake of argument, for discussion, rather than for making a traditional historical argument. The text is at times personal, at times theoretical, at times deep in the weeds of the archives. It jumps from one topic to another without much rhyme or reason. There’s not much mention of public history, as done by public historians, and certainly nothing practical here for students of public history.

Despite this, Silencing the Past serves as an excellent introduction to historical thinking and historical work for public historians. In part, that’s because of the topic: it’s rare that anyone in class has a stake in Haitian history. Everyone is on equal footing, bringing to the discussion only what’s in the book. But much more, I think, it is the style: Trouillot perfected a way of moving between the facts of a matter, and creation and understanding and presentation of those facts, looking at them from all sides. He was meta when meta wasn’t cool.

Silencing the Past has five chapters. We spend most of the class discussing the first two chapters, Trouillot’s analysis of power and silence in history, in chapter one, and then the application of the silences of sources, archives, narratives, and history to the Haitian revolution, in the second chapter. Chapter 3 steps back to see how the Haitian revolution was considered “impossible,” and how that shaped the way it was received, and the way its history has been written. There’s always a good discussion of what other histories might be impossible.

Chapter 4 widens the focus to the history of the celebration of Columbus Day, and leads to a good discussion of the nature of commemoration. Chapter 5, very short, considers the place of authenticity in history-writing by focusing on presenting the history of slavery at the proposed Disney’s America theme park. Students wrestle with a question they are deeply concerned about, the challenges of telling someone else’s history

Trouillot’s goal in Silencing the Past is to find “the many ways in which the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production.” He argues that by analyzing that power, by making it visible, we can understand how it works in the world. I think that is part of the appeal of the book. It suggests that by looking closely at the work of history, we can understand its power, know its secrets, unveil it, and perhaps put it to use for good. Public history students find that a very appealing notion.

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