In which there is a hard truth.

2 Sep

So Sady Doyle over at Tiger Beatdown1 made a fantastic post linking to a piece she wrote at Salon’s Broadsheet, specifically on Sophie Tucker, who was this fantastic, badass performer in the early part of the century, but who got her start performing in blackface. More generally Doyle is focusing on an important truth about history, namely that, as she says in the subject line of the post on her blog, “History Is Uncomfortable“.

I guess this ties in a bit with what I said before, about how history is hard to impose a narrative on and maybe we should consider that difficulty as a warning not to. There’s any number of motivations the Serious Historian could ascribe to Tucker for her blackface career: Doyle notes that “biographer Armond Fields contends that she was told to put on blackface, not because she was fat, but because she was Jewish. The burnt cork did not hide pure privilege, but a different kind of marginalization, less acceptable because it was authentic,” and later speculates for herself that “at first, her bossiness and appetite may have been acceptable because they promoted a stereotype: a big, sassy, sexual black woman was easy to laugh at.” There are, like, a billion papers you could write here, and also probably a lot of novels or short stories or biopics, too, I am just saying.

This is sort of a constant theme for me: this fine line one has to walk in studying history between an observer’s detachment and a humanist’s sensibilities. I don’t think I’d say—and this is why I don’t think I entirely fit in in academia, that and my inability to go for more than a few minutes without capslocking—that you shouldn’t judge the actions of historical figures, because those who forget the past blah blah blah, but you have to remember as you do so that the past really is another country, and then some: they didn’t just wear different clothes and use different technology, they thought differently. Values and mindsets were different, and saying “no one should be doing this today”, or even “no one should have done that” period is not at all the same as saying “I can’t understand why that would have happened”. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But then, of course you can’t get stuck in detachment mode, either, because the past may be another country, but it’s the one we’ve come from in getting here and so it’s a part of us.

Also I mix my metaphors like crazy, that’s probably another reason I’m not good at academia.



One Response to “In which there is a hard truth.”

  1. Tad September 2, 2009 at 17:35 #

    I just came across your blog after seeing a link-through on Google Analytics from your blogroll. Really enjoying reading through it– you’re a good writer, and I envy the frequency with which you’ve been posting lately. Definitely putting this in my feed reader.

    Non-narrative, subjective, amoral history is, I think, an awesome goal, and something the academy could use more of. So many historians end up falling into the pattern of hagiography and demonizing, sorting the past for saints and sinners, good guys and bad guys… The most interesting people in the are the past that resist being boiled down in this way– Andrew Jackson springs to mind. And Jewish blackface minstrels. Turn-of-the-century progressive reformers. Black slaveholders.

    Subjects that resist simplification do so because they’re the richest and most interesting. And ultimately, the most rewarding. Because the world, in all actuality, is very seldom binary.

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