I find fascinating the arguments offered by those who defend the statues and monumental structures scattered across the United States, which celebrate the leaders of the Confederacy. As activists insist that these structures are reminiscent of slavery and racism – painful memories of wage-less labour, broken ancestral lines and abuse – the defenders of these structures argue that to take the statues down would be tantamount to denying history itself. The unexamined assumption here is that history – like time or space – is ‘there’, a given, monolithic and independent, resolute, apolitical and neutral. And that examining history is to faithfully record ‘what happened’ in a disinterested way, whether by statues or in text.
What this particular iteration of history occludes are the myriad ways we ‘use’ history, bending it this way and that, adapting it, re-membering it and reconfiguring it in one single gesture. History isn’t ‘there’ at all, and only emerges in the shared practices between us. I do not mean to say that history exists mentally and isn’t real; I do not even want to suggest that history is a uniquely human concern. I mean to say however that through our many human and nonhuman practices, we secrete ‘history’ in just about the same moments it shapes us in return. We are not simply looking at an uncontroversial sequence of events and cause-effect relationships over time, we are reiterating, negotiating, improvising, mystifying, selecting and invisibilizing narratives and bodies.
Christopher Columbus’ swashbuckling adventures and discovery of America have been taught as fact in American schools. They say that is history. But history is also the interruptions and irreparable loss suffered by people native to the lands before Columbus’ arrival. And in Nigeria, where I come from, our history is enshrined in the constitution, in the flag, in our anthem and in the bicameral configuration of our legislature – but the nation-state embodies a violent disruption of other ways the many peoples in my country have related with one another, and enforces a new timeline, so to speak. The official one.
In this sense, history is always already an ethical matter because it points to power dynamics. Because it is ungraspable, troubling and unwieldy – like fire crackers on a festive night. They have said that history repeats itself. I think nature is too thick and curdled for mechanical repetitions. I think history reiterates itself, reincarnating over and over again, creatively deployed in service of a status quo or against it.
The questions this analysis makes possible are: in what ways are we using history, and what does this serve or exclude? What are we not listening to? Where can we find the prestige of an alternate version? Chinua Achebe noted well: until the lions tell their own story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.