Who Owns History

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Who Owns History?
Some Thoughts on the Slave Trade and Related Issues
By Ralph Austen

In the following essay Ralph Austen considers who "owns" the history of the slave trade. By so doing he wonders who produces and should produce the ideas and narratives which become known as "the history of the slave trade," and he ponders what different forms those ideas might take. Austen's essay leads us to ask ourselves how the slave trade ought to be remembered. Should it, for example, be remembered primarily through studies which concentrate on demography and economics, or ought there to be a greater component of life experiences, such as can be conveyed through film, literature and museum exhibitions of the horrors of enslavement and the middle passage? To what extent should people who are not of African descent participate in (or dominate) the writing and presenting slave trade history? These are all fundamental questions which should be asked by those producing and consuming slave trade histories and museum displays about slavery. Ralph welcomes your comments about his thoughts; you may contact him by clicking on his name in hypertext, at the top of this page. If you have a thoughtful, well written response to Austen's essay which you would like to see here in juxtaposition, please contact the curators of the museum by clicking on the mailbox icon at the very bottom of the essay.

For a professional academic historian in the 1990's there are two obvious answers to the question of "who owns history." The most general and instinctive one, is "we do", if by history you mean the most reliable inquiries into what actually happened in the past. After all, it is professional historians who are trained both to look at the primary documents upon which historical accounts are built and to analyze such material in the light of all the history which has already been written. The more trendy contemporary response to questions about the ownership of history might be "everyone." The past, in its own terms, is after all only a shapeless array of partially accessible data and any molding of it into a coherent account is ultimately a construct of each author's subjectivity. The very phrase "what actually happened" evokes Leopold von Ranke and the whole "cult of objectivity" associated with conservative and not very imaginative older generations of scholars (Novick). This position is often defended, with some degree of effectiveness, by arguing that the radical "deconstruction" of all claims to know the past leads to ahistorical nihilism (Himmelfarb). But in its more reasonable form there is also a positive side to the relativist view insofar as it implies that various communities and individuals who feel strong ties to some past developments have the right to create their own historical narratives or, at the very least, demand that professional historians pay some attention to their "historical" concerns. A third answer, most likely to come from current conservatives, is that history belongs to "the nation" (Schlesinger). At worst this means that they, like their Rankean predecessors, claim to speak for some established consensus on what American (or other) national identity ought to be. At best they remind us that the terms on which all of us must live together in some kind of maximal moral community (which may not stop at national frontiers) depend in no small part on how we think about the past. Ultimately it is impossible to separate all these claims to the ownership of history. Professional historians may write in part for their own guild, which judges them on technical proficiency and their "contributions to the field." However universities are never fully isolated from the rest of society and it is very easy to see the links between what scholarly research about the past is perceived as significant by scholars and the concerns of the wider public. Likewise academic criteria are inevitably brought into the debates about the...
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