Neroli Price, M.A. student, University of Capetown
History is not something which is floating ‘out there’ waiting to be found. It is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated across time and space, influenced by changing paradigms of meaning-making. Historians, or self-appointed ‘guardians of the past’, are deeply embroiled in this perpetual conversation. Being self-reflective about my own role in this ever evolving process is what inspired me to transplant myself from the University of Cape Town (UCT) at the southern tip of Africa to the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Amherst in the north eastern United States.
I initially chose to spend a semester abroad at UMass because of the prestigious Public History program it offers. The core principles of Public History, to expand knowledge and its creation beyond the academy and to engage with communities around history, identity and heritage in an empowering manner, was to me an exciting prospect and one that, in my eyes, had many progressive and democratising ideals at its centre. I was fortunate enough to land amongst a dynamic, warm and engaging group of graduate students and staff in the History department at UMass that allowed me to challenge myself and grow through the process. Evidently, interacting with individuals who inhabit vastly different realities to your own is an incredibly powerful way to challenge your own assumptions. Thus, not only did I learn about a new place and people, but I also learnt about where I come from through the eyes of others.
At home, in South Africa, where the official end of apartheid occurred during my lifetime in 1994, the project of rewriting history has been personally both immediate and visceral on an everyday level. From the changing street names, to the vastly different school curricula my parents and I learnt, to the building of new monuments and museums… History is everywhere in post-apartheid South Africa. Although, on one level, these were arguably cosmetic changes that to some extent obscure the lasting socio-economic inequalities of colonialism and apartheid, their symbolic value is immense. This very obvious refashioning of the historical narrative lies at the heart of my own interest in the past, or rather the stories we tell about it, their impact and their changing meanings.
Engaging with Public History at UMass was a very different experience. There has not been a significant rupture in the national narrative like in South Africa, but rather an ever swelling critique about the silences that the ‘American dream’ necessarily engenders. Why is Native American History popularly referred to as ‘pre-history’? Why does American history seemingly only start with European settlers arriving in the North east? These fundamental assumptions are not unique to the US, they exist in national histories the world over and they are necessarily violent, erasing entire populations by shining spotlights on others. In South Africa, the new national narrative is deeply wedded to the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC); and, as mandated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), has been hemmed into a short thirty year period, starting with the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and ending with the first democratic elections of 1994. What about the thousands of years before Europeans settled in southern Africa? Does that not count as history? Is that relegated to the realm of archaeology – to the mystical and the ancient worlds that we often view with rose-tinted glasses? Where do we draw lines and distinguish one period, genre, or discipline from another? These are all deeply political and dangerous decisions that require a lot of self-awareness on the part of the historian.
Two weeks ago, a group of students at my home university, UCT, staged a protest, dumping human faeces on a campus statue of the infamous colonist, Cecil John Rhodes. They were literally utilising the sewage that most black South Africans encounter on an everyday basis as a result of poor service delivery in the townships – a legacy of apartheid era urban planning and ideals of separate development – to draw attention to the continued presence and glorification of colonialism in post-apartheid South Africa and more specifically in spaces of higher education that profess to now serve all South Africans. The daily offence caused by the presence of this statue can only be imagined by those of us whose histories, whether we like it or not, are aptly represented by such physical reminders of conquest and subjugation. As Pumla Gqola, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has argued in response to these recent events, public statues “are powerful concrete reminders and celebrations of the figures they represent. They tell us about who and what matters, who is disposable, who should be invisibilised.” This debate, for me, illustrates the vitally important role of history in the struggle for social justice in the present and future.
Although these debates are certainly thriving in the US, most recently in the wake of protests against police brutality in Ferguson and many other parts of the country, some of the historical sites that we visited as part of the field trips organised by the Public History program lacked obvious engagement with the problematic nature of preserving and glorifying settler colonialism. In particular, during a cruise down the Connecticut River, we came across Turner’s Falls, named after a British general who massacred Native American women, children and the elderly while the men were away hunting. Another site that we visited, Historic Deerfield, also seemed to romanticise settler colonialism in North America, by preserving and re-enacting a period of American history that was incredibly violent and destructive from the perspective of the eventual victors. Obviously, I am not advocating throwing excrement at Turner’s Falls or Historic Deerfield – we cannot simply cut and paste these responses. Although the comparison between public history in South Africa and the US is useful in highlighting certain similarities and speaking to my own personal reference points, there are evidently contextual differences and thus no single solution. My aim is to allow the comparison to foster new questions, new ways of thinking and, importantly, to highlight, that these challenges are ones with historians are facing all over the world.
Of course, I do not approach this topic one-dimensionally. I understand the complexities and contradictions present in the contemporary power structures that manifest in the impossibility of trying to please everyone, of the all too real budgetary constraints in the heritage sector, of access to sources of reliable information, of funding lobbies etc. However, as uncomfortable and painful as it might be, we have a responsibility as historians, not to dictate the meanings of the past, but rather encourage popular audiences to engage with the changing meanings of history. It is towards this end that I transplanted myself to learn from a different place, people and history-making and ended up making some life-long friends along the way.