Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Glimpsing new possibilities

This short clip of actor Tim Robbins reading the words of historian and gay activist Martin Duberman on the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion is taken from a collection of videos from the "Voices of a People's History" project, a performance-oriented offshoot of Howard Zinn's iconic work "A People's History of the United States" (Zinn, who died earlier this year, is seen in this clip introducing Robbins' reading). The clip, and the project, prompt a lot of thoughts for me about authorial voices and the power of performance in conveying history.

Although I have been influenced by many historians of the classical canon, I cannot say that these institutionally sanctioned historians have changed how I think about the past, the present, and the future. I have more often found inspiration at the edges of academia or even outside of the academy altogether. There are two historians who have affected me deeply. Only one of these individuals is considered a historian (even though the academy ridiculed him with the "epithet" of "activist"). These two individuals are Howard Zinn and Eduardo Galeano.

Both of these men used the words of past individuals. Yet, they used these words and these lives not as an act of appropriation, but instead, as an act of sharing. They documented words and lives in order that they would continue on in the memories of the present and influence the actions of the future. In doing so, Zinn and Galeano created something greater than history, something that defied institutional boundaries and artificial labels. They forged a new mode of expression grounded in history but influenced by journalism, poetry, storytelling, and art. For Galeano, the magical realism that embodies the soul of Latin America provided the inspiration for a vision of the continuum of history. For Zinn, in his later life, the performing arts provided a similar canvas upon which to produce history as art.

I firmly believe that the works of these individuals equals or supersedes any of the works of the historical canon. In a world that is driven by insanity, as ours seems to be at present, the only sane action is to strive for and then embrace that most pejorative epithet provided by the status quo, "activist." We have to approach history as an exercise in sharing not as appropriation. We have to find new ways to meld history, art, and activism. But, most of all, we need to touch the lives of others with the lives of others in such a way that the others become us.

I know that we have a long way to go, but when I see the work that is being accomplished by Voices of a People's History, I feel secure in a belief that we are making great strides. Bringing the voices of the past to the present is history. This is the connectivity with the past that promises us the possibility to inspire and to forge a better tomorrow. We need more histories. We need more art. We need more activism. But, most of all, we need more possibility.

~ Kevin Bartoy


  1. Fun post. It reminds me of a visit I made to a historic site with a friend who discovered his own writing repeated verbatim without reference in a wayside exhibit. This happens all the time, of course, which reminds us that "canonical" historians have their say even when we don't know it. I wonder, though, how the new modes of history sharing you envision, especially as they move across diverse cultural forms, might help us understand (unlike the wayside exhibit) that the ideas we share about the past have their own complicated genealogies.

  2. Well, I think that inclusivity is key. When we are including more people in the actual creation of history, I think that we are providing a teaching moment to get "radical" with our historiography. That is, to get "back to the roots" and follow the trajectories of history back to the source. It allows us to see how others have used or abused history and how we can search for a more objective history by opening up our subjectivity completely to critique.