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Seeking the voices of the past

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MAY 07, 2015

Last year while studying abroad, I met an elderly man in Amsterdam named Rolf. He and his wife, who have both since died, were Holocaust survivors. I mentioned to him that I was staying near the apartment where Anne Frank had been hidden.

Then he did something shocking. He scoffed. Anne Frank was not that special, he said to me. Many Dutch Jewish children, he and his wife among them, had also been in hiding during the Holocaust, and we don’t hear about their stories. His wife had to hide in a closet, had to eat the wood of the cupboards to survive, and we don’t hear about her story.

What could I say to that?

I wrote my history thesis on a conflict in Jamaica in the late 18th century that pitted a small, isolated community — made up of the descendants of escaped slaves — against the military might of the British empire. The members of this particular community, part of a wider group of Jamaican Maroons, had successfully resisted colonial encroachment for decades and had asserted their freedom and sovereignty within this massive colonial machine before the war that broke out in 1795. Amazing, right?

But my paper ended up having very little to do with the Maroons themselves. The thesis ended up being about the British. It was about how the British imported man-eating bloodhounds from Cuba to track, subdue and intimidate the Maroons. It was about British sources, British actors, British attitudes. And it’s still interesting and, I think, important — but there are no Maroon voices in my story. The voices I interact with are the voices of the colonial oppressor, not those being oppressed.

What can I say to that?

Sometimes it feels like anything produced, anything written, will be lacking. Transitioning from high school to college, history was the discipline that changed forms the most starkly. We went from hearing, “This happened. This is why. This is when. This is who,” to “Let’s read this article and talk about every single thing in it that’s wrong” — which is important, because when we learn that the production of history is done by fallible humans with fallible motives, we gain self-awareness. We see how the stories we’re told shape how we understand ourselves and others. We see that we, too, can take part in this creation.

So we set out to write something — something we think is important. We sit down to begin, but then a picture comes up in our minds. It’s of 15 undergraduates in a 103 seminar, holding their theses in their hands, and they’re raring to go. It’s of every professor we’ve ever had, sitting at a long table, and they’re shaking their heads like, “Well, she tried.” And at our worst moments of self-doubt, we just imagine this dark, smoky den of well-dressed, history-savvy, cackling witches about to rip all of our ideas, however well-intentioned, to shreds.

Because there will always be something missing. A voice lost, a side ignored, an oppressive trope unintentionally reinforced. Because language is so powerful — that’s the thing. Knowledge production is so powerful. And if we are lazy, if we are not focused, it has consequences. If we decide to call something a rebellion or a revolution or an insurgency or a conflict or a war, we are making a choice. And that choice has consequences. And no matter what choice we make, there will be people who disagree. And what can we say to that?

It is easy to get disheartened, to be crippled by self-doubt. But we have to learn to be gentle with ourselves, as they say. Because we do not exist alone. We are in a community. When that den of cackling witches rips our work to shreds in order to validate their cackling witchiness, they can’t simply say, “This is wrong.” They have to say, “This is wrong because …” This is wrong because this experience should not speak for all experiences. What about the other Dutch Jewish children who were in hiding during World War II? This is wrong because while it’s all well and good to criticize British conduct in this conflict, what about the Maroons? What about their voices? And then they say, “Maybe I’ll go to Jamaica to interview Maroons who still live on the island today. I’m going to say my piece.”

And then that piece will also get ripped to shreds, and those people will seek out more voices and tell more stories, and before we know it, we are dot by dot, piece by piece painting this portrait — this portrait that is not static but has many dimensions and is fluid and always evolving — and we engage with one another and challenge one another and lift one another up in ways that we couldn’t have done had there been no den, no cackling witches. It is impossible to tell the whole story, but it is vital to try.

And in this cycle of trying and failing, we realize that contrary to what our high school textbooks will tell us, there is no one, true way to tell any piece of the past. We look back at what we know and what we’re told, and think, “This can’t be it. This can’t be all of it.” It becomes all of our voices, seeking out all of their voices and coming up short, but knowing it’s OK. Because in the seeking, in the striving, we carry others with us — we evolve as the past we are searching for evolves. Because in the seeking, if we find one more story, just one more — if we find the story of a girl hiding in a closet from terror and trauma and violence — even if we can’t tell it perfectly, that is one more voice heard. And as we leave here, as we go down all our different paths and live our different lives, we will know to open our eyes and our ears and take in everything that everyone has to say, and we will know to say back: “This can’t be it. This can’t be all of it.” We’ll know to say, “I want to know more.”

Congratulations to the class of 2015 and to the teachers, parents and friends who have helped us get here. Wherever we end up, whatever we do, may we always strive to seek out every voice. May we always, always want to know more.

Erica Hendry joined The Daily Californian in fall 2014 as a Weekender staff writer. She is also the co-director of CalTV Comedy. She will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in creative writing.

Contact Erica Hendry at [email protected]

MAY 07, 2015