My History or Yours?

My fiction project about a black girl growing up in antebellum Kansas and Philadelphia tends to generate a lot of curiosity. People want to know why I am not writing about Indian Americans. Or about historical indians. What could possibly resonate with me about a black girl in the 1850s? How could I possibly understand such a character well enough to write about her?

I’m always struck by that response. Can anyone living today claim to have some special insight, not as a scholarly expertise, but as a function of personal cultural engagement, about a black girl in the 1850s? Can I, born in Washington DC and much better versed in American history than Indian history, claim some authority on something like 19th Century Indian experience? Does being black, without more, make one better suited than me (with my enormous interest in the subject), to empathic invention about it?

As I like to say, history isn’t inherited piecemeal by genetic lineage. History, any part of history, belongs to those who choose to study it, be inspired by it, revel in it, or in some way engage it.

But I’m talking about ideas, knowledge, empathy — intangibles. What about objects?

Sharon Waxman’s Loot is a fascinating inquiry into competing claims of ownership of great objects of antiquity.

The answer is anything but easy. I think a common contemporary preference is for return to “origin” just as throughout earlier modern history the preference was for respecting the custody of the more “enlightened” (Waxman’s book has an extensive treatment of Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the vast collection of Greek marbles in the British Museum, which was largely driven by a desire to “improve” the English artistic taste and an obsession with possessing beauty).

There is definitely some truth to the argument that a lot of art, if left in their original locations, might have been destroyed, either by poverty-induced (or corruption-induced) neglect or pollution, or by intentional violence — remember the Taliban effort to eradicate Buddhist art in Afghanistan just a few years ago? There is also a difference between amateur looting, which tends to damage, and scholarly looting, which tends to preserve. And what about the “legacy” that grows from having taken care of an object for decades or perhaps centuries? I find this kind of legacy more compelling than the incidental heritage of geography.

On the other hand, as Waxman points out, the looting of beautiful objects has not typically been motivated by any desire to “rescue” the works from any foreseeable harm, but from a desire to possess them. That many objects have been preserved from future disaster is often a matter of historical accident.

So what do we do now?


One thought on “My History or Yours?”

  1. A problem I had with some of the people who argued that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece was that they tried to transpose this politically correct, 20th century mentality onto the entire debate. As if the British government were the moral equivalent of Italy’s fascist regime, which actually did steal the Axum Obelisk. The equally Western, white Greeks somehow becoming the victims in this modern-day scenario, although I suppose that they were victims in the sense that at the time they were living under the status of dhimmitude within the Ottoman Empire. To me, there were aspects of the debate that were really exasperating, especially the derogation of the legacy of the British Empire, as if the only residual effect of its existence were the thwarted aspirations of its former dependencies/colonies. Not the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, thriving parliamentary democracies and republics, and a bulwark of common law protections. I completely agree with your first point, i.e. history is our heritage , something that we should embrace regardless of where we live, or who we are. One of my favorite novels is Invisible Man, because it contains so many universal truths once you look beyond the historical context of the book itself.

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