Be a Historian of This Time

by | Jan 8, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

A week ago, I scheduled a prompt for this morning, but the events of the last few days have required a detour.

As a Georgia voter, I knew it would be a momentous week, but I lacked the imagination to anticipate all that happened, beginning with the audio of the President’s call to tell the Georgia Secretary of State to find 11,780 more votes for him. Yes, that was this week, too. And then things kept happening.

Like many of you, I’ve been glued to the news and social media as so much has unfolded, constantly refreshing and periodically compelled to add a tweet to the conversation myself. I have the luxury of much-needed, built-in breaks from the swirl when I’m having indoor picnics and balloon parties with our three-year-old, but I also don’t blame myself too much when I sneak a peek at my phone.

Because really, it’s a moment unlike other moments. It’s an inflection point.

A tweet from Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk about Race, underlines how crucial it is right now not just to keep up with what’s happening, but to record it:

We are the historians of this time. We cannot assume that history books will accurately reflect the systemic white patriarchal terror campaign of these days if our current press refuses to call this what it is and name those responsible.

Answering this call demands a reorientation to what history means, to what writing history means, to what counts as a history book. Unfolding those ideas would take more room than I will occupy here, but I would say, for the moment, that a poet or novelist or essayist qualify as historians even if nobody would call them that (least of all themselves).

As a powerful model of an alternative, radical history, I offer a poem that documents a story that I know I never read in a history textbook: “38” by Layli Long Soldier. Read and listen.

Long Soldier claims not to be a historian, but she also (more seriously, I’d argue) asserts, “I do not consider this a ‘creative piece.'” She is documenting, not imagining, even as that documentation is necessarily “turbid” (“muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused, and smoky”) because the history–of treaties amended and broken–is turbid by design.

Other parts of the history are not turbid, but these are the untold parts:

The Dakota people were starving.

The Dakota people starved.

In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.

One should read “The Dakota people starved” as a straightforward and plainly stated fact.

If we are to answer Oluo’s call to be historians of this time, we must make clear what is made to seem muddy, and muddy what is made to seem clear.

Prompt

Be a historian of this time. Write, record, document what happened. This does not have to look like a conventional history. It can be subjective. It could be about your particular experience of the week, however confused or smoky it might be. It could hold up for scutiny one detail or moment that might otherwise be lost. It could be a close reading of one senator’s speech, of one conspiracy theorists’s long, raving thread about the “fascist antifa” who were the real terrorists in the capitol.

Long Soldier reports that the hangings of the Dakota 38 was officially sanctioned by Abraham Lincoln “the same week that [he] signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

As time passes, parts of this week will become the history that makes the textbooks, while other details will recede–unless we become historians of this time and write our own history books.