On my last post, my advisor posed some great questions: "How would you do an oral history project for a group of individuals with whom you had no community 'insider' status? Can historians ever do historical work that doesn't impose their own meanings and understandings? How should historians collect primary source information from human subjects? Or should they, if they are just going to 'steal' words and memories? What are our practical options for understanding the past?"
First, we need to parse the idea of insider/outsider status. I'm asking that we differentiate between different positionalities – or stratified, intersectional spheres of experience and influence. For example, I have no qualms about insinuating myself into the old boys' club of white gay history because my presence disrupts the masturbatory cycle of white men studying other white men. But that means I'm devoting more attention and resources to a white history that, arguably, already has sufficient institutional support.
"'Daenerys Targaryen and the White Saviour Complex." The African Geek Girl. Accessed October 31, 2016. https://afroscifigirl.tumblr.com/post/152566135823/daenerys-targaryen-and-the-white-saviour-complex.
"Genevieve Willcox Chandler interviews Ben Horry for the WPA Federal Writers Project" Between the Waters. Accessed October 24, 2017. http://betweenthewaters.org/friendfield-village/laura-carrs-house-c-1840/ root-doctor-healer-and-conjurer.
The oral tradition can be a medium of empowerment, used to document the histories of disenfranchised people. However, oral traditions have also been used to erase “undesirable” aspects of a community history, while lionizing (and fictionalizing) others. Leon Fink encounters this conundrum, much like Carolyn Kitch in Pennsylvania in Public Memory. As he describes on page 120 of his article "When Community Comes Home to Roost":
"I witnessed an impressive harnessing of history to community identity ... heightened by the use of oral history in the hands of local 'organic intellectuals.' On the other hand, 'heritage' history here ultimately appeared ... to confirm and disseminate certain conservative and exclusionary political values ... the unhappy outcome, for me at least, forces a critical reckoning with the 'will-to-community' within historical studies as well as contemporary affairs."
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' upcoming exhibition, Creando Historia/Making History in the Americas, is meant to engage conflicting narrative construction through nineteenth-century and modern-day American paintings. These paintings, hung side by side, contrast North and South American artists' conceptions and interpretations of historic events. Museum visitors will be forced to question their own acceptance of traditional accounts the past after being presented with noncontemporary imagery that has subsequently diffused communal (a)historical imagination and institutional memory.
The work of Kent Monkman, a Canadian Kree artist, is set to be featured in the PAFA exhibition. Excited to learn about a fellow QPOC, I looked him up and came across History is Painted by the Victors (image above) – described as "a satirical queer-culture reversal of the European fetishization of the indigenous people." Amid the vast landscape, Miss Chief (Monkman's alter ego) paints, surrounded by naked, young white men, thus subverting the white colonial gaze. As I've previously discussed, the white colonial gaze is rather meta; it extends beyond the content of our primary source materials, be they art and/or written documents. The white colonial gaze defines both past and present narrative construction. As such, critical engagement with the (art) historian's positionality is paramount.
"History Is Painted by the Victors, 2013." Kent Monkman. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://www.kentmonkman.com/ painting/2013/history-is-painted-by-the-victors.