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Thinking through history: The past is a foreign country

Thinking through history: The past is a foreign country
© MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel “The Go-Between.” How we understand the past and how we come to terms with our own memories, is an unpaid debt that all humans share. 

The ongoing public debate about institutional racism in the United States — triggered by the death of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter — has been long coming and should be assumed by all factions with the seriousness and intellectual honesty that it deserves. Contrary to the polite euphemism, this debate is not a conversation, but a hard and at times ugly look into the heart of darkness.    

There is wide recognition that racism, treating people unequally because of the color of their skin, has been a constant in American history. By American history I include the Spanish, Portuguese, English and French conquest and colonization experience in the hemisphere, the extermination, subjugation and exploitation of the native populations and the enslavement of Blacks throughout the Americas, and the social and caste stratification across all American societies.  

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In this context, perhaps the first step in approaching the history of racism begins by acknowledging that we have, generally, failed in our understanding of history itself. History is not merely the accumulation of past events to be marshaled by one’s narrative of choice — be it the empty teleology of progress, the self-anointed exceptionalism of a given culture or the utopian claims of equality. All historical narratives share a troubled relationship with their past.

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once commented that the past asks that we understand it, not that we judge it. Although all understanding implies some level of judgment, he was correct in drawing attention to the fact that the events of the past have already occurred, and the real suffering of those that have died is unredeemable. 

The purpose of understanding the past is not to change what happened, which is impossible, but to throw light on the unfulfilled claims made in the present. In this sense, the tearing down of a statute says much more about our untamed past than it does about a given historical figure. The removal, forcefully or otherwise, of a statute of Robert E. Lee or Christopher Columbus does not erase or change the past, but it does highlight in a very theatrical manner the political contest over the meaning different sectors of a society want to ascribe to history. 

This is not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last, that political forces try to control the representation of the past: The burning of the Library of Alexandria, the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries on religious imagery in Byzantium, the destruction of the Tenochtitlan by Cortés and the building of the Cathedral over the ruins of the Aztec Temple, the blowing up of the Buddha’s of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001, among so many others.

All human groups, be it a highly differentiated multinational society as is the United States or smaller social units, develop and articulate historical or mythological narratives to legitimize and justify their actions. People are invested to a larger or smaller degree in these narratives depending primarily on their perceived material interests. Needless to say, all historical narratives are inevitably skewered and should be read with a certain degree of skepticism. 

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The current public debate on the removal of the symbols of the Confederacy is a case in point. What these symbols mean today and to whom is very different to what they meant to the dominant political forces of yesterday. This debate has very little to do with understanding history, and all to do with the assertion of political will.  

I recall how in 1992 during the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the alleged discovery of America, a Puerto Rican challenged a Spaniard, arguing that his ancestors had come to America to steal and kill the native population. The Spaniard denied culpability saying it was the Puerto Rican’s ancestors because his stayed in Spain. There is no document of civilization, as the German critic Walter Benjamin so poignantly reminds us, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism, and which taints the manner in which it is transmitted from one generation to another. Those living at a given moment — and we need to be aware that even the present is not homogeneous — are the heirs of past achievements, injustices and forgetfulness, which shape their understanding of history. 

As a Puerto Rican, for example, I am well aware of the manner American history texts ordinarily narrate the Spanish American War of 1898, as a blurb in the United States Manifest Destiny. Of course, this history is usually narrated from the vantage point of the victors, with hardly any reference made to the insular population. This historical narrative has been codified into law (some would say institutional racism) by the Supreme Court of the United States in the early 20th century. Under the doctrinal guise of the unincorporated territory the Insular Cases to this day keep Puerto Ricans at arm’s length from the full protection and guarantees of the Constitution. The past, indeed, is a foreign country.

Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Law in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is a frequent contributor to the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico. He also is  a Commissioner in the Puerto Rico Civil Rights Commission.