As per usual, existential questions related to the history field have bubbled to the surface on Twitter. I’ve got two of them to discuss in this post. They appeared on Twitter within a week of each other and though they were posted separately by different people, they speak to each other.
The first existential question was raised by applied math professor Chad Topaz. I know Chad personally because he was my daughter’s advisor at Macalester College. He inspired her to expand beyond her economics degree into applied math. He does super interesting mathematical analyses of things in the real world (hence “applied math”) that would have made me want to study math if I were still in college.
Chad has recently begun collecting documents related to African American history that he finds in antique stores and secondhand shops, scanning them so he can make them available to the wider public.
In his Twitter thread about this activity, he asked if he is “evil” for doing so.
Here’s the thread:
If it’s not obvious from Chad’s profile pic, he’s white and he’s wondering if it is evil for him to collect and share African American history he finds in antique dealers’ shops because it’s not his history.
First off, “evil” is a pretty strong word. Motivation is everything when using a word like that. If he were collecting this history to purposely destroy it, that’d be evil. But, he’s finding it languishing in shops, purchasing it, and scanning it to share broadly. A great motive! Not evil at all.
But, is he allowed to do it because it’s not HIS history?
As historians, how do we determine whose history is whose?
When it comes down to it, the only history an individual can claim with certainty is that which they have lived directly.
But, can an individual also claim ownership of the history of a larger group? Their cultural group, their racial or religious group, the group that matches their gender or sexuality? This is a trickier question, in no small part because each person fits into a multitude of categories.
A disabled veteran who has Japanese and Norwegian ancestry and identifies as female belongs to several distinct groups named in this sentence but could also belong to several less-obvious groups. Maybe she’s a middle-aged mother who plays Dungeons & Dragons and trap shoots.
Can she own the history of all those identities? It seems logical to say yes to that.
But what if she doesn’t want to own part of her identity? Maybe she can’t stand her Norwegian relatives and wants nothing to do with them.
In my own family, I feel more kinship with my Swedish and Danish relatives than with my Polish relatives. Does that make me less Polish? Does it mean I can’t claim that part of my history?
What about when a cultural group won’t claim ownership of one of their own? I have a Native friend who, due only to the date of their birth, is not allowed to be a registered part of their tribe even though their older siblings are considered full members of the tribe. This person has long taken part in cultural practices that are part of this tribe and self-identifies as Native. Should they be considered Native?
I’d say yes, however, as many people who straddle several cultural groups know, it can be difficult to feel fully accepted by any group they identify with. For example, those who identify as bisexual are told to “pick a side.” Or people are expected to claim ownership of their most obvious cultural group. President Barack Obama is an example of this, with the expectation that he should solely represent his black heritage.
Swimming further into the weeds: What if you have DNA that indicates you were once part of a specific cultural group but no longer have an affiliation with that group, though you are interested enough in that history and culture to reconnect? Can you claim that group as part of your identity? Look to Elizabeth Warren to see the result of that. Unequivocally, according to today’s cultural currents, the answer seems to be no.
On a personal note, my husband experienced a sense of dismissal when joining a Facebook group to learn more about a particular part of his heritage. His sister recently had a DNA test that confirmed something the family long suspected. The Swedish side of my husband’s family was from northern Sweden, so far north they were practically in the Arctic Circle. His Grandma Lillian looked Sami and the family thought she might be descended from this group. Sure enough, the DNA test showed that they have Sami ancestry. Erik wanted to connect with this part of his heritage, but the Facebook group devoted to Sami heritage was having none of it. It did not matter that he is genetically Sami and hadn’t joined the group to somehow claim ownership of the culture. He just wanted to know more.
If ancestry, genuine interest, and the willingness to adopt and learn a group’s practices aren’t enough to become part of a cultural group, what is?
Let’s go one more step in the idea of claiming ownership of a particular identity and history.
Can one ever claim ownership of the history of a culture that is not part of their identity?
Here’s where it gets dicey, particularly now, when cultural appropriation is seen as a sin. I suspect this is the tension Chad was feeling when he asked if it was evil for him to be collecting and sharing African American historical documents.
For this question, let’s look at things from a wider angle. This is an insight I got while reading “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. This book details the Great Migration of black people out of the South through the experiences of three individuals who took part in this migration, which happened between 1915 and 1970.
For those of us who call the United States of America home, this is a story of huge importance within our history. We all ought to learn something about it and the reasons behind it … the enslavement of African Americans and the resulting Civil War, the Jim Crow laws and lynchings that followed, and how black people fled the South to escape this horrendous treatment. Not only does the story of the Great Migration reveal the flaws in our country, it also shows us the determination of black people and their dedication to freedom and equality. They are a source of inspiration that all Americans can draw upon in living up to this country’s stated ideals.
So, then, if we are of any racial group other than black, are we allowed to claim this history as Americans?
I think the big problem with much of what I’ve been discussing here is in the use of the term “ownership.” As I indicated above, the only history we can truly claim to own is that which we have lived directly. And even that will not belong to us forever. Once we’re dead, we can’t really take much of that history with us. (Archaeological remains notwithstanding.)
Thinking of history and culture as something individuals “own” makes us view them through a capitalistic lens, where there is a finite resource and someone has to own and control it. When it comes to culture and history, that’s a reductive notion that indicates there’s not enough to go around. It makes groups protective and sets up situations where some are “in” and everyone else is “out.” It also makes people want to “own” the good stuff in history and not the bad.
If we flip this perspective and think of history and culture as something we all share as part of living on this planet … taking the really wide-angle approach, wherein our stories, good and bad, are all stitched together with those of the past and those to come in the future … we can look at the commonalities we all share as human beings, no matter how we identify. Because, in the end, we are far more alike than we are different.
In working to the rebuild the Ojibwe language, Anton Treuer, who is of both Ojibwe and Jewish ancestry, is taking this wide-angle view. All of us should learn a little Ojibwe in order to honor the language and keep it alive.
Returning to Chad’s Twitter thread, as I told him in my Twitter reply, history often becomes scattered, like the African American documents he is finding. It has to be regathered, which happens through the interests of people like Chad. Though he is purchasing items to digitize and share, they won’t be in his possession forever. He is just a way-station for them. They will eventually be dispersed again. Or, if he chooses to do as I suggested, they may end up within museum collections.
“If museums didn’t exist, would anyone invent them?”
Of course they would! One of the commonalities among human beings of all cultures is our desire to collect and preserve things. Once we get to a certain age and stare into the coming abyss of our mortality, we want to pass along our treasured collections. In order to ensure they will be taken care of and shared with others, we sometimes give them to museums.
Working in a small museum, as I do, I can tell you that we’re having trouble stemming the flood of items imbued with history that are too special to throw away or give to a thrift shop. Unless a massive asteroid blasts the Earth to smithereens, there will always be collecting institutions like museums. Each individual, as a unique repository of history and multitude of cultural identities, will guarantee that.